6.25.2004

Since you asked... (Turbans and Hijabs--and Secularism)

Jivha asks: what does a Sikh secularist think about the right to wear turbans (Sikh men) and hijabs (Muslim women)? Doesn't it conflict with secularism, if secularism means limitiations on religious expression in public?

Well, as the internet's leading Sikh secularist, I have a very simple answer:

Secularism is a political power of the state, used to protect the freedoms of individuals. That includes their freedom from religious authority, as well as the freedom to practice whatever religious beliefs they have.

The freedom to religious expression must not conflict with the rights of others, or with the idea of fundamental human rights for everyone. Where there is a conflict, the state has to restrict freedoms. By my definition of secularism, it is possible to be pro-UCC in India (and anti-polygamy, anti-triple talaaq), while also supporting the rights of Muslim women and Sikh men to chosen religious attire in France and the U.S.

The state also has to protect the rights of members of religious communities to drop out, or to deviate from the community norm. So if they allow girls to wear Hijab in school again in France, I believe they should also create special community liasions to help Muslim girls who don't want to wear Hijab.

The Hijab-and-Turban ban is unlikely to happen in the U.S. In the past 15 years, there have been numerous court cases where Muslim girls have sued public (government) schools, and won. There have also been cases by Sikhs in schools, and they have also won. And it goes beyond just school: there have also been cases where Sikhs have sued employers who have clean-shaven or 'no turban' policies. Muslims have sued to have a right to take short breaks at prayer-time, or to have access to a quiet room for prayer. In almost every such case, they've won.

However, turbaned Sikhs are currently not permitted to join the armed forces in the U.S. In the most recent ruling on this, the court stated that military homogeneity is more important than religious accommodation. It's too bad, because there are special provisions for Sikhs to join the military in England and Canada. Also, turbans and beards are generally restricted in most police forces and fire-fighting teams. Some Sikhs have been lobbying to change the policies, and have been partially successful (traffic cops can now wear turbans, but not regular cops).

(See earlier posts on this here and here.)

(Also: see Kingsley)