American Turban

An open letter to French President François Hollande

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia. She has been to France as a young girl with Professor Karanbir Singh Sarkaria, her mathematician father, who went there—turbaned and bearded—almost every summer for over a decade, as a regular invitee to a famed research institute. He no longer travels to France. Neither does she. Mallika holds a Juris Doctorate (JD) from Berkeley Law and a Master in Public Policy (MPP) from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

For context, read about France’s continued refusal to overturn its ban on visible articles of faith in public schools. A history of the French law is also available here. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recently ruled that the French law is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

France flag and broken heart.

Mr. President of France, dear Mr. Hollande,

You aptly chose February 14 to visit with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and cozy up relations. O, and yes, also to ensure India–the country that houses the largest population of the world’s poor and is too cash-strapped to build toilets for over half of its population–buys some French Rafale fighter jets. No worries, no one believes love has no price tag.

In fact, love with France as home or second home sure does hurt. Mr. President, head of a socialist government, you’ve ignored how the French ban on religious dress in State schools discriminates between the rich and others. Should Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish children feel reassured that they could have worn their turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes, to school, if only their parents could send them to private schools, if only they had the money?

And French love does fail. “If a Catholic student wants to wear the Cross to school, he has to hide it in his clothes. For a Sikh it is obviously difficult to hide his turban but the law is the same for everybody.” This oxymoron–it’s not same for Sikhs, but it is same for everyone–was the utterance of a French government spokesperson reportedly defending the decision to not lift the ban, despite the United Nations 2012 finding of France’s ban in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Mr. President, the Sikhs protesting in Delhi, including the French Sikhs–many humiliated by your other loving law of requiring turbans be removed for state ID pictures, and of course then for many occasions where these IDs have to be matched to the person–are asking you to lead your nation toward some love.

Our love is patient and kind. We won’t stop reminding you that yours has not been the same.

Our love keeps no records of wrongs. Reversing this law won’t show your  weakness, it will show your courage and strength.

Our love is Nirbhao. Fearless, like our Sikh Gurus. And in solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers.

May you too feel the power of love,
Mallika Kaur.

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