This past Sunday, September 23rd, Swiss voters in the region of St. Gallen joined the Ticino region of Switzerland in their vote to approve the recently proposed “burqa ban.” 67% of voters approved this ban which prohibits its inhabitants from wearing any face-covering garments in public. Under this law, “any person who renders themselves unrecognizable by covering their face in a public space, and thus endangers a public security or social and religious peace will be fined.” The law was originally offered for the national government to vote on, but the Swiss national government deferred the vote on this issue to regional governments, saying that it was not a matter that Switzerland as a nation should deal with. Other nations, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Spain and the Netherlands have recently passed similar laws that prohibit face veils and head coverings.
The implementation of this ban in so many countries has led to a backlash from many members of the Islamic faith saying that the ban is “useless” because few women wear “burqas” or face veils in public in St. Gallen and across Switzerland. According to Al Jazeera, The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland labelled the ban as “Islamophobic” as it targets the culture of the Islamic religion. Some Swiss voters do not view this ban as anti-Muslim though and instead view it as a tool used in the oppression of women. Anian Liebrand, a Swiss campaign leader said in an interview with Reuters that, “facial coverings are a symbol of radical Islam that have nothing to do with religious freedom but are rather an expression of the oppression of women.” Anian is not alone in her support as the majority of Swiss citizens across the nation seem to demonstrate positive views of the law; in a recent study conducted by two Swiss papers, 76% of Swiss voters favoured the ban on face veils, while only 20% opposed it.
The growing popularity of the law may force the issue to be discussed on the national level within the next year as the right-wing Swiss People’s party has gathered the 100,000 signatures necessary to have the subject put to vote. Commenting on the topic of the ban, the Swiss cabinet said in an interview with Reuters that “the government is aware that facial coverings can lead to problems.” This won’t be the first time that anti-Muslim laws have been brought to the stage for the nation to vote on. In 2009, Switzerland banned the building of minarets, which are tall towers with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. In regard to this subject, many Swiss people also favoured the ban and 22 out of 26 cantons or states voted in favour of the ban. As an alternative to imposing yet another anti-Muslim ban nationwide, the Swiss government has discussed the adoption of laws that would deter people from covering their faces when dealing with officials and punish anyone who forced women to wear face veils with up to three years in prison.
But why is this happening? Why would Switzerland, a generally liberal-minded nation, want to put a ban on these cultural practices? These trends can be observed because in recent years, the number of people who identify as Muslim has grown significantly and many Swiss people are concerned. Currently, there are between 400,000 and 450,000 Muslims in Switzerland, making up 5% of the population, which is more than three times as many as existed twenty years ago. The Swiss Peoples Party warned of the “creeping Islamization” of Switzerland and many Swiss people came to fear that “the government, the courts and the politicians do too little to defend western values and basic rights,” according to the Huffington Post.
Although the ban could be viewed as a way to deter the oppression of women and put an end to radical Islam, it can also be a way for Muslim women to practice their faith and can be viewed as an aspect of their culture. The main problem at hand here is not burqas but rather Switzerland’s reaction to Muslim immigrants and their way of dealing with their integration into Swiss society. Instead of banning the building of minarets and the wearing of facial coverings, Switzerland should work to implement laws and programs that help these immigrants feel welcomed in Swiss society. European countries as a whole should also work toward a more accepting view of Muslim immigrants and be more sensitive to cultural practices. Even though France’s ban was upheld in 2014 by the European Court of Human Rights, the number of European countries continuing to implement similar bans continues, and many Muslim immigrants continue to feel oppressed and discriminated against as a result.