On Monday, the Québec Government released its proposed Charter of Values, which would prohibit public servants wearing "overt and conspicuous" religious symbols such as headscarves, face coverings, kippas, turbans, and prominent crucifixes and Stars of David. Its fundamental premise is a mistake. The items of clothing (turbans etc.) do NOT affirm religious belief. I am not surprised that separatist Québec politicians have so little understanding of cultures other than their own. But I am dismayed that they presume to legislate on matters they understand so little.
Some political context before I get to the main point: The Charter of Values was leaked, and has thus been the subject of public discussion for several weeks now. (I wrote about it here, here, and here. I gave reasons for treating face-coverings differently here; my reasons have nothing to do with their religious significance, if any.)
The strong negative reaction to the proposed Charter in Montreal and across Canada outside Québec gave some observers hope that it would be weakened. It was not—it apparently has the strong support of Québec francophones outside of Montreal and is therefore shrewd identity politics for the Parti Québecois, which is apparently up in the polls. The PQ and its federal wing, the Bloc Québecois, have defended the Charter aggressively. The BQ has gone to the length of expelling Maria Marouni, a Member of Parliament of Lebanese origin, for her criticisms of the bill.
The rationale given for this intrusion into private life is that these items of clothing are symbols of religion. Are they? The crucifix specifically symbolizes an event of great religious significance for Christians. There is nothing analogous in kippas, hijabs, or Sikh turbans. They are symbols of community values.
Second, the turban is not the primary requirement for Sikh men. The requirement is that Sikhs not cut their hair. The turban is simply the traditional way for men to contain long hair. Sikh women too are forbidden from cutting their hair. But women don’t wear turbans. There is therefore a separation between the practice that Sikhism dictates—not cutting hair—and the item of clothing that is being stigmatized as a symbol of religion.
Finally, the turban itself is common headgear in India. It’s true that Sikhs wear a distinctively styled turban, but it’s not that different. Rajputs wore a slightly different style—it isn’t symmetrical; it has a tail. An Indian would recognize a Rajput turban as different from a Sikh turban, but would the average Quebecker? I doubt it.
WHICH ONE IS WHICH?
It would be odd, but not against a Sikh’s religion to wear a Rajput’s “safa”, and vice versa. (Especially odd, since in the 15th century, the Sikhs were militarily distinct.) A Sikh is not allowed to cut his (or her) hair. Whether he wears a turban, and which turban he wears, is another matter. In theory, I could wear a Sikh turban. Would I, a non-Sikh, be prohibited from performing public duties in Québec if I did?
The question of the religious signification of turbans was actually addressed by the British House of Lords in 1982, as I discovered here on Wikipedia. A school in Birmingham attempted to exclude a Sikh boy on grounds of his dress, and his father sued. The suit failed in the Court of Appeal, where Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, held that freedom of religion was not guaranteed by the then British law, implying that discrimination against Sikhs was therefore permissible. But the House of Lords turned this down on appeal, ruling that Sikhism is an ethnicity: a community with a long shared history, the memory of which it keeps alive, and a cultural tradition which might be associated with a religion. This is an accurate description of the Sikhs as a community. They are an ethnicity, regardless of the associated religion, and the turban symbolizes the ethnicity.
I suspect that very similar things can be said about the kippa and the hijab, but I won’t venture into areas where I know very little.