Opinion

Switzerland bans Burqa and Niqab: sexist, feminist or racist?

In Switzerland, the veil has been a hot topic for a very long time, and on the 7th of March, Swiss voters were asked to vote for or against its ban from all public spaces. 51.2% of Swiss voters accepted the referendum and thus decided in favour of the ban. In doing so, the Swiss people have joined countries such as Austria, Belgium and France, who in recent years have enforced similar decisions. So why did the Swiss people feel like it was now time to ban it from the public sphere?

This constitutional change was initiated by the Egerkingen Committee, an association close to Switzerland’s leading political force, the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), who in 2009 had already succeeded in banning the construction of new minarets on Swiss soil

Their main argument in the run-up to the vote was that the veil was a symbol of women’s oppression and that this had no place in Switzerland. Commendable, right? Most of us would agree that in a developed country such as Switzerland, often praised for its neutrality, and home to many NGOs and international organisations, the oppression of women should be a thing of the past. However, looking at the party’s history, it seems like it’s the first time that they speak up for women’s rights. In 1971, they were against women’s suffrage; ten years later the same party stood against the Gender Equality Act in the Federal Constitution, a position they reiterated up until 1996. More recently the Swiss People’s Party opposed the women’s strike on the 14thof June 2019, which consisted of demonstrations across the country that demanded equal pay, recognition of unpaid care work and governmental representation. So, with these antecedents, has the beloved SVP really suddenly stood up against women’s oppression? Sadly, it seems like the feminist cause has again been used as a curtain behind which hides the party’s well-rooted Islamophobia… it wouldn’t be the first time that this party only preoccupies itself with women’s rights when they can use it against their favourite scapegoat: Islam.

I don’t want to argue naively that all women who wear a niqab or a burqa do so voluntarily, nor that it isn’t a cause of suffering for many of those who are forced to wear them. Yet would banning it actually solve the problem? If a woman is obliged by a member of her family to wear the veil against her will, the problem behind it isn’t the piece of cloth, but whoever forces her to wear it, or indeed forces her to do anything. In such a case, banning the veil will not solve any problems nor end this type of oppression. For women who on the other hand chose to wear a veil for personal reasons, wouldn’t it be a form of oppression to tell women what not to wear? It seemed like the times when women were told what to wear and what not to wear were long gone, but apparently not. This referendum just goes to show that many men and women still believe that they are entitled to judge whether other women cover themselves too little, or in this case too much. 

According to the purposefully provocative campaign advertisement posters that “decorated” Swiss streets in the past few months, banning the burqa was also a matter of combating religious extremism, which according to the Swiss People’s Party has been on the rise and threatening the peace in the country for decades. These are the kind of fear-mongering messages that the Swiss people have been bombarded with in past years, but is it true? Is Switzerland really at the mercy of Islamic extremism, and if so, is banning the veil the best way to fight it? 

Both the government and the parliament did not think so and thus opposed the ban, calling it a “fringe problem”, regarding this debate as a discussion of a non-existent problem. Indeed, studies have shown that about 30 women in Switzerland wear the Burqa or the Niqab, and thus it is very hard to believe that it is a concrete threat, if it is one at all. And even if it were, observations in other European countries where the ban has been in place for longer show that it hasn’t been a solution. Indeed, some suggest that making this a political issue has only achieved the opposite. The French example has shown that despite the ban of the veil, its controversies haven’t ceased, as proved by the fierce “Burkini” debate that dominated French news in the summer of 2016. There is also evidence in France that shows that since 2010, the numbers of women wearing the veil have increased despite the ban, as it now stands as a political symbol of opposition. In addition, countries such as France and Belgium too many tragic events have showed that banning the veil did not amount to a decrease in radical Islam, so there is enough evidence to suggest that this ban is in no way a serious tool to fight extremism.

With all the incoherence that gangrened the pro-ban campaign, it is unsurprising that many (amongst them 49.8% of voters) felt disappointed, sad or even angered in the evening of the 7th of March after the results were announced. Some deplored the damage that such a decision will have on Switzerland’s image. Indeed, important organisations such as the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation have swiftly reacted with an online statement that said it “strongly condemns Swiss ban on facial veils as grossly discriminatory, disproportionate, contrary to ideals of pluralism and tolerance”. It added that “such islamophobic measures are counter productive for societal cohesion”. This is an opinion many across the country shared, as many more saw it as a sexist and Islamophobic reaction of the country’s people. From my perspective, I believe that the only winner of this chaos surrounding a non-existent problem is the Swiss People’s Party who, 11 years after having succeeded in banning the construction of minarets, have reasserted their positions as leaders of the Swiss political landscape. This victory provides them with a momentum that they will undoubtedly benefit from in the country’s next general election. 

Nonetheless, one positive aspect can be drawn out of this political game, if we all take time to reflect about Islamophobia in our society, as it is an increasing problem that touches not only Switzerland. In recent years, across the European continent and beyond, right-wing parties have been increasingly popular, many of which have gained attention through the use of Islamophobic rhetoric, and the situation described in Switzerland surrounding the veil, is just one of the symptoms of a continent that appears to be evermore intolerant. In Germany, the far-right party “Alternative for Germany” (AFD) has entered parliament in 2017 as the third biggest political force with 13.3%. That same year in France, Marine Le Pen, from the right-wing “National Front” was second behind Emmanuel Macron in the presidential elections. Both these parties and some of their respective members have repeatedly take an anti-Islam stand and have used the 2015 migration crisis and terrorist threat to spread fear. Unfortunately, they have succeeded. In Germany, a country which until very recently appeared as a stable political force on the continent, 52% of people involved in a 2020 study from the Bertelmann Stiftung view Islam as a threat for the country. Whilst this is saddening to see, it isn’t all too surprising, and it is a direct consequence of the panic spreading speeches that political extremes have increasingly used to their benefit.