French Sikhs upbeat about keeping turbans in school


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French Sikhs upbeat about keeping turbans in school
By Tom Heneghan

PARIS (Reuters) - France's small Sikh community grew confident on Wednesday its boys could continue to wear turbans to state schools after talks with officials to explain their headgear was not a religious symbol taboo under a looming ban.

Community leaders reported encouraging talks with senior officials in the foreign, interior and education ministries aimed at explaining why the turbans should not be banned like Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

The Sikhs, of whom about 5,000 live in the Paris area, say turbans are a practical covering for the hair they never cut rather than an expression of faith like an Islamic headscarf, the main target of the ban France wants to impose.

In another development, a senior parliamentary leader ruled out the possibility raised by Education Minister Luc Ferry on Tuesday that the law to bar religious symbols from state schools would also apply to beards and bandanas meant as signs of faith.

"I think they realise they're in very muddy waters," said Jasdev Singh Rai, a London-based human rights activist appointed by the Golden Temple to help French Sikhs fight the looming ban.

"We are pigeonholed into categories we don't fit in," he said. "There is almost an Orientalism here -- the West defines who we are and we have to live by it."

Rai said senior French officials he has met accepted that Sikh boys could wear the "patka," the simple headscarf they use under a turban, but this was not enough for them.

"It's like saying you can go to school in a bikini -- you can, but it's not very dignified," he remarked. "But we have started discussing the issue and I think we are moving forward."

TABOO "PEACH FUZZ"?

France has debated itself into a twist over the ban, which President Jacques Chirac proposed last month to stem rising Islamist influence among some of the five million Muslims here. There is wide support for a ban and its passage seemed secured.

But efforts to draft a text that does not single out Muslims have cast the net so wide that, as Ferry said on Tuesday, even the "peach fuzz" on teenage boys' cheeks could be forbidden if it is meant to express a religious affiliation.

France's efforts to explain that barring religious symbols from state schools would reinforce tolerance for all faiths have fallen on deaf ears abroad, where commentators and churchmen see the idea as a secularist push to suppress a religious freedom.

Islamic, Christian and Jewish leaders oppose the ban and thousands of Muslims across France -- many of them veiled schoolgirls -- marched in protest against it last Saturday.

Sikhs, whose monotheistic religion started in India's Punjab region in the 15th century, wear turbans in armies and police forces or on motorcycles in Britain, Canada and the United States. Germany also lets them ride motorcycles without helmets.

As the political debate over the ban continued, the deputy parliamentary leader of Chirac's centre-right UMP party, Bernard Accoyer, said beards and bandanas would not be outlawed.

UMP parliamentary leader Jacques Barrot said he was confident all Chirac supporters would vote for the ban despite doubts several of them have expressed about passing a law that was bound to alienate Muslims and other religious groups.