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Pressure Mounts on France Over Sikh Turbans
October 09 , 2013


Jacques Demarthon/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Members of the Sikh community took part in the Baisakhi celebrations in Paris, France, April 13, 2008.

A requirement that Sikh men remove their turban before having a passport photograph taken in France is a threat to religious freedom, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has said.

The French arm of United Sikhs, a nonprofit Sikh rights group headquartered in New York, filed a case with the Geneva-based committee on behalf of Shingara Mann Singh who was unable to renew his passport because he refused to remove his turban for the photograph.

It is the third time the U.N. body, which monitors states’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has ruled in favor of the rights group on regulations governing the Sikh turban in France.

Sikhs associate the turban with honor and responsibility. According to their religious texts, a person is considered to be a Sikh if he wears the five Sikh symbols: a steel bracelet, sword, comb, Kachh or special underwear, and a turban.

Mr. Singh, 57, who has been a French national since 1989, has also been unable to procure a driver’s license because he refused to take off his turban for his official photograph.

The human rights committee concluded in its ruling which was made public last week that "the regulation requiring him to appear 'with his head uncovered' in the passport photographs is a disproportionate restriction that poses a threat to the author’s [Shingara Singh’s] freedom of religion."

France passed a law in 2004 that prohibited wearing religious symbols in school, including Sikh and Musilm headgear. Later in 2010, it also passed a law banning burqas in public.

Previously in similar rulings, the U.N. noted that France had violated Sikhs’ freedom of religion by banning them from wearing turbans.

In 2008, Bikramjit Singh, a school student, filed a case against the French government’s edict on turbans in schools.

In the same year, United Sikhs also filed a case on behalf of Ranjit Singh who was asked to remove his turban by the French authorities during his passport renewal.

In both cases it is unclear what action France took in response.

Follow WSJ India and Saptarishi on Twitter @WSJIndia and @saptarishidutta.

(UNITED SIKHS comment- The 5 kakaars/articles of faith are Kara, Kanga, Kachherra, Kirpan and Kesh. The turban is worn to cover the Kesh, one of the kakaar.)