THOUSANDS of Sikhs protested outside the UK Houses of Parliament, in London, yesterday, against the “degrading treatment and harassment” they have experienced in Europe since airport security was stepped up after 9/11.
The protesters mostly praised security measures in UK airports but strongly condemned those in continental Europe, where Sikhs can be forced to remove their turbans (dastar) in public even after passing through scanners successfully.
There are reports of airport staff touching Sikh travellers’ sacred headwear and making them place the dastar’s cloth in security trays alongside their shoes, which protesters called offensive and said made them reluctant to travel abroad.
The Metropolitan police estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 Sikh men, women and children attended the peaceful demonstration from 12 noon to 5pm. People came to send a message to the British government and to lend support, by live video-link, to simultaneous protests in Rome, Madrid and Brussels by Italian, Spanish, German, Belgian and Dutch Sikhs.
A spokesman, addressing the crowd, urged the British government to put pressure on European countries whose airport security checks disrespected Sikhs.
“We would like the government to send a team of people to Europe who know Sikhs and respect our clothes. We are not against security at airports, but we do want to carry that out with dignity and honour,” he said.
The protestors want security protocol in every European airport to fall in line with guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Namely, if a Sikh wearing the dastar sets off the metal detector in a security gate or hand-held scanner they should be taken to a private room where the turban can be swab-tested by the Sikh himself. Or, if objects or substance residues are detected in the turban, it can be removed with dignity.
Another man said he was thankful that the UK had adopted respectful security checks and added: “It’s not like a hat that can simply be taken off. It’s our crown. I’m here because I feel the pain that out brothers and sisters feel in other European countries.”
The crowd, the majority wearing orange, white or blue turbans or headscarves, listened to speakers take their turn on a central stage. Some people held placards and some waved George Cross flags to raise awareness of the sacrifice made by Sikh soldiers during the First and Second World Wars. More than 83,000 Sikh soldiers died during the wars and 109,045 were wounded – all wearing their turbans on duty.
One demonstrator urged the British government to remember this contribution and pressurise its European partners to improve their stance on security, saying:
“The British have a friendship with the European countries which we hope they will use to remind them of our honour and dignity.”
The event was organised by the Sikh Channel, a registered charity and TV station broadcast by Sky.
Representatives of the Sikh Council UK will fly to Rome today. They will meet the Italian government to discuss the adoption of a UK-style airport security system and enshrining respect for the dastar in EU law.
In June, the Italian government accepted the turban as a religious symbol of religion instead of an accessory and ended the compulsory removal of the headwear during security check at Italian airports.