What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?

August 24, 2009

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?


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[…] then there’s the kirpan problem. Sikhs will wear this pretty big curved sword to class, and if their professors are wary, […]

Posted by University Diaries » Sikhs with Swords | Report as abusive

While I am certainly no friend to religion (being an atheist), I do not agree that governments should take steps to control dress codes based upon beliefs. It sets a dangerous precedent for intrusion. Additionally, I think that to examine this policy you have to ask what the desired outcome is. What purpose does the policy serve?I certainly would like to see our species evolve past our desire for religion and for more enlightened communities, but that kind of change must not come from the establishment. It must be driven at a grass-roots level to be successful. If people are to shed their superstitions it must be because they come to the realization that it is unnecessary. Not because someone forced them out, using that tactic will only strengthen their resolve and give religion the one thing it needs to truly thive…an opponent.The caveat to this is that private institutions should be able to have whatever dress code they see fit. If a university or corporation decides to ban certain religious dress it becomes a decision for the person in question to decide whether or not they want to participate with those people. It should not, however be imposed by government.But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.:)

Posted by Eric Collazo | Report as abusive

Freedom means allowing people to make their own choices, even if you don’t agree with them. Religion, and the display thereof, should be an individuals choice and not regulated by rule of law.So some people feel that Muslim dress codes are oppressive. I personally agree with that. But that does not give me or anyone else the right to enforce that *opinion* on others who may not feel the same way.

Posted by Terri | Report as abusive

For the sake of public safety and security any type of garment that covers the face beyond recognition from any angle should be banned in all public settings, including public transportion, airports, planes, individual automobiles, and especially in all government supported schools. If a covered face individual commits a crime or assumes an identiy other than their own it would make it nearly imposiible to identify the perpertrator or recognize the fraud. Imagine a group of 10 women dressed in burkas, out shopping and one of them being a shop lifter. How confusing it would be to determine which one is the criminal. It is proposterous that this issue is even considered controversial when it makes no sense to allow anyone for any reason permission to conceal their identity. Only criminals hide their faces!

Posted by M. Sullivan | Report as abusive

The ban on Burka wearing is an indication of the positive progression of women’s rights. I totally agree with it’s ban in public. The Burka is not a religious symbol, it is an obvious indication of the subordination of women. It was created by fundamentalist Islamic men to hide their women. Think about what fundamentalist Islam imposes on their women. They are beaten, not allowed to vote, not allowed to drive, not allowed to attend university in their country, and have no rights in a court of law.. Basically, these women are treated as animals for the sole purpose of procreation and to care for the men of their religion. It is about time we take a stand against this type of behavior. It is not acceptible anywhere in the world, and neither is the Burka fundmentalist Islamic women have been either forced or brainwashed to wear.

Posted by Peg | Report as abusive

If every religion were to emphasize peaceful co-existance with all others, there would be no problem with religious symbols. When however, religious symbols represent such notions as (i) My God is better than yours (ii) My God is the only way to heavan (iii) those who do not believe in my God are infidels, the symbols become an instrument of hatred,fear,mistrust, and ultimately violance. There is nothing wrong with religious symbols as long as they are carried or worn for one’s own faith and tranquility and not to intimidate or belittle the faith of others.

Posted by Anil | Report as abusive

Nathan Sharansky is right when he states that identity without democracy can become fundamentalist and totalitarian; democracy without identity can become superficial and meaningless.http://thetrajectory.com/blo gs/?p=643

Posted by thetrajectory | Report as abusive

Too much importance is put on freedom of symbolism. Worship however and whatever you choose, but people should not have a right to have any symbolism that their organized religion mandates. If the religous symbolism jepordizes the health and welfare of the general public it should not be tolerated. Wear your Burkas in your own home, but not when you go out. I do not feel safe around women in Burkas. I want to see their faces.

Posted by M. Sullivan | Report as abusive

Unlike countries like England, India and US, the French should continue to work hard to liberate the subjugated women. All of Saudi and Iranian women wear a scarf/ cloak because simply their govts force them to do so. Women in Malaysia, India and Jordan don’t (the ones who do wear them are forced by the families).No individual wants live covering face and head, religion or not. The families aren’t throwing out their wives and daughters in the street just because they don’t comply with scarf/veil rule. As in the case of school girls who per law don’t wear scarves in France. What a godsent gift to those French school girls.Now, a miniscule number those who want to do that voluntarily can sacrifice a bit to save their sisters from oppression. These so called voluntary compliance unwittingly strengthening the male chauvinism and thus fundamentalism. For a larger noble cause, these ladies can forgo a bit of their ‘freedom’ just so that many million others could gain theirs. If they are really honorable with their freedom fight, they should stop this malicious propaganda(that its their freewill that they want to wear this attire on their own). It reminds me an Indian saying ‘women are womens worst enemies’. Its dubious that for their so called freedom they are fatally compromising a noble cause ie., liberating oppressed women. Where is their honor, freedom spirit and compassion?French should keep liberating its people regardless of religion. Appeasement of these fanatic mullahs will only hurt their women further and eventually everyone. In the false pretext of freedom of some, one simply can not ignore the elephant in the room ie., oppression. Thats what Indian Govt is doing now- by having a separate muslim personal law. To appease some mullahs and other nuts they are encouraging oppression of muslim women. In India, all muslims, for that matter in other muslim nations, do adore their bollywood muslim heroes and heroines (like everybody else, don’t get me wrong) who dance, wine and dine and do indulge in not so moral conduct. Chastity is due to lack of opportunity said GBShaw, a life long bachelor. Get it. France you are the best.- Posted by Azad (Freedom)

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

@AnilHow can a piece of cloth depict my god is better than yours? How does a Burkha say my god is beetr than yours?It is the people who say it. In India there shouldn’t be restrictions on what one wears. I wear a sacred thread on my wrist. That just says I am Hindu and doesn’t say others are inferior.@Peg,If you go to the middle east you’ll find that even men are covered from head to toe.I assume it must have been because of sand winds that the tribals in the Arab world started wearing such clothes. Ofcourse over a period of time it became a custom and then a part of religious orthodoxy.I don’t think, if you have it then flaut it approach shows independence, for me it shows rebellion.In my view feminism is same as chavinism.Let the women decide what they want to wear, there are women in India who are not comfortable in certain kinds of clothes. That should be fine with us.@ Sullivan,Completely agree with you on security part. The face should be visible at all costs. The women can cobver their head if they wish but not the face.

Posted by Aman | Report as abusive

It is right to ban everything that propagates faith. Burqua, Skull Caps is not a must and doesn’t do anything than propagating irrational faith practices. In case of Sikhs, Turbans and Kirpans are must and part of daily life for a sikh and therefore should be allowed. In case of sanatana dharma, certain things like wearing a janeyoo or shaving heads on death of father is a must and should be allowed. Ban has to be reasonable and not irrational. The ban of France on Sikhs is irrational and beyond sense of sane reasoning.

Posted by Rohit | Report as abusive

<>Regarding above quotation I have some questions,(1)Do you think that India is “secular State?(2)Which principles constitute the Indian “Secular State”?

Posted by shilpacslc | Report as abusive

I’m afraid I have nothing to add except to say that all of the preceding posts seem to be in aggreement. Most people are tolerant concerning the display of religious insignia except when they become a cause for concern, when public safety is threatened.

Posted by shrdlu | Report as abusive

People who migrate to another culture should respect the culture and the genuine feelings of that country’s people. The problem here is some people want to enjoy the freedom of their new country but does not want to change their atitude that conspicuosly differentiates them. Assimilation should be preached and practiced. People who stress on protecting their own identity today may agitate for a separate state or country tomorrow.Societies were painstakingly built over thousands of years. A new immigrant has no right to spoil the harmony and peace of his new society. Religion is personal and let it be that way. Conspicuos and deliberate attempts to show of their religion should not be allowed in multi-cultural and democratic countries. A burqa may or may not commend respect. It’s the person with in who matters. Some Societies who respect the human being more than religion will try to enforce ban on religious exhibitionism. One has to respect it or go back to their own socities where they will not be Aliens.

Posted by Sreeni | Report as abusive

@comment on the photograph shown as representative of a Muslim woman: In Pune, women of all religions wear the same scarf while riding scooters since a long time and enter the college premises too until parking. But their reason is to avoid dust and pollution. same as someone else said that’s how Burqa becane a regular features due to avoid sands from the deserts getting into eyes.@What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?Any symbol (visible to others) that can identify a person belonging to a particular religion is “conspicuous”–Burqa, Muslim head scarf, Bindi (dot on women forhead),Hindu Topi (cap) Jewish cap, Sikh Turban/Kirpan all fall in the same category. Then some Hindus go to temple in the morning have some color/rice on their forhead and go to college—that’s conspicuous too!@And who gets to determine what’s conspicuous or not? Constitution of the country is foremost in guiding and the specific rules of a college mentioned upfront and clear with a reason why one and not the other attire is allowed can work.Solution: Headscarve is harmless but burqas can be unsafe for others. Example of using Burqa: A Muslim cleric in Pakistan during Lal Masjid seige in Islamabad was about to escape using Burqa when he was caught by security. Perhaps Pakistan security has special eyes that can see through, not all can! That applies to any specific attire that can compromise the safety of others. We live in a different world. We need to change.I recall my very close Indian Muslim’s friends wife wearing head to toe Black Burqa in US scared the hell out of kids (they started to run away)–Obviously. So she changed to Green color and then to head scarf only.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

RohitI disagree with a selective ban and go with Frances blanket ban on all. That tantamounts to discrimination. As a matter of fact there were just muted protests and nothing more.In order to promote integration, French have banned even hindu women wearing a dot on forehead and christians wearing a cross as pendant on chains. The idea was to prevent any signs that overtly display ones religiosity on school campus just so they dont seggregate the students. I am surre integration is facilitated to some extent and animosities will be thwarted in schools. It is ridiculous the type of open declaration of religion we see on campuses.

Posted by azad | Report as abusive

In a state where equitable distribution of oppurtunities to grow and freedom of belief and faith are provided, why do a section of the minority want to assert themselves by resorting to non-secular,religious and communal ostentation. The tenets of French Revolution-Liberty and Equality are endangered by personal beliefs such as wearing Burqa or Turban. One is at Liberty to do whatever one wants as long as it does not cause inconvenience to others. The French have a tradition and culture which respects secular beliefs. They should not be made to feel alien in their own land because of domination of other cultures. Uniform civil code should be respected even if its against one or many religions.Religion is the opium of the masses, said one great thinker. Let ‘s not allow this opium to degenerate our cultures and societies.

Posted by Sreeni | Report as abusive

its funny to read some of the comments in here. the minute i read that the ban came against a muslim woman wearing a burqa, i knew that very second that “this is a symbol of religious oppression” and “this is the symbol of islamisit”. bull. so if the burqa is a symbol of islam’s oppression of women, then the bikini is the west’s symbol of women because apparently a women is oppresses unless she shows clevage, her legs,and bares it all for the world. i have seen women here in the U.S wear a head scarf and a burqa and i give them all the credit in the world. because when we americans see that we immediately make comments, give them dirty looks, and mistreat them. same goes thru out rest of the western world. all this talk of “no place for religious symbols in public” is just a way for the atehesit to get things their way. if democracies really allow freedom of expression them let the muslims wear the scarfs and burqas, the sikhs wear the turbans, hindus wear the dots, etc. all this self- righteous stuff is non sense.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

@I disagree with a selective ban-posted by AzadAzad, Rohit and others:We got to admit that India and France are different. While there were “muted potests” in France, in India, this will be open protests.Knowing Sikhs, I just cannot envision how a college can ask a Sikh student to come without turban or join some other college.Leave alone, taling off the turban, even by mistake if I dislodge a turban, it is seen as disrespect and I know how sensitive they are to it. That is so much part of it. Historically, turban worked as a helmet in the days when Sikhs fought the enemy. Times have changed, but only few have changed.So the question arises is can a college even ask students to come without any sign of religious expression? Is it even constitutional?But why only college and not the offices then?Idea is to achieve the goal–the integration of people of different religion. Would that come with removing external symbols. I as a student will know what religion the other student belongs to even if they do not wear visible religious symobol. We got to live with this–tolerance. It is hard to handle this unbiased.My mind is stuck at the security issue. nothing else.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Rajeevlets go one step further-How many seriously religious jews, hindus,sikhs, muslims are not going to apply for french universities in 2010, just because they can not wear turbans, veils, skull caps, bindis (dots)etc.Question is its all environmental, peer/ family pressure. If prospects are good everyone flocks to developed nations.Also these bloggers do enjoy watching their matinee idols bollywood movies, despite the immoral lives they lead. Alcoholism, extramarital/open shacking up, unwed moms and dads, with all the adoration, fanfare and even worship.Hypocrisy.Hope France will not become India and remains France. England is likely to become India at this rate with all its obdurate religions.

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

The burqa is a fashion statement, albeit a religious one, from Saudi Arabia’s wahabi islam. Surely if students are allowed to wear these articles of fashion, then students should also be allowed to exhibit other articles of fashion: ear/nose/tongue/eyebrow piercings, high-heels, short skirts and the works.

Posted by abhishek | Report as abusive

@ all this talk of “no place for religious symbols in public” is just a way for the atehesit to get things their way.-says sydney-I agree with bikini issue you raised. A woman is not liberated unless she is in the bikini. But you are jumping to conclusion by saying that this is the work of “atheists”. It is all mix bag–theists/atheists/agnostics all.@i have seen women here in the U.S wear a head scarf and a burqa and i give them all the credit in the world. because when we americans see that we immediately make comments, give them dirty looks, and mistreat them.-says sydeny-mistreat women in head scarf in US–are you sure?-depends upon neighborhood may be. I am not so sure about Burqa though. That makes sense too as I said earlier that a white kid gets scared off a stranger lady wrapped head to toe in a Burqa. BYW why does a woman wear burqa–so that men do not give them dirty look, right. By waring Burqa and Burqini in the West, they are just doing that–the epicentre of attraction.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Under Indian Constitution, Freedom to practice Religion is Fundamental Right of Citizens. However individuals rights are / have to be subject Civil/public Rights and anything which interferes in public Safety should not be allowed. As Burqa hides identity of a person, it violates fundamental freedom of citizens and can allow criminals to commit and get away with Crimes as with burqa on, how police will identify 7 prosecute?

Posted by Atma Gandhi | Report as abusive

If country proclaims or declares it self as secular it is the duty of the government to safeguard the rights of the religious minorities. Every human being should be given their freedom to practice their respective religions in their own way.Minorities should not be crushed in the name secularism respective government should take proper action to protect religious freedom

Posted by Jhon Kotler | Report as abusive

As far as covering of a Muslim woman’s face goes I remember a case in the UK. A teacher asked one of the girls in his class a question. However, she did not respond even though they had covered the topic the day before. The girl he asked was a Muslim and she was wearing the burkha and had her face covered. It later turned out that the girl was not a pupil of that school and had been sent in the other’s place. This is wrong. The face should not be covered.I would love to see girls wearing burkhas running down corridors and stairs when the fire alarm goes off. Like dominos falling.

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive

to Azad and RajeevI am for rationality not idiosyncracy. The French ban is made by Christians and for Christians. French can never respect Sikhism. If they knew facts of Sikhism, they would have thought about in rational manner. The act of French government tantamounts to interference in religion and faith in order to create chaos in life of Sikhs.

Posted by Rohit | Report as abusive

Lets say you join an office, would you demand to wear a burqa to the client meetings and all? Well you may but the office wont let you because they have a dress code, formals! Similarly if a private institution has a dress code, which requests you to dress in a particular manner, why do people defy that by wearing something else all together and then creating a scene when they are stopped from it. Tomorrow I will start wearing a nighty to college and say that it is something which my relegion demands, well let me wear it too.

Posted by Kusum | Report as abusive

Freedom of speech and expression allows one in India to practise his/her own religion and belief. No one has the authority to curtail that. It is no wonder why such an incident happened in a college in Karnataka. The state is governed by the BJP, who gives all supports to a particular communal outfit to grow up and to rule the roost. After the Mangalore incident was aired by a TV channel, the college principal had to concede that he ordered the ban at the behest of some Hindu fanatic outfit. Let’s not intrude into others’ privacy as long as we stay in a democratic and secular country.

Posted by Sainul | Report as abusive

My personal experience as a non-muslim is the following: I need to see the face of a person I want to get into contact with or who wants to contact me. Communication between people does not only take place via words but also via facial gestures. How can a person who hides her face expect others to take her seriously ? I cannot imagine having a professional discussion on whatever topic with a person hidden behind a burqa. I do not mind scarfs, tubans, crosses, bindis etc. as they don`t interfere with normal inter-human communication. Or is communication not wanted at all by persons who wear burqas ?Rosma

Posted by Rosma | Report as abusive

@ Rohit and AzadMy last post was about religious symbols in India, not France. Sarkozy can do that in France and but imitating sarkozy in India is not wise.Rohit:-I will not take a broad brush and paint “French can never respect Sikhism” even assuming that by French you mean practicing Christians. Well french don;t respect lot other of things too-like america and goes vice-versa! Hardly matters. It is what Sikhs or any other community gives back to French society will earn them the respect. In any case, respect has been commanded as Sarkozy already said that Sikhs will be allowed turban in France in response to Manmohan Singh’s non-official memo. But he views burqa clad women as “prisoners behind netting” and sees burqa as a “sign of subservience”, not a sign of religion. I agree with him.Turban in, burqa out, scarf allowed is the Sarkozy Rule.Azad:I agree with you. Those who want to go to France will do the needful or have an option to stay back in sweet home. As I said I was talking about the near impossibility of this happening in india due to huge differences between the 2 countries.Coming back to India, tolerance not escapism is the way out. If it is not in the head, it will not work. we unfortunately have politicians who cannot handle such delicate issues. The fallouts of such mishandling are huge.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Fundamentalists are the main enemy of our humanity and as they exist in all religions and in all ideologies and they do not accept the others and it is too much easy for anyone of them to harm or to insult or to kill in the name of his religion and I think history is a clear proof for what I have mentioned. We should unite against these people and we should fight for our freedom and for our humanity. To prevent a student from wearing a burqa is an act from some fundamentalists. I donot agree with Taliban because they are fundamentalists and also I donot agree with these people because they are fundamentalists.

Posted by Hassan Elsisi | Report as abusive

Bandits in Burqas Strike in Britainhttp://news.aol.com/article/briti sh-police-hunt-robber-bandits-in/641486

Posted by azad | Report as abusive

Rajeev, Rohitthe simmering dichotomy in the mainly christian europe and the other immigrants is gaining a stern ground swell;see the huge number of comments in Economist this week.Luckily for India its not immigration but only local population to be considered, by that I mean, race isnt an issue.http://www.economist.com/books/dis playStory.cfm?story_id=14302290&mode=com ment&sort=recommend#commentStartPosition

Posted by azad | Report as abusive

Azad@the simmering dichotomy in the mainly christian europe and the other immigrants is gaining a stern ground swell;see the huge number of comments in Economist this week.Luckily for India its not immigration but only local population to be considered, by that I mean, race isnt an issue.”Azad: Yes more than 700 comments on the article in a week!!!!!! seems like everyone is involved in the debate.I agree such issues in India are PERHAPS more easily managable. Alien culture is not an issue.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive


Posted by adil | Report as abusive

“The ban on Burka wearing is an indication of the positive progression of women’s rights.”

Banning a person’s right to wear a particular article of clothing is not and indication for positive progress. In free societies people are allowed to choose whether they want to dress that way or not. Taking away the right to do so is not progressive.

Some people are religious. Some are spiritual in their way of life. The two are not the same. Also free societies allow freedom of expression as long as it harms no one. So the idea of assimilation is not a priority. New immigrants do not assimilate so easily. But their children do. And that’s that the real point. If we are going to get all stirred up and start asking for “dress code laws”, then we are effectively asking to have our freedoms limited.

Getting riled up over dress and appearance is foolish. Never judge a book by its cover. A person can only be judged fairly by taking their actions into account. Their appearance is meaningless. If appearance really meant something then there would be a WHOLE lot more of us living under persecution.

What’s in the heart stirs the mind. What’s in the mind stirs the body to action. And this is the real measure of a person’s character. Let those who want to wear their symbols of faith be free to do so. They should be able to enjoy that freedom just like those who choose not to, and are free to make that choice.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

I would just like to make it clear that Muslim women are NOT forced to wear a hijab by their religion but by the way a country they live in is ruled. There is no rule in Quaran that tells you to ‘always cover yourself’! It is just if a country is quite strict, like Saudi Arabia, you will need to cover yourself, and if it is not, like Kuwait or Kazakhstan, women can dress in whatever they want! It just annoys me so much, when people say that ‘poor Muslim women need to wear the hijab all the time because of their religion’! It is not the religion, people, it is the way a country is ruled! I am a Muslim woman, from a Muslim country, but living in UK and I do not wear a hijab and do not cover myself up.

Posted by MimiJ | Report as abusive