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Sikh schoolgirl wins bracelet case

31 July 2008

by Bill Bowder

Vindicated: Sarika Watkins-Singh at the High Court after the ruling PA

Vindicated: Sarika Watkins-Singh at the High Court after the ruling PA

A PUNJABI-WELSH school prefect who was taught in isolation for two months and eventually barred from her school last November for wearing a kara, a Sikh religious symbol, has won her case in the High Court that she was indirectly discriminated against religiously and racially.

The girl, Sarika Watkins-Singh, aged 14, whose Welsh father died when she was five, was told by her school in South Wales, Aberdare Girls’ School, that wearing a kara, a slim steel bracelet, was against the school’s no-jewellery policy. It said it was like wearing a Welsh flag.

But in his judgment on Tuesday, Mr Justice Silber said that the school had indirectly discriminated against her racially under the Race Relations Act (RRA) and religiously under the Equality Act (EA). He accepted the girl’s evidence that, for her, the kara was essential to her religious identity, and that she was disadvantaged in not being allowed to wear it. She had not been “rebellious” in wanting to wear it, he ruled; nor could wearing it be compared to wearing a flag, because that had no religious significance.

He said that his judgment was “fact-sensitive”, however, and did not mean that the kara could therefore be worn in other schools. Neither did it give permission to pupils to wear jewellery.

According to the evidence, the kara, a narrow steel band worn on the right wrist, was a sign that a Sikh was “handcuffed by it to God”, the judge said. It was not to be regarded as a piece of jewellery, but was something to which she attached “exceptional importance”.

“It is in her mind ‘one of the defining physical symbols of being a Sikh’, as ‘it signifies the eternity of life and the bond between a Sikh and his or her guru.’” She wore it on the wrist “‘as a constant reminder to do good with the hands’”. It was “a religious symbol ‘which both demonstrates and reminds me of my faith’”, she had said. She had chosen her Sikh religious faith.

It was not like wearing the Muslim niqab and the hijab, which were “many times more visible to the observer than the very small and very unostentatious kara”. “In consequence, many of the arguments which were accepted by the courts as justifying prohibiting the wearing at school of the niqab and the hijab do not apply to the kara.”

The school said afterwards that Miss Watkins-Singh was welcome to return as a pupil. She is now at Mountain Ash Comprehensive School, where she has been allowed to wear her kara.

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