PARIS (AP) – Sikh school boys must exchange their turbans for hair nets when a new law banning religious apparel in public schools takes effect in September, France’s education minister said Monday, shocking representatives of the Sikh community.
Education Minister Francois Fillon spoke after education officials adopted – with some misgivings – a set of guidelines to help school officials apply the law, which was enacted in March after a marathon parliament debate.
The law forbids conspicuous religious symbols and attire in the classroom, such as the Jewish skull cap and large Christian crosses, but it is chiefly aimed at the Muslim head scarf.
Under the guidelines, Muslim girls can only wear bandannas in schools that allow them, Fillon told a news conference Monday.
Asked in an interview about the turbans worn by Sikhs, he said an “arrangement” had been made with Sikhs to replace the traditional head gear with hair nets.
“We’ve come up with an arrangement,” Fillon told The Associated Press. “They accept wearing a hair net. It’s less aggressive, less showy.”
Representatives of the small Sikh community of 5,000-7,000 said they were unaware of any such arrangement. On the contrary, they said, Sikh representatives had received a letter from a counselor to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, dated May 10, that provided “conditional assurance” that Sikh boys could wear turbans in class.
“We were told that we could wear turbans because we never posed a problem,” said Karmvir Singh, a Paris member of United Sikhs.
Sikhs cover their hair with a turban, compulsory in their religion which originated in northern India in the 15th century.
“A hair net has no place and no meaning,” said the director of United Sikhs, Hardyal Singh, based in New York. “It’s appalling.”
A phone call to the prime minister’s office was not returned.
The school guidelines go beyond attire to forbid students from refusing certain courses – like physical education or biology – for religious reasons or rejecting professors based on their gender. The guidelines also forbid absences for religious reasons beyond major holidays.
Fillon said it will be up to individual schools to decide whether bandannas – seen by many Muslims as a substitute for head scarves – can be worn.
The new law is aimed at safeguarding the French principle of secularism, considered under threat by Muslims’ growing militancy over their identity and the practice by some girls of wearing head scarves to school.
“The most fundamentalist organizations considered that there was a weakness on the part of the French state and that this weakness could be exploited,” Fillon told reporters.
Teachers have reported that not only are head scarves increasingly prevalent in some schools, but students are refusing certain courses or contesting the right of a female professor to teach certain topics.
Fillon said he expected legal challenges when young girls who defy the law are dismissed from school.
“There will surely be organizations that try to test” the law, he told the AP. “But now we have a solid judicial basis.”