By Sara Shadab Arab
To be honest, I was astonished to read about the Swiss referendum to ban full facial coverings in public places, clearly directed towards the Islamic niqab (a piece of clothing that covers the face except for eyes) and the burqa (a full-body veil that covers the body and face). I must express that in my three and a half years as a Swiss resident, I have never faced overt stigmatization for being an observant Muslim, though I have overlooked certain covert forms of bigotry in my glazed view of Swiss utopia. As I started reading more about the impending referendum on March 7, I was convinced that the proliferation of a cultural and social paranoia of Islam by the far-right is taking hold in Swiss society like in most other Western European countries, the difference being that in Switzerland it isn’t talked about as much. Though this article is focused on the issue of the burqa ban referendum, it speaks to a deeper and much more dangerous issue of ‘othering’ Muslims and institutionalizing this othering by enacting islamophobic policies, such as banning the construction of minarets (2009) or proposing a referendum on concealment of the face (2021).
It must be established at the outset that the Swiss Government recommends that voters reject this proposal, citing the small proportion of women wearing burqas and the ban as a challenge to the sovereignty of the cantons, detrimental to tourism and unhelpful for certain groups of women. The last rationale puts the targeted women as a subject of concern, though the vagueness of this language hardly supports women’s freedom of choice and barely hints at the implications of being forbidden from concealing your face in public places. In 2019, Quebec’s education minister Jean-François Roberge drew flak for admitting that if Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate and an advocate for girls’ right to education, were to teach in Quebec she would not be able to wear her religious head covering. I am not saying that Malala should be given special treatment because she is Malala. I am saying the exact opposite― that every woman (or man) should be treated according to her merit, and that outward appearance,mode of dress, and religious affiliation should not be the criteria for deciding what one should or should not do, especially if, in the words of Roberge, you belong to ‘open and tolerant countries’.
I find it a very interesting (sometimes amusing) exercise to study the reasons given by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) for justifying the ban. I also try to understand the implications of this rationalization while aiming to arrive at its implicit objectives and far-reaching consequences. Firstly, the campaign insists on gender equality and the protection of the freedom of Muslim women by liberating them from what they call a symbol of fanaticism and oppression- the burqa. So, this premise assumes that every woman covering her face is forced to do so, while giving out a patronizing message that Muslim women are hardly capable of deciding what is right for them and that Muslim men suppress and exploit women under the guise of religious practices. This ban is supposedly designed to safeguard women’s freedom of choice (which it curtails), and it is derived from so-called western liberal notions of democracy, gender equality, and freedom (which it violates). One must reflect on what this ban would actually mean for the freedom of religion, expression, and movement of the women in question.
Other significant grounds of appeal for the ban revolve around the question of Swiss national security and protection against terrorist attacks and masked chaos. The notion that burqas are abused as a disguise to facilitate terrorist attacks and assaults is as absurd as it gets一 a superficial reasoning used to promote an anti-Islamic initiative. While concealed anti-social elements pose a threat and there are cantonal disguise bans subject to specific time, place and events such as demonstrations, it is unsettling to see how burqa or niqab is highlighted as the core of the campaign visually and argumentatively. The same was done in the ban of minarets’ propaganda poster showing a woman wearing a burqa in front of minarets (2009) and the naturalization bill debate (2017), though these campaigns had nothing to do with veiling, making veiled women a scapegoat and an ‘easy’ target, reinforcing a visual symbolism of a burqa-clad woman as a threat and an enemy, over the years.
One of the most outlandish arguments of the SVP is the idea that a religious veil cannot be compared to a face mask worn out of compulsions of a pandemic as the latter has a positive impact on the population or defends public interest. The plot thickens as it further presumes that concealment of face for religious or criminal reasons is not motivated by individual freedoms一 the irrationality of these arguments is quite visible in the text itself, but what needs to be emphasized is the casual pairing of religion with criminal motives.
A major argument that was popularized during the referendum on minarets was the preservation of Swiss culture, values, and identity. It is hard to understand how a meager minority of 5.2 % of the population poses a threat to Switzerland’s culture and identity in the form of minarets or dress code. It is even more difficult to comprehend how veiled women can be the epitome of Muslims not able to fit in or integrate with Swiss beliefs, as there are very few residents in Switzerland who wear a niqab or burqa. Furthermore, the Religion Monitor survey (2017) by the Germany-based Bertelsmann Foundation found that the immigrated Muslims and their (grand)children have made great progress towards integration in the form of education, employment and other parameters despite obstacles in Switzerland and four other countries that were studied. In Switzerland, 34% reported the national language as their first language, 87% of those surveyed reported frequent or very frequent contact with non-Muslims in their leisure time and 98% felt connected to Switzerland. In such a scenario, it will not be incorrect to say that the demand for a ban on these religious identifiers is more symbolic than practical. By capitalizing on the emergent and globally popular narrative of ‘fear’, these Swiss initiatives promote an idea that Islam and its followers are a threat that needs to be tamed or controlled before it becomes a challenge.
In Switzerland, instances of prejudice against Muslims in terms of education, employment and accommodation are not unheard of 1 and national bans of this kind create an aura of discrimination and religious intolerance that makes the country ‘unwelcoming’ and ‘unsafe’ in the long run for Muslims. The question we must ask at this point is where the culture of bans directed towards the Islamic community stops. In Switzerland, the slaughtering of animals according to Islamic rituals is already banned from the end of the nineteenth century, followed by the ban on construction of minarets since 2009 and now the upcoming referendum of niqab and burqa. The wearing of headscarves in schools and other public places and a ban on Muslim prayers in public has already been a subject of debate.
According to the Religion Monitor mentioned above, Muslims in Switzerland are less likely to experience discrimination caompared to other European countries such as Germany, France, Austria and the UK. In my view, passing the ban on religious symbols like the burqa can be detrimental to progress in assimilation and multiculturalism as it creates fear and suspicion in the minds of Muslims and Non-Muslims alike. It is neither my intention to delve into the religious or legal aspects of veiling, nor do I wish to intensify or diminish the importance of veiling. I only want to raise the issue of the free will of a community and its individuals. I strongly believe that the sequestration of the community on grounds of religious symbols or practices (and the institutionalization of this differentiation) is no means of ensuring sound ‘integration.’ Rather, it incentivizes separatism and discrimination. Of course, one cannot generalize a Swiss viewpoint based on the campaign of the far-right party, but the outcome of the impending referendum will surely serve as a clear indication of which way the wind is blowing and how far along people are moving with these winds. Most polls markedly indicate that the ban will be passed, but I still hope that the referendum will be rejected and there is one less dent in my image of Swiss utopia that I hold dear.
1 Oliver Wackerlig: Islamophobia in Switzerland: National Report 2019, in: Enes Bayraklı & Farid Hafez, European Islamophobia Report 2019, Istanbul, SETA, 2020.
About the author: Sara Shadab Arab is pursuing a Ph.D. in International History at the Graduate Institute. Before completing a Master in International History at the Graduate Institute, Sara was an educator in Mumbai, India. (Instagram: @saraarab.loveandletlive)
Photo Sources: All the photos were taken by the author, Sara Shadab Arab.