Switzerland is set to pass a new ban on face coverings following a 51.2 per cent majority on Sunday’s referendum, joining Germany, Austria, Denmark, France, Belgium, Latvia and Bulgaria. The ban was championed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a right-wing populist political party whose alleged aim was to ‘stop extremism.’ Although the ban officially applies to all facial coverings, it primarily targets Muslim women.
According to the University of Lucerne, approximately 30 women in Switzerland wear the niqab and fewer still wear the burqa. The effect of the ban is thus likely to be small in practice, leading many to argue that it amounts to political symbolism. While explicit political debates on the issue typically centre around the burqa as a symbol of women’s oppression, the burqa may also be perceived as symbolic of illiberality more generally. The SVP, for example, associates the burqa and niqab only with extremist Islamic groups. Fear of terrorism and the rise of islamophobia in Switzerland may thus be motivating factors. Recent research is consonant with this view; according to Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Religion Monitor, in 2019, 50 per cent of respondents in Germany and Switzerland perceived Islam as a threat.
The burqa and niqab differentiate Muslim women in public spaces as members of a particular racial and religious group. The view that facial coverings are representative of the subjection of Muslim women conflicts with Swiss values on women’s liberation. Insofar as the burqa is seen as a symbol of oppression, it may be co-opted into political discourse characterizing Muslims more generally as a social threat. For example, before Germany banned facial coverings, Alexander Kudascheff published an open letter arguing that the burqa debate is about how to deal with the ‘enemies of an open society.’
At the same time, Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa may be dehumanized by campaigns that seek to ‘ban the burqa’ because they are seen as unable to emancipate themselves without Western intervention. The dichotomization of freedom of religion and gender equality may thus be a false one, failing to recognize women’s freedom of choice in their own religious expression. The new ban could thus increase the psychological and cultural distance between Switzerland’s Islamic minority and its Western majority, reinforcing existing islamophobia. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have re-centred the importance of Muslim women’s autonomy in the debate, with Head of Women’s Rights Cyrielle Huguenot arguing ‘If we really want to respect women’s rights, we should let women decide what they want to wear.”
The ban may also violate a number of international human rights. Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights forbids “discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.” Since the ban primarily targets Muslim women, it may be regarded as discriminatory on the basis of religion. Likewise, the right to religious freedom may be thwarted. Article 9 holds that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Insofar as wearing the burqa can be seen as a ‘public manifestation of religion,’ it is a human right.
Switzerland’s new ban thus represents the latest development in a worrying trend across Europe of banning facial coverings. The bans marginalize Muslim groups on the basis that their religious practices pose a threat to liberty, whilst simultaneously reducing the actual freedoms of Muslim persons. The United Nations ruled in 2018 that the French burqa ban disproportionately discriminates against Muslim women, violates their right to religious expression, and may oppress rather than liberate them by “confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalizing them,” the UN committee stated. The UN strongly recommended that the French government review the law and compensate women adversely affected by the ban. Three years later, another European country is passing a similar law and the French burqa ban remains intact. Greater pressure on European countries to uphold the human right to religious expression is needed.