U.N. Supports Sikh Man Who Refused To Remove His Turban For French Passport Photo

The U.N. Human Rights Commission ruled that France had violated the man’s religious freedom by forcing him to remove his turban for his passport photograph.

Shingara Mann Singh, 57, a French national since 1989, was unable to renew his passport in 2005 because authorities insisted that he would have to remove his turban for his passport identification photo according to France’s restrictions on turbans. After Singh refused to do so, United Sikhs, a non-profit New York-based group, filed a case with the U.N. Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) on his behalf.

The committee’s ruling, made public last week, concluded that France had violated Singh’s religious freedom. According to a United Sikhs press release, the UNHRC report stated:

The Committee therefore must conclude that the regulations requiring him to appear in his passport photographs ‘with the head uncovered’ is a disproportionate restriction that poses a threat to the author’s [Shingara Singh’s] freedom of religion and thereby constitutes, in the present instance, a violation of Article 18 of the Covenant.

The UNHRC also ruled that France had failed to demonstrate how the restriction imposed on him was necessary. According to the committee’s observations, France had not explained why a turban, which covers only the upper portion of the head and forehead, made it more difficult to identify the wearer even when the face was clearly visible.

This is the third victory for Sikhs at the UNHRC after France implemented turban curbs in 2008.

An Indian Sikh student holds a placard at a demonstration appealing to the visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy to allow Sikh students to wear turbans in French schools in New Delhi in 2010. Mustafa Quraishi / AP

The wearing of turbans for Sikhs “is not only his/her religious duty but is a part of his/her identity,” said Mejindarpal Kaur, the International Legal Director for United Sikhs, who has been working on such cases since France banned the turban in state schools in 2004. “We have done our work to show that international law recognizes the right to wear a turban in France.”

“I have been a French citizen for more than 20 years,” said Shingara Singh after the UNHRC ruling. “I continue to be proud to be French but I fail to see how my country can be proud of its slogan of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity if it cannot uphold its citizens’ fundamental right to religious freedom. I hope that the UNHRC’s decision will wake France up to its international obligations.”

Singh was also unable to get a driver’s license because of his refusal to bare his head for the photograph.

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