Sikhs win the battle for turbans in US state

S Rajagopalan
Washington, February 23

The Sikhs and the Muslims have won their battle over a US state order against the wearing of turbans and head scarves while being photographed for driving licences.

Following a vigorous campaign by the two communities -- and a threat to file a class action lawsuit -- the Alabama state has changed its controversial rule on headgears and head coverings.

Several Muslim women and Sikh men had been denied driving licences in Alabama in recent weeks because of their refusal to take off head scarves or turbans while being photographed.

The new policy, to take effect from Monday, says turbans and head scarves are acceptable for religious beliefs and medical reasons. It, however, lays down that the face of a person being photographed “should be visible from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin and from the hairline on one side to the hairline on the other side”.

Both the communities have hailed Alabama’s reversal as a victory for religious freedom. Some activists view it as a possible forerunner in the larger battle being waged in France against the new law barring the wearing of turbans and head scarves in schools.

"We’re delighted," said Rajinder Singh Mehta, a NASA aerospace engineer who had taken up cudgels on behalf of Chitraltan Singh Sethi, a student of University of Alabama. Sethi, an immigrant from India, had been denied a driver’s licence earlier this month.

About 10 days ago, Sikhs and Muslims had organised a protest before the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, prompting Governor Bob Riley to order a review. Although the rule had been framed last March, its enforcement had begun only in recent weeks.

"We knew we had the law on our side in this issue," said an attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union that has been working with the Sikh community on an intended class action lawsuit.

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which had received about 15 complaints of denial of driving licences, said the change of policy by Alabama now brings it in line with the majority of US states.