I remember the first time I truly felt a sense of belonging. I was young, I don’t know how old, I had a chunni covering my head, a Kharra (Sikh bangle) dangling on my right arm and I was sat crossed-legged on the floor in the Darbar Sahib of my local Gudwara. Listening to the holy verses of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji in a congregation of people, I felt at one. I had believed in God and taken pride in my religion for as long as I could remember, but in that instance, I was flooded with the feeling of inclusion and of that being an irreplaceable part of my identity, which I want it to be wherever I go, including in public. To be forced to give that up would be soul-destroying and I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable as myself.
So when I took part in a French exchange a couple of years ago, I couldn’t understand why my partner wasn’t given the choice to wear a Hijab if she wanted to in school. Later during the trip, I was talking to her friends who didn’t really understand much about my faith, who left the conversation assuming it was basically Buddhism (of course another Eastern religion but not the one I belonged to). More recently I’ve heard unbelievable stories of women wearing burkinis and being forced to change. It was only when I went searching for answers that I discovered the principle of ‘laicite’.
‘Laicite’ is defined as “the non-clerical, or secular, control of political and social institutions in a society” that discourages the involvement of religion in government or public matters in an attempt to make everyone equal in France. Although theoretically meaning that there is less of a bias towards one faith, religion isn’t taught in state schools, and as a result, the younger generation aren’t given a chance to learn about what makes them diverse and aren’t included or represented within the classroom unless they attend a private religious school, which can separate people even more. The group Mamans Toutes Egales protests this, supporting Muslims who have been discriminated against, such as mothers who have volunteered to help with in-school activities and trips only to be told they need to take off their headscarves to participate. On every level, this is discrimination.
One thing’s for sure, in a country deemed to be as progressive as France, it cannot be acceptable to force those in public areas (schoolchildren and public sector workers) to forget a key part of their identities during the working day. If someone chooses to wear a Christian Cross, a Jewish Kippah, a Sikh Turban or a Muslim Burqa or even chooses to class themselves as having no religion, the government shouldn’t discourage it and certainly shouldn’t force them to make a choice between their religious identity and their place as a national citizen. In a society as divisive as that of today, we cannot survive unless we appreciate that everybody is entitled to carving out their own sense of who they are and without that diversity, the world would not be a place worth living in.