How About Us? French Sikhs Ask

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Exemption saought on head coverings

BOBIGNY, France. No one, it seems, thought about the Sikhs and their turbans.

As part of a struggle to separate religion from the state, France is poised to pass a law banning religious symbols such as Muslim veils, Jewish yarmulkes 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 multishaped head coverings worn by Sikhs.

After all, France is home to only several thousand Sikhs, compared with about a hundred times as many Jews and a thousand times as many Muslims. Historically, the Sikh community is quiet, law-abiding, apolitical and almost invisible, living, working and worshiping mainly in a few isolated pockets of suburban Paris.

Now the Sikhs have suddenly found their voice, demanding that they be exempted from the anticipated prohibition on religious symbols in schools.

Sitting bare-footed 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 that he has no identity card — a violation of French law — because he refuses to remove his turban for the official photo.

Other stories of discrimination and frustration poured out. One Sikh man in his 20's complained that he has been refused jobs because of his turban. A woman said that teachers mocked her nephews as effeminate for not cutting their hair. Another man told stories of Sikhs centuries ago who chose death rather than remove their turbans.

Several Sikhs recalled that fellow Sikhs in Britain, Canada and the United States are now allowed to work turbaned in the police and 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!" said Manprit Singh, Dhramvir's older brother, referring to the French World War I commander.

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 phenomenon in recent years of more and more Muslim girls turning up at their public schools in head scarves or in long black veils that hide their chins, foreheads and the shape of their bodies.

Most Jewish students who wear yarmulkes attend private Jewish schools; Catholic students' wearing crosses that Chirac described as "obviously of an excessive dimension" and therefore unacceptable have never posed a problem.

In a letter to Chirac last week seeking an exemption from the law, Chain Singh, a leader of the Bobigny temple said that if Sikhs could not wear their 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 outcry of the Sikhs so late in the game has both stunned and dismayed French officials and experts involved in the blue ribbon panel, and many had no idea that Sikhs live in France.

"Why didn't the Sikhs come forward, why didn't they protest while we were doing our investigation?" Bernard Stasi, head of the commission that produced the report supporting the ban, 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."

Stasi 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.

The Bobigny temple has also 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 claims will be "inhuman." Even though the vast majority of Sikh students are French citizens, the Sikh community has also sent a letter of protest to the Indian Embassy in Paris asking the Indian government to intercede on its behalf. The Sikh letter to 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 require 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. On the one hand, the French government could argue if the garment is purely cultural, 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 claim 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. And a debate rags on about whether the law should ban religious symbols that are "ostensible," "ostentatious" or just plain "visible."

The New York Times