What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?
Last week, a college in Mangalore in India banned a student wearing a burqa from attending class. The principal told local media the college had a policy of not allowing symbols of religion.
The media did not say if there were students on campus with a ‘bindi’ (dot) on their foreheads or crucifixes around their necks or turbans on their heads, other symbols of religion one commonly sees in India, besides the ubiquitous “Om” scarves and t-shirts.
Mangalore, a cosmopolitan city, is no stranger to controversy; it was recently in the news for attacks on bars and women by a fundamentalist Hindu outfit that declared they were against Indian culture.
Nor is the controversy over headscarves and burqas limited to India. UK’s Jack Straw sparked a heated debate when he asked Muslim women in his constituency to remove their veils to promote better relations between people.
Turkey last year lifted a ban on women wearing headscarves at universities, ruling it violated the country’s secular constitution.
More recently, French president Sarkozy said burqas have no place in the country because they are a symbol of the subjugation of women. The issue has divided France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, over how to reconcile secular values with religious freedom.
A 2004 French law bans students from wearing “conspicuous” signs of their religion in state schools, prompting Sikhs to launch a protest to allow them to keep their turbans on.
Sikhs have also fought in some countries for the right to carry the “kirpan”, a dagger mandated by their religion and have called on the U.S. Army to end a ban on men with turbans.
How about India, a secular country which allows its citizens the right to follow any religion of their choosing? Can a college or a workplace impose its own rules about religious symbols? And who gets to determine what’s conspicuous or not?