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Dastar Issue in NZ: Club should move into the 21st century

December 21, 2009 | By

Ludhiana (December 21, 2009): Recently a Club in New Zealand refused enterance to a Sikh Karnail Singh in Club premises, as he was wearing a Dastar (Turban). Following Editorial Titled: “Club should move into the 21st century” was published by NZ Herald on December 18, 2009. For the intrest of our readers we are sharing it here as such. – Administrator, SikhSiyasat Network.

By definition, the Manurewa Cosmopolitan Club should be representative of many different countries and cultures. In practice, it seems dogged by insularity and intolerance.

Its entry rules have meant a local community leader, Karnail Singh, could not attend a function that recognised his service because he was wearing a turban. Club staff told the Sikh that the turban was considered headwear, and wearing headwear in the bar was against club regulations.

Not for the first time, the club has found itself the subject of a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. Previously, it had refused to let a Muslim international student enter its dining area because she was wearing a hijab, or religious headscarf.

The level of its dogmatism would, presumably, be ramped even higher if a Muslim woman wearing a burqa approached its doors. The club seems blissfully unaware that it is transgressing the live-and-let-live approach that, typically, characterises New Zealanders’ attitude to foreign cultural practices.

Or, more broadly, that it is riding roughshod over perhaps the most useful measure of the health of race relations – how tolerant people feel towards difference and diversity.

In the case involving the Muslim student, the club sheltered behind its status as a private club. Whatever the legal niceties, that represents a fraught and morally indefensible stance that is out of keeping with New Zealand practice.

In Karnail Singh’s case, it seems to be relying on a view that turbans are not compulsory within the Sikh community. Even if that is so, it makes light of the turban’s importance as a symbol of honour, self-respect, spirituality and courage to the vast majority of Sikhs worldwide. So much so that Sikh soldiers shunned helmets during World Wars I and II.

This adamance has, from time to time, caused Sikhs to brush up against authority. Five years ago, an American judge ordered the reinstatement of one of their number, a New York traffic officer who had insisted on wearing his turban on duty.

Similar episodes in this country have generally concerned the burqa, perhaps most notably when two Muslim women refused to unveil their faces to give evidence in the Auckland District Court. A compromise that accommodated Muslim sensitivity and the needs of justice was found.

It is easy, however, to see that the burqa can raise difficulties in such a courtroom scenario, where how something is said is as important as what is said, or in photo IDs associated with driver licensing or passports.

No such problems attend Sikh turbans, either in practical difficulty or the degree of affront to modern Western values. Barring the recognition of a man who is a volunteer with Age Concern, a town ambassador, community gardener and a member of the group’s visiting service for the elderly sends a dismal message.

The Manurewa Cosmopolitan Club cannot continue to hide behind a rulebook that was drawn up for a much different New Zealand. It does not have to respect, or approve of, the wearing of religious garb in this country.

But it needs to tolerate, and be accepting of, Sikh practice, as well as other religious customs. If religious freedom is to be limited, it must be justified by matters of weighty democratic value and principle, not a maladroit rulebook.

The cosmopolitan club has apologised to Karnail Singh for any embarrassment his banning might have caused. In reality, it is by far the most embarrassed party.

Its dogmatism over its dress rules flies in the face of both its own credo and present-day society. Only a change of those rules will spare it further ridicule.

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