Sikh Haute Courture in Knightsbridge

21st Feb 04

By A Chew, Voices News Network (VNN) writer

Déjà vu for some…Dhol and Turbans for others…as thousands descend on London’s French embassy to remind the world o
f the Sikhs’ Right To Turban .

Sarabjit Singh had seen this coming for a long time. After all, he had stood his ground for his Right To Turban many years ago when he went to teach in a Paris suburban school in 1998.

(Sarabjit at the rally)

Sarabjit Singh had seen this coming for a long time. After all, he had stood his ground for his Right To Turban many years ago when he went to teach in a Paris suburban school in 1998.

Today he was milling amongst the thousands of UK Sikhs who had descended on Knightsbridge where the French flag looked limp on the Embassy building.


A doctor who walked about in his ‘cultural turban’ and a Nihang Singh who wore his high Turban in pride, Turbans of all shapes, sizes and colours paraded this trendy part of London. Protesters waved their Right To Turban placards to the beat of the Dhol as battle cries were heard, perhaps for the first time by the bourgeoisie in London.


Tarsem Singh of the British Sikh Council, who organised the rally with the Akhand Keertani Jatha, said that 20 coach loads had arrived from all over the UK, joined by a thousand Londoners.


Today he was milling amongst the thousands of UK Sikhs who had descended on Knightsbridge where the French flag looked limp on the Embassy building.


Sarabjit felt a sense of déjà vu. After completing his law degree, Sarabjit had gone to Paris in 1998 to teach English and learn some French in exchange.

"Instead what I learnt very quickly was that France was where Britain was in the 60s," he said.

On his first day
(UK Sikhs protesting in Knightsbridge)

at the Lyceé George Clemenceau, Sarabjit was introduced to some pupils and teachers and given a tour of the school. On the third day he was asked to go and see the head master. On the fourth day he was asked to leave the school.

"At that point I did not speak much French and the headmaster spoke no English. He told me that I could not wear my turban in school. I couldn't believe what he was saying so I asked him to get an English teacher to translate. He gave me an ultimatum - don't wear your Turban or don't come back to school."

The organisation that sent Sarabjit to France, the British Council of Educational Visits and Exchanges, had inadvertently assigned him to a school whose headmaster had had taken a stand against the Jewish Kippa and Muslim Hijab in the school. The headmaster was worried that Sarabjit’s Turban would cause 'an eruption of religious signs' in the school.

The head teacher’s actions in 1998 were not illegal. Then a headmaster had a discretion whether to allow 'religious signs' in his school.

6 years later, Sarabjit was standing in the cold, with 2,000 other Sikhs from all over the UK because the French government had decided that a headmaster would not have a discretion anymore. A bill was going through parliament which would make it illegal for Turbans, Hijabs and Kippas to be worn in public schools.

In Sarabjit’s case then, there was a solution. He was reassigned to another school in the heart of Paris, the third best school in France, Lyceé Fenelon, where politicians sent their children. Even though it was a state school, Sarabjit was allowed to wear his Turban.

"I had no problems with the children and just one teacher objected to my presence. However, what was clear was that the law was against the poor and especially against the Muslims and Jews. When they were well off, these rules did not apply," Sarabjit lamented.

Sarabjit’s problems did not end there.

"When I went to get a carte de séjour, my work permit, I was asked to provide photographs of myself. When I did, I was told it was not acceptable because I was wearing my Turban," Sarabjit said.

They told him that he would have to take it off. He refused and enlisted the help of the British Consulate which wrote to the Ministry of the Interior (French Home Office) and also the French Sikhs.

"Eventually an exemption was found, which applied to the catholic nuns. I was allowed to have my turban as long as I showed the roots of my hair, my ears and my neck," he recounted his story.


(UK Sikhs with banners)

Sarabjit was the first to turn up at the rally today and the last to leave. As he left he promised himself that he would leave no stone unturned to help the
Sikhs in France stand their ground for their Turban.