French Sikh wins backing of UN rights body over wearing of Turban
A Sikh man in France has won the backing of the United Nations Human Rights Committee in his battle to wear his turban in defiance of French laws against religious headgear.
The UNHCR said the laws were in violation of the religious freedoms of 76-year-old Frenchman Ranjit Singh, adding that Mr Singh’s turban did not pose a security risk. Among other things, Mr Singh had complained that French authorities had forced him to remove his turban when having his passport and driver’s license photos taken.
Under French law, those who refuse to remove their faith-based headgear were usually denied passports or other forms of ID.
In Mr Singh’s case the absence of a formal photo ID became a serious concern for him and his family as he has been unable to get access to public health care since 2005 as he does not have photo identification. “I cannot get myself treated,” he told the BBC. “I cannot get X-rays, I cannot get a blood test done and I cannot get admitted to hospital.”
In its judgment, the UNHRC said: "Even if the obligation to remove the turban for the identity photograph might be described as a one-time requirement, it would potentially interfere with [Ranjit Singh's] freedom of religion on a continuing basis because he would always appear without his religious head covering in the identity photograph and could therefore be compelled to remove his turban during identity checks.”
Singh and another Sikh, 55-year-old Shingara Singh, went to the UN after courts in France declared that French officials were within their rights to ban turbans on grounds of security.
While most of the controversy in France over religious headgear has focused on Islamic veils, burqas and niqabs, there is also an aggrieved Sikh community in the country, albeit very small. In 2004, the Paris government banned the wearing of religious headgear in schools, which included the turbans worn by Sikh males.
Singh cheered the UN’s ruling and told BBC: "[The turban] is part of my body. It is my identity and I cannot part with it. I had faith that truth and justice would prevail and I patiently waited for this day.”
He added: "I pray that France will now fulfill its obligation and grant me a residence card bearing my photo without baring my head."
Preneet Kaur, India’s minister of state for external affairs and a Sikh, also hailed the UN decision "for making everyone realize what the turban means to Sikhs".
The UNHCR’s decision is non-binding and has no legal authority in France. The country’s Sikh community however, is hoping the decision will help in overturning existing laws.
Mejinderpal Kaur of United Sikhs, a Sikhs rights group which supported Singh’s case, told reporters: "We now look to France to fulfill its treaty obligations under international law and its moral duty to ensure that the freedom of religion and belief is upheld for everyone who lives within its territory."
- Vijitha Alles