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Sikhs in Paris demo against veil ban law

Published on 02/02/2004

PARIS, Jan 31 (AFP) - Around 2,000 Sikhs from across Europe marched through central Paris Saturday to demand exemption from a proposed French law that would ban religious signs and clothing - including the turban worn by Sikh males - from schools.

Organised by leaders of France’s small community of around 6,000 Sikhs, the demonstration from the Place de la Republique was joined by contingents from Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands all concerned at the threat to what they see as an essential part of Sikh identity.

 “The turban is our religious symbol and we cannot take it off for any kind of law. We understand about secularity – but the government must see our situation. In a democracy it should not be a question of deciding between religion and going to school,” said accountant Girsev Singh.

The “secularity” law which goes before the French National Assembly next week will ban the wearing of “conspicuous” religious insignia in schools, and is aimed primarily at the Islamic headscarf – seen by many in France as a symbol of radicalism among the country’s five million Muslims.

But the turban became an unintended target because during the law’s drafting, the Sikhs were never even consulted. “What? – there are Sikhs in France?” an education ministry official was quoted as saying by the New York Times newspaper.

“We have to take to the streets because we have to show the French that we live here too,” laughed Chain Singh, who heads a Sikh temple in the Paris suburb of Bobigny. “They forgot we were here!”

Unaccustomed to the French art of the street protest, the Sikhs were offered the classic route through eastern Paris that is used scores of times every year by trade union and left-wing marchers. Waving tricolour flags or ribbons, they proceeded gingerly, a loud-speaker periodically uttering “Vive la France.”

Banners read, “Turban – sign of respect;” “Turban is a symbol of Sikh sovereignty, liberty and nationhood. It is not a religious symbol;” and “Racism under pretext of secularism in the land of Jean-Paul Sartre.”

Some marchers carried blurred black-and-white pictures showing ancestors who fought for the allied forces in World War I. Some 80,000 Sikhs are estimated to have died in France during the war, and are buried in military cemeteries in the north.

“The turban is an integral part of our dress – just as a westerner would wear his tie. We would feel undressed if we did not wear it,” said Sardar Simranjit Singh, a member of the Indian parliament who flew to Paris to express solidirty.

“We are a separate nationality but we have no state and no government. The corollary is that it is by the effort of individual Sikhs from all over the world that we can exert pressure,” he said.

“The turban does not signify orthodoxy or fundamentalism. It is simply our way of life,” said Gurcharan Singh who is mayor of the London suburb of Ealing in Britain.

“In Britain they have granted exemptions for Sikhs to wear motorcycles with a turban and also at schools. I like it in Britain as a Sikh. I am part of the British way of life. I am sure the French Sikhs are the same here. I do not see why there should be this problem,” he said.

Talks are underway between the Sikh community and the French government to find a way out of the impasse, though a suggestion last week from Education Minister Luc Ferry that schoolboys should wear a transparent hair-net was not seen as serious by Sikhs on the march.

The community argues that the turban is not a religious symbol but a cultural one, because the injunction contained in Sikh scriptures is for men not to cut their hair and the turban is merely a way of containing it.

“If the law is passed we will be obliged to take off our turbans. But we won’t,” said 14 year-old Jasvir Singh who attends school in Bobigny. “We will either go to private schools, or study abroad – or leave France for good.”


                                                              Subject: France news