French Sikhs refused entry to school over religious sign ban

Five young members of France’s small Sikh community were refused access to classes Tuesday, as a row broke out over whether their headwear constitutes a breach of the country’s new ban on religious insignia in state schools.

Parents of the teenage boys expressed anger that a compromise deal under which the pupils could wear a kind of under-turban -- a more discreet version of the full turban worn by all Sikh males -- had been broken by education authorities in the northeast suburb of Bobigny.

“My son was supposed to go to classes today. He was able to get into the lycee but was not allowed into the classroom. Right now he is in the dining-room,” said Gurdial Singh.

“And yet he was wearing an under-turban, just a thin cloth for hiding the hair, just as we agreed with the authorities,” he said.

In all, five boys attending three high schools in the area were being barred from the classroom. Schools re-opened across France last Thursday, but the boys were told to stay away till Tuesday in the hope the dispute could be resolved.

Teachers from Bobigny quoted in Liberation newspaper said they did not recognise any exemption for Sikh pupils from the “secularity law,” which was passed in March with the aim of reinforcing the separation of religion and state in France.

“You can’t have two standards -- one for the headscarf, one for the turban,” said Daniel Robin of the SNES teaching union.

Though the law’s main target was the growing number of girls wearing the Islamic headscarf to school, large Christian crosses and Jewish skull-caps are also banned.

However the authorities admitted that they had failed to consult the country’s 7,000-strong Sikh community, for whom wearing the turban is a mandatory injunction. In January, Sikhs from across Europe rallied in Paris to demand a dispensation from the law.

In discussions with the government, the community argued that the turban is not a religious symbol but a cultural one because the rule contained in Sikh scriptures is for men not to cut their hair and the turban is merely a way of containing it.

“In a letter on May 10 the prime minister (Jean-Pierre Raffarin) gave us guarantees that our children would receive an education. In fact they were promises made out of thin air,” said another parent Karmvir Singh.