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TURBAN: an Unintended Target

Bhupinder Singh Mahal

The year 2008 turned annus horribilis for the Sikhs of diaspora as the issue of turban came to the fore, yet again, this time on two ocean-separated countries: France and Canada.

The prospect of his personal religious symbol(s) being made an issue in some shape or form by the mainstream of his adopted country hangs over a Sikh like a sword of Damocles. The turban remains a perennial problem for the Sikh immigrant.

But, it is not turban per se that becomes an emotionally charged issue for the host community. There is no overt campaigning for socio-religious legislation to ban the turban. Even the opinionated bigot does not object to its wearer, only that it should not be worn in specific work places (e.g., RCMP in Canada), societal arenas (e.g., Legion Halls) or in matters of personal or public safety (e.g., wearing of helmet by motorcyclist).

In France, the issue of the turban was an unintended byproduct of the government’s attempt to ban wearing of hijab (headscarf for women) in public schools and denial of citizenship to a burqa wearing Moroccan woman that most French saw as epitomizing Islamic extremism. France that prides itself as a Gallic French nation is increasingly fearful of turning into an Afro-Mediterranean country as the newcomers from North Africa – constituting 8% of the French population - are drastically altering the demographics. There is widespread perception that racial and religious divisions will enervate “French identity”.

Consequently, serial Islamic religious demands have whipped up much angst across the nation, reaching its apotheosis in the December 2003 recommendation of the Stasi Commission to forbid students from wearing “”conspicuous” signs that promote religious particularities.

Although hijab was the sole trigger, the parliamentary debate was to broaden its scope to include all visible symbols of faith. Accordingly, on February 10, 2004, the majority in the National Assembly voted to ban all conspicuously visible religious symbols in all publically funded schools, including but not limited to headscarves for Muslim girls, yarmulkes for Jewish boys and turbans for Sikh boys.

On November 5, 2004, a high school in Bobigny – a commune in the northeastern suburbs of Paris – expelled two turbaned Sikh students, an incident that led to a great hue and cry about the ban on turbans. The French insist that publically funded educational institutions must abide by the law.

A telling moment was the bizarre development at the joint press conference held by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Marseille on September 30, 2008, following hard on the heels of the EU-Indian summit on civilian nuclear research and development.

Answering a reporter’s question while standing next to the Indian PM Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, a palpably annoyed Sarkozy spoke of respect for Sikh customs and traditions, but then curtly retorted, “But sir, we have rules, rules concerning the neutrality of civil servants, rules concerning secularism, and these rules don’t apply only to Sikhs, they apply to Muslims and others. They apply to all on the territory of the French Republic.”

Six months earlier, 39-year old Baljinder Singh Badeshi, a motorcycle enthusiast, was to challenge an Ontario (Canada) law requiring wearing of helmets on grounds that his faith instructs that nothing should be worn over a turban.

The Crown advanced two major factors in countering the defense claim. First, they argued that helmet-less injuries cost around $6,000 more in hospitalized care than helmeted riders. Second, they emphasized that personal injury notwithstanding, the impact on beloved family and friends can be very traumatic; and, in case of a fatality, economically crippling to the family.

While sympathetic to the defense claim that helmet may violate religious freedom, Ontario Court Judge James Blacklock ruled nonetheless that added health-care costs and the grievous loss of a loved one overwhelmingly affect society and that it was imperative on all motorcyclists to abide by the provincial safety regulations.

The dissimilarities between the two incidents are in stark contrast. Of the two incidents, the situation in France is by far the most detrimental as it promulgates severe punitive measures against the Sikh collectivity relative to the wearing of helmet by a Canadian Sikh motorcyclist pursuing an individually focused recreational activity.

The turban is a religiously mandated head covering and a cherished symbol. Ask any child from Brazil to Auckland, Beijing to Paris, Iceland to Tahiti to sketch a picture of a Sikh and most probably it will be of a turbaned and bearded person, affirming the reality of turban as the quintessential symbol of being a Sikh.

Additionally, it is a generally accepted religious imperative that the turban remains intact and the wearer guard against it being unfurled in public. However, there are exceptional cases when the former requirement may be modified, generally in the sports arena. For example, 28-year old offspinner cricketer Harbhajan Singh prefers to replace his turban with a head-wrap; so will a wrestler or a boxer. Such an alternative option is dictated by the circumstances that may result in the unfurling of the turban during the game, bout or play. One may argue that in such limited instances the temporary head-wrap may not constitute an infringement of the religious tradition.

Although it behooves the Sikh community, as a collectivity, to fight tooth and nail for the right to wear a turban in France, the Sikh community needs to take a more cautious approach against seeking redress for an individual who is in violation of the laws of his adopted country, as was the case for the Ontarian Sikh.

Riding a motorcycle is a personal pastime, not a communally licensed leisure pursuit. Baljinder Singh Badeshi could have followed examples set by sportsmen and worn a head-wrap under a helmet. Instead, he chose to openly flout Ontario law by not wearing a helmet and court publicity by making the turban an issue. Remedy for personal rights should be sought by the individual himself and those engaged in similar leisure activity.

Baljinder Singh’s defense that articles of his faith do not allow placement of any accoutrement over a turban requires some scrutiny. In a not-so-distant past a Sikh peasant carried firewood, sugarcane or sack of grains on his turbaned head; Sikh porters may carry passenger baggage on their heads; during a rainstorm an umbrella-less Sikh may remove his jacket to cover his turban or use parka jacket hood; conversely, as mark of a contrite gesture an honorable Sikh may remove and place his turban at the feet of the aggrieved person. The notion that nothing can cover a turban sanctifies the turban as a scared garment. But, there is no supportive religious authority that historically contextualizes what can or cannot be worn over a turban.

Turban becomes an issue for the Sikh of diaspora only when the right to wear it collides with the laws and regulations of his adopted country or if the mainstream have express or disguised reservations.

The right to wear turban in a workplace or public square is mostly settled. The right to wear it in secular institutions such as publically funded schools in France is a brand-new issue. The Sikh collectivity needs to forge an alliance with the Jews and Muslims to overturn or modify the French law. While the community needs to be more vigilant on materially critical turban-related issues, it should ratchet down pressure in matters that are on the periphery.

By moving increasingly towards socio-religious pluralism the western nations have emboldened individual groups to ratchet up community-focused demands; the more diverse a nation, the greater the aggregation of ethnic demands. The flip side of diversity is ethnic competitiveness that encourages groups to vie with kindred groups for advancing of their own particular agenda.

Groups jostling for a particular parochial position do often lose out. Ontario Jews and Catholics enjoyed the privilege of faith-based tribunals for adjudicating on some aspects of family law (e.g., divorce). In 2003, Muslims in Ontario campaigned for a similar tribunal of their own governed by Shariah law. Critics such as Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada, Amnesty International and some prominent Muslim women protested against setting up of Shariah-based tribunal that they viewed as the judicial antithesis of Canadian Charter of Rights and established common law. Accordingly, in 2005, on the urging of the Premier Dalton McGuinty, Ontario banned all faith-based tribunals proving that unchecked inter-ethnic ambitions can end up as a lose-lose proposition for all.

The right to wear a turban is a collective right that carries with it responsibilities that requires the wearer to recognize that the concepts of “collective” right and “individual” right are not coextensive. Personal pursuits of an individual that are likely to clash with rules and regulations of the adopted country needs to be tempered. Even in the case of collective rights, it is better to err on the side of caution by recognizing that particularized serial community-focused demands, especially the ones on the margins, may not only ill-serve the group but invite a serious backlash against such demands from the mainstream.

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