Three hundred years ago, the Sikhs in the Indian Punjab renounced
the Hindu caste system, and with it the family names that revealed
their status: Every Sikh man is called Mr. Singh, and every Sikh
woman Mrs. Kaur.
Monday, the Sikhs of France are again defying established custom.
They are launching a last-ditch defense of their distinctive turbans
in the face of a proposed French law banning conspicuous religious
symbols that threatens to keep their boys out of school. In doing
so, they are asking the French state to reconsider fundamental
elements of what it means by national identity.
"We are a challenge not just to legal systems but to ways of
thinking," said Jasdav Singh, as he led a demonstration of his
brightly turbaned and luxuriantly bearded coreligionists through the
streets of Paris on Saturday. "We are victims of the Western
obsession with categorization and the trend towards conformity."
Tuesday, parliament will open debate on a law proposed by
President Jacques Chirac designed to reinforce the French tradition
of laiecite, a pillar of a secular system that keeps all show of
religion out of public schools. The law
would forbid Jewish boys to wear skullcaps to school, Muslim
girls would be forbidden to wear a veil, and Christian children
would not be allowed to display outsize crucifixes.
The Sikhs insist that the turbans their men and boys wear over
their uncut hair are not religious symbols but essential to their
dignity. That claim has opened up a gray area in the debate, feeding
growing doubts among some French politicians about the wisdom of
legislating on such a delicate subject.
The planned law was inspired by fears that fundamentalist Muslims
are forcing girls to wear the veil, and by hopes of shoring up
secular French values in a multicultural and multiracial country
where immigrants have often been poorly integrated into society.
The 5,000 or so Sikhs in France, who have hitherto lived almost
unnoticed in a few poor suburbs of Paris, find themselves caught up
in a debate that had, until a few weeks ago, swirled far above their
heads. Predominantly lower middle class, they appear not to have
been aware of the government commission that took evidence for
several months last year on the need for a new law, and the
commission was not aware of them.
"We are marching just to remind the French that we exist," said
Chain Singh, a leader of the Sikh temple in Bobigny, an eastern
suburb of the capital.
Sikh spokesmen argue that it is not the turban but their hair -
which Sikhs never cut, out of respect for nature - that is a symbol
of their religion, and that to strip Sikh boys of the turbans and
cloths that cover their topknots would reveal the very symbols that
the law is meant to outlaw.
"We feel undressed if we don't wear our turbans," said Simranjit
Singh, a Sikh member of the Indian parliament who came to France -
along with hundreds of people from all over Europe and from America -
for Saturday's rally. "It is humiliating to the core if we are made
to take off our turbans."
Luc Ferry, the minister of education, appeared sympathetic to the
Sikhs' plight when he testified before a parliamentary commission
last month, proposing that Sikh boys in public schools be allowed to
wear "discreet" or "transparent" turbans. …