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Sikhs in France?


The New York Times, Bobigny, France, Jan. 12, 2004

As part of a struggle to separate religion from the state, France is poised to pass a law banning religious symbols like Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from public schools. But a report by an official commission of experts and a speech by President Jacques Chirac last month recommending passage of a legal ban said nothing about the head coverings worn by Sikhs. After all, France is home to only several thousand Sikhs, compared with about 600,000 Jews and 5 million Muslims. Historically, the Sikh population is quiet, law-abiding, apolitical and almost invisible - living, working and worshiping mainly in a few isolated pockets of suburban Paris. Now they have found their voice, demanding that they be exempted from the anticipated prohibition.

Sitting barefooted and cross-legged in a large worship room in the Gurdwara Singh Sabha temple in the working-class Paris suburb of Bobigny, two dozen Sikhs sounded a chorus of protest. 'I'm 100 percent French, I speak French, I was born here,' said Dhramvir Singh, a 17-year-old student who wears a dark blue turban knotted in front to school everyday. 'But it's impossible for me to take off my turban. If they force me, I'll have to drop out, and never be able to do anything except a job that no one else wants.' He said he had no identity card - a violation of French law - because he refused to remove his turban for the official photo. Others said that Sikhs in Britain, Canada and the United States were now allowed to work turbaned in police departments and in the military and that Sikh soldiers fought and died for France in World War I with their turbans on.

'If Marshal Foch were still alive, he'd be fighting against such a law!' exclaimed Manprit Singh, Dhramvir's older brother, referring to the French general who commanded allied troops in World War I. The Sikhs' situation underscores the perils that confront a state when it ventures into the complicated world of religious practice. The impetus for the law stems largely from the increase in the number of Muslim girls turning up at public schools in head scarves, or even in long, black veils that hide their chins, foreheads and the shape of their bodies. Most Jewish students who wear skullcaps attend private Jewish schools; there has never been a problem with Catholic students' wearing crosses that Mr. Chirac described in his speech as 'obviously of an excessive dimension,' members of the government's commission said.

In a recent letter to Mr. Chirac asking for an exemption for Sikhs, Chain Singh, a leader of the Bobigny temple, said that if Sikhs could not wear turbans to school, 'This will not only be a failure of our freedom to practice our religion here in France but also of the attitude of the French toward the Sikh community.' The Sikhs' outcry so late in the game has stunned and dismayed French officials and experts involved in the commission. 'Why didn't the Sikhs come forward, why didn't they protest while we were doing our investigation?' Bernard Stasi, who led the commission that produced the report, said in an interview. 'I have finished my job and it's too late to change the report. Now it's in the government's hands.'

He acknowledged that no French Sikhs were among the more than 200 people interviewed by his commission during its six-month investigation. An official at the Ministry of National Education, which is responsible for negotiating the law with Parliament, declined comment, except to say: 'What? There are Sikhs in France?' A senior official at the Ministry of the Interior responsible for religious matters said: 'I know nothing about the Sikh problem. Are there many Sikhs in France?' The ideal of the secular republican state in which all Frenchmen are equal is so strong that the census does not count people according to race, religion or ethnic origins. Affirmative-action laws do not exist.

The Bobigny temple has begun collecting signatures on a petition that calls on all 'citizens of France, religious or not, believing or not' to help protest a law that it contends will be 'inhuman.' Even though a vast majority of Sikh students are French citizens, the Sikhs have also sent a letter of protest to the Indian Embassy in Paris, asking the Indian government to intercede. The Sikh letter to Mr. Chirac injects a new twist into the debate, arguing that the turban should be allowed because it is a cultural, not a religious, symbol. 'Different from a Muslim veil or a Jewish yarmulke, a turban has no religious symbolism,' the letter said. One of the tenets of the Sikh religion requires Sikh men never to cut their hair, but says nothing per se about wearing turbans.

The distinction between cultural and religious dress cuts both ways, though. On the one hand, the French government could argue that if the garment is purely cultural, then there is no reason why Sikhs must wear it, just as schools traditionally ban students from wearing baseball caps and other head coverings. Denis Matringe, one of France's leading specialists on India, said, however, that 'for Sikhs to remove their turbans and show their long hair would be to humiliate them.' On the other hand, the Sikhs could contend that there is nothing intrinsically religious about the turban and recommend that French school principals continue to turn a blind eye to the practice, as some do when Muslim girls turn up in veils.

In its current draft form, the law states only that in public schools, 'Signs and dress that ostensibly show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden.' Some politicians are calling for the ban to apply to political symbols in schools as well, like the Palestinian kaffiyeh and T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara. A debate also rages on about whether the law should ban religious symbols that are 'ostensible,' 'ostentatious' or just plain 'visible.'