What's that on your head, a political statement?

…the Sikh owner of a Subway sandwich shop in Edmonton alleged that a representative of the company had banned him from wearing a "diaper on his head."…Hardip Singh Brah had been operating Subway franchises in the Edmonton area since 1991. Three years ago, a Subway regional representative dropped by to ensure that Mr. Brah was complying with company standards and regulations and allegedly said that his turban did not look "professional."

The Globe and Mail
December 13, 2003

What's that on your head, a political statement?
Ken Wiwa

In the dispatches this week, there was yet another outbreak of debate over secular values, cultural relativism and tolerance. For Canadians, the latest bone of contention was tossed into the ring when the Sikh owner of a Subway sandwich shop in Edmonton alleged that a representative of the company had banned him from wearing a "diaper on his head."

France, a nation with a growing Muslim population, is also wrestling with questions of cultural diversity and Western secular values: A committee of government-appointed experts recommended this week that the country's schools and other state institutions ban hijabs — Muslim head scarves — along with Jewish yarmulkes, oversized crucifixes and indeed all "conspicuous" religious symbols.

The news from France echoes a case earlier this year in Quebec, of Irene Waseem, who was expelled from Collège Charlemagne, a private Catholic girls' school she had attended since 1999 — for wearing the hijab on her first day back at the school.

Nothing whets the media appetite like the whiff of cultural or religious bigotry, especially when it comes to such basic, down-to-earth issues as what people wear, or what they eat.

From what I gather, Hardip Singh Brah had been operating Subway franchises in the Edmonton area since 1991. Three years ago, a Subway regional representative dropped by to ensure that Mr. Brah was complying with company standards and regulations and allegedly said that his turban did not look "professional."

One can understand a transnational company's desire to impose universal practices and standards. In the old days, it was just an efficiency thing, so that all the supply chains could mass produce and distribute the required ingredients more cheaply. But in this day and age, brand and image and consistency are paramount. Corporations that don't enforce working practices can be vulnerable to accusations of double standards. Still, the company's rep obviously crossed a fault line between business and culture.

The incident triggers obvious questions: Is Subway's dress code applied as strictly as The Turbanator would apply it, in all the company's 2001 outlets in 71 countries? How about the ones in the Middle East? The answer is surely no, which makes the overzealous rep the kind of petty bureaucrat who fails to understand that even the globalized product must be sensitive to local custom. One can only imagine that the fallout of this case could not only alienate many of the South Asians who eat and dine out in Edmonton but may have already reverberated all the way back to HQ by drawing attention to Subway's multicultural bona fides.

No doubt someone out there is already casting Subway as the West's latest secret weapon in the clash of civilizations, joining Coca-Cola and the Big Mac Mill in a jihad to spread the gospel and impose Western eating habits and dress codes on brown-skinned savages.

Mind you, the sub has pretty poor credentials as a weapon of cultural crusade. The man credited as inventing this fast-food form — John Montague, the fourth Earl of Sandwich — was once described as "completely depraved, as mischievous as a monkey and as lecherous as a goat," a gambling fanatic who invented the sandwich so that he could eat and gamble at the same time. I can almost imagine what this earl would have made of Subway's fastidiousness about dress codes.

Speaking of clothes, the French committee's jihad against the hijab is, as far as I can tell, motivated by a determination to defrock religious symbolism and maintain the secular tenor of state institutions and public schools. There's some irony here: A nation founded on the liberal principles of tolerance and fraternité is now having to impose a secular uniform to maintain that space.

I in my liberalism want to believe in the need to clear a space where political and religious affiliations can be safely negotiated; I want to believe that making our schools free of religious or political symbols is desirable. But I'm also wary that insisting on dress codes encourages the kind of mindset that can lead to edicts against the wearing of turbans in Subways.

So does the separation of church and state inevitably marginalize religion and insult congregations?

I'm pretty sure that over the course of history, many of the clothing items we now take for granted were loaded with all kinds of meanings, and that is how they came to represent vested interests.

In an ideal world, allowing the hijab in schools would reinforce the message that Muslims are not marginalized, but accepted as part of a diverse culture. How boring it would be if everyone wore the same clothes and ate the same food.

moc.xepip.laid|awiw#moc.xepip.laid|awiw


Brought to you by WikidFranchise.org

Risks: Freedom of religion, Human rights violations, Race, Canada, France, 20031213 What’s that

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License