The Right To The Turban

Sikhs join issue with Chiracís diktat and highlight the absurdity of his ban

Is the turban deemed compulsory by Sikh tenet? Or instead is it the injunction to desist from cutting hair that is more central in Sikh scriptures and belief? It is more than faintly ironic that French President Jacques Chirac is being requested to concede that the turban is not a religious symbol — that it does not denote a Sikh manís religious affiliation. If he — head of a republican, secular state — finds himself being asked to sit in judgment on what is an wholly religious debate, he has only himself to blame. Indeed, Chiracís bold and ill-advised bid to impose a secular uniformity must serve as a cautionary case study on the perils of venturing into religious realms. As the petition and proposed protests by Sikhs worldwide show, any attempt to rid public spaces of religious symbolism could in fact draw the state into tricky theological debates — debates any modern state has no business being part of.

Recently, the French government announced a law to ban signs and dress that ostensibly show the religious affiliation of students in public schools. At first blush, the proposed law — with throaty endorsement by Chirac — has zeroed in on headscarves sported by Muslim girls, Jewish skullcaps and Catholic crosses ďobviously of an excessive dimensionĒ. Now itís got Franceís tiny Sikh minority worried. The outrage thus far had largely focussed on headscarves. While the struggle to give Muslim women the choice to throw off their veil has been a critical component of reform in the community, the ban could well be harmful. Instead of giving Muslim students a legal aid in refusing the scarf, it may drive many of them from state schools to religious schools, mostly the preserve of the orthodox.

The issue, however, is deeper than a simplistic attempt to return a society to uniformity from its multicultural present. The French governmentís proposed ban is of significance to its citizens and governments elsewhere because it highlights the nature of modern communities. As migration and cultural influences make societies ever more plural, it is next to impossible to try to determine whether certain practices are observed because of religious reasons or cultural — because of ethnic connections or class differentiation. The task may keep sociologists legitimately occupied. But governments committed to egalite must surely stay away.