France’s tiny Sikh community says it has fallen victim to a new law banning religious symbols from schools, with at least five Sikh students barred from classrooms for refusing to remove their turbans.
At one Paris region high school, teachers had refused to let three Sikhs wearing turbans get past the front door. They did allow them to enter on Tuesday, four days after the start of the new school year, members of the Sikh community said. But the students weren’t allowed to attend class and were made to wait in the cafeteria, Sikhs said.
The contentious law — aimed at keeping Muslim head scarves out of classrooms — applies to all conspicuous religious signs and apparel, including Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses.
When the new academic year started last Thursday, it became clear that turbans also were unacceptable in public schools. Discreet symbols are permitted.
Sikhs, who number 5,000-7,000 in France, were fully forgotten during marathon debates that preceded the law’s passage in March even though many of them wear turbans to cover their unshorn hair. The turban is considered an article of faith for practicing Sikhs.
“We’re victims,” said Gurdial Singh, whose 14-year-old son Jasvir was among the three students unable to attend classes at Louise-Michel High School in Bobigny, northwest of Paris.
Having refused to let the boys in for three days, teachers who firmly support the law relented Tuesday, letting them in for discussions about the measure, Jasvir’s father said. The pupils were made to stay in the cafeteria.
School officials refused to discuss the cases. The other boys are aged 15 and 18.
An education official confirmed those three cases and said that two Sikhs in two other high schools in the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris also were barred from attending classes because of their turbans. The official asked not to be identified.
The law calls for a period of dialogue that can last two weeks or more to convince students to remove the offending symbol.
Education Minister Francois Fillon reported 70 cases of girls refusing to remove Islamic head scarves on Thursday. However, the figure was sure to be higher because some schools did not reopen until Friday. The ministry said it was unable to provide complete figures, and made no mention of Sikhs.
To break the impasse over turbans, Sikhs have proposed allowing students with very long hair, be they male or female, to wear a covering that leaves the forehead, neck and ears bare, according to Kudrat Singh, a representative of United Sikhs, which represents the Sikh community worldwide.
He said Sikhs do not want a special dispensation that applies only to them.
For Sikhs, whose religion was founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of northern India, the external appearance is sacred. Turbans, like long hair, are one of five articles to be worn by practicing Sikhs.
Gurdial Singh, Jasvir’s father, said he was ready to send his son to a school that would accept his turban as long as it was within a reasonable distance from home. The new law gives individual schools leeway in deciding what is acceptable in classrooms.
School officials proposed a new school for Jasvir, but hope was only fleeting. “They then telephoned to say he won’t be accepted there either,” said Gurdial Singh.