Sikhs fear their turbans may be next in firing line in secular France
January 27, 2004

Bobigny, France - Prabhjit Singh is 10 years old and worries that he might have to leave France to continue his schooling.
Nineteen-year-old Manprit Singh wants to stay but doesn't know if he'll be allowed to go to business college here.

Young Sikhs in France face tough choices if Paris goes ahead with a planned ban on symbols of faith at state schools and outlaws the turbans they refuse to take off.

The law, meant to clamp down on the Muslim headscarves seen here as a barometer of spreading Islamist influence, has been worded broadly to dampen the impression of discrimination. Some Jewish and Christian symbols will also be outlawed.

But officials drafting the law overlooked the 5 000 Sikhs in the greater Paris area, who mostly live close to their temple, and the effect a ban could have on followers of this 500-year-old Indian religion.

"I want to keep my turban," Prabhjit, a shy little boy with a black cloth covering his uncut hair, said softly in French. "I want to stay here with my family and my friends, but I might have to go to England."
Older boys at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha temple, an unassuming house with a prayer hall, canteen and classroom that could have come straight from the Sikhs' native Punjab region, argued with confidence like the French citizens they are.

"Under this law, parents can continue to be Sikhs but their children cannot," 18-year-old Matinder Singh complained.

French officials have promised to review the Sikhs' case but time is running out. The cabinet is due to approve the law tomorrow and parliamentary debate on it starts next week.

The Sikhs, who first came to work in France in the early 1980s, feel like round pegs being forced into square French holes.


French secularism dictates state schools must be free of religious influence. It sees Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses as signs of aggressive proselytism.

The Sikhs say turbans are simply practical head coverings and that Sikhs don't try to convert people anyway.

The French logic could also ban the "chunni," the long silky scarf Sikh women drape over their heads or shoulders. Again, the purpose is to cover their uncut hair rather than obey a religious rule as Muslims do when they wear veils.

"We defy classification here," said Jasdev Singh Rai, a London-based human rights activist helping the French Sikhs fight the looming ban.

"We're not asking for an exemption to this law. We say it doesn't apply to us at all."
While they wait for an answer, Manprit Singh wonders if he can go to a business college, which would fall under the law, or have to study to become an English teacher because he could go to a university where he could wear his turban.

Eighteen-year-old Shyeista Kaur said she wasn't sure she could take her baccalaureate exams in June if the teachers insisted she remove her chunni. "If the French don't want us in school, they're not going to want to give us jobs either," she said glumly.

Younger pupils hoped their parents could start a Sikh school, but older ones knew their families had no money for that.

"We don't want to go to a Sikh school anyway," said 17-year-old Ranjit Singh. "Lots of Jews already go to Jewish private schools and more Muslim schools will start up if this law is passed.

"That's how you create fundamentalism. We don't want that." - Reuters