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Ban on Turban in French Schools




French Sikhs want Indian help on turbans

Jan 2 2004

By Tom Heneghan

PARIS (Reuters) - France's tiny Sikh community is seeking help from India's prime minister to have their traditional turbans exempted from a planned French law to ban Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from schools.

Chain Singh, spokesman for about 5,000 Sikhs here, told Reuters he was contacting Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chief Minister Amerinder Singh of Punjab state -- the home of the religion -- to ask them to urge Paris to exempt turbans.

"This law will not just be against Muslims, it will be against Sikhs as well," he said. "We cannot live without our turbans. This is our religion. If we cannot wear them, we may not be able to stay here."

Sikh men use their turbans to cover their hair, which they never cut. They enjoy exemptions in other European countries, such as one in Britain dropping a requirement to wear a crash helmet when riding a motorcycle.

President Jacques Chirac announced last month that France would soon pass a law banning noticeable religious symbols in its public schools, a move mainly aimed at Muslim schoolgirls who wear headscarves as an Islamic duty.

Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders in France have all criticised the law, which politicians say will reinforce the legal separation of church and state against growing Islamist activity here, but they say they will respect it.


Singh said he had already contacted the Indian embassy in Paris and would soon transmit letters to Vajpayee and Singh.

"India is responsible for Indians around the world. We want them to talk state-to-state with France."

Sikhs might join Muslim groups in protesting against the planned law with a march in Paris on January 17, he added.

"We can join the Muslims and pray for everyone, including Christians who are not supposed to wear big crosses and Jews who will not be able to wear kippas," Singh said.

The proposed law would also ban those religious symbols, although few are actually seen in public schools. Most kippa- wearing Jewish pupils go to private Jewish schools and only priests wear crosses large enough to be banned by the law.

Singh said Sikh men in France are often refused identity cards because they will not take off their turbans. Some schools have expelled Sikh pupils for wearing turbans but others make no fuss about them, he said.

Most Sikhs in France live in the Paris area, near their Gurdwara Sahib temple north of the capital. Some remain Indian citizens while others have taken French nationality.

Singh said he was shocked to see Paris had overlooked them in the emotional debate over banning Muslim veils.

"There are Sikhs who have died for France," he recalled with emotion in his voice. Sikhs made up the majority of the 4,746 Indian soldiers killed while fighting with the British army in France in World War One.

The Sikh community in France is tiny compared to the five million Muslims and 600,000 Jews in this traditionally Christian country of 60 million

The French cabinet approved ban on Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from school premises.