OPINION: Switzerland’s ‘burka ban’ curtails rather than strengthens individual freedoms

Switzerland's 'burka ban' referendum represents a cultural and social paranoia of Islam in Swiss society, writes The Local Switzerland's guest contributor Sara Arab.

(Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)
(Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

I was astonished to read about the Swiss referendum on the proposed ban on full facial coverings in public places, clearly directed towards the Islamic niqab (a piece of clothing that covers the face except for eyes) or burqa (a full-body veil that covers the body and face) donned by Muslim women.

I must express that in my three and a half years as a Swiss resident, I have never faced overt stigmatisation for being an observant Muslim, though I have overlooked certain covert forms of bigotry in my glazed view of a 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 the Swiss society like in most other Western European countries, the difference being that it is not talked about as much here.

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’ the Muslims and institutionalising this othering by making laws such as banning the construction of minarets (2009) or proposing a referendum on concealment of the face (2021).

Detrimental to sovereignty, tourism and women
It must be established at the outset that the Swiss Government recommends that the 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 language hardly supports the freedom of choice of women or barely hints to the implications of being disallowed of concealing faces in public places.

In 2019, Quebec’s education minister Jean-François Roberge drew flak for admitting that if the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate and an advocate for girls’ right to education, Malala Yousafzai were to teach in Quebec she would not be able to use 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 outward appearance or mode of dress or religious affiliation should not be the criteria for deciding what one should or should not do, especially if, in the very words of Roberge, you belong to ‘open and tolerant countries’.

I find it a very interesting (sometimes amusing) exercise to study the far-right Swiss People’s Party’s (SVP/UDC) reasons for justifying the ban.

I also try to understand the implications of this rationalisation 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 further giving out a patronising message that Muslim women are hardly capable of deciding what is right for them and that Muslim men suppress and exploit women in the wake of religious practices.

One must reflect what, this ban designed to safeguard their freedom of choice (which it curtails) argued on the ground of so-called western liberal notions of democracy, equality and freedom, actually means for freedom of religion and 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-a superficial reasoning for promoting an anti-Islamic initiative.

While concealed anti-social elements pose a threat and there are cantonal disguise bans subject to specific times, places 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 naturalisation 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.

Face coverings during a pandemic

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 – the irrationality of these arguments is quite visible in the text itself but what needs to be emphasised is the casual pairing of religion with criminal motives.

A major argument that was popularised at the time of the referendum on the construction of minarets was the safeguarding of Swiss culture and values and identity.

It is hard to accept how a meagre 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 use a niqab or burqa.

Swiss Muslims are well integrated

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, report frequent or very frequent contact with non-Muslims in their leisure time and 98% feel 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 realistic.

Using the emerging and globally popular narrative of ‘fear’, these initiatives promote a discourse that Islam and its followers are a threat that needs to be tamed or controlled before it becomes a challenge as in the other European countries.

In Switzerland, instances of prejudice against Muslims in terms of education, employment and accommodation are not unheard of and national bans of this kind create an aura of discrimination and religious intolerance making the country ‘unwelcoming’ for Muslims and ‘unsafe’ in the long run.

The question we must ask at this point is where does the culture of bans directed towards the Islamic community stop?

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 has already been a subject of debate.

According to the Religion Monitor, Muslims in Switzerland are less likely to experience discrimination but in my view, legalising the ban on religious symbols like the burqa can be detrimental to the progress in assimilation and multiculturalism as it creates fear and suspicion in the minds of Muslims and Non-Muslims alike.

It is not my intention to delve into the religious or legal aspects of veiling, neither do I wish to intensify or diminish the importance of veiling, but 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 institutionalising this differentiation is no means of ensuring sound ‘integration’ but incentivising separatism and discrimination.

Of course, one cannot generalise a Swiss viewpoint based on the campaign of the far-right but the outcome of the impending referendum will sure serve as a clear indicator of which way the wind is blowing and how far along are people moving with the winds.

Though most polls markedly indicate that the ban will most likely be voted positively but I still hope that the referendum is rejected and there is one less dent in the image of a Swiss utopia that I hold dear.

Sara Shadab Arab is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the Department of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Apart from a Master in International History at the Graduate Institute, Sara also holds a Master in History and Bachelor in Education, with professional experience as an educator in Social Sciences for a decade in Mumbai, India where she originally comes from. 

The views expressed in this opinion column are the author’s own and may not be endorsed by The Local Switzerland. 

Member comments

  1. When my wife and daughter can go to an Islamic county without a head covering you can come to mine without a burqa? Fair? Because, it’s NOT about racism. It’s about fairness.

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‘An impossible dream’: Will we come to dread Swiss summer in future?

Switzerland's mild summers are not just idyllic and peaceful, but they're crucial for the country's biodiversity. Clare O'Dea asks whether we will soon speak of the perfect Swiss summer's day in the past tense.

‘An impossible dream’: Will we come to dread Swiss summer in future?

Switzerland is famous for its alpine views but I don’t need a dramatic backdrop for my perfect summer’s day. I just need a quiet place by the water and bearable temperatures. As the second heatwave of summer 2022 hits Europe, it seems inevitable we will soon come to dread this season.

I fear the perfect Swiss summer’s day will soon be spoken about only in the past tense. Before I forget, here is mine. I go to the river within walking distance of my home. There is no entrance gate, no charge and no snack bar, just a stretch of cool, clear water, mostly knee deep, with some pools big enough to swim in. 

EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

Nature is a greater presence here than humans. There is plenty of shade. Sitting in a dappled area, I am treated to the sight of a common merganser leading her seven half-grown chicks around from pool to pool. My children are lucky that they can share in this idyllic experience. Will their children have the same good fortune?

Coming from one of the Continent’s cooler climates, I am perfectly happy when it’s 20 degrees in summer. Twenty-five I can live with. But when it’s 30 or 35, I want to escape. The living creatures dependent on the river feel the same. And it’s not just about air temperature. Swiss rivers are also heating up with worrying consequences for biodiversity. 

We hear a lot about the effect of the climate crisis on Swiss glaciers, which are in steady decline and could disappear by the end of the century, causing an array of chain reactions, some foreseeable, some not. 

But what about the rivers? They are equally under threat both in terms of temperature and water quantity. They also rely to a greater or lesser extent on the glaciers for their flow. 

A recent EPFL study led by Adrien Michel found that by the year 2100, average river discharge could decrease by 30 per cent in the mountains and 25 per cent in Swiss lowland areas. 

READ MORE: How 2022 compares to Europe’s hottest summers

That is the most extreme scenario, in which we take no action to curb global warming, and it would also see summer water temperatures increase by 4°C in the Swiss Plateau. The combined effect of warming and water scarcity will have a severe and rapid impact on ecosystems. 

In this high-emission scenario, glaciers would all but disappear. Similar predictions were made the by the government’s Hydro-CH2018 hydrological scenarios ( last year.

On the other hand, if CO2 emissions are reduced in line with the Paris Climate Accord, “both Alpine and Swiss Plateau rivers would only be 1°C warmer at the end of the century, and discharge would decrease by 5% in mountain catchments while remaining nearly unchanged in the lowlands”.

Tourist wearing protective face masks stand with the Matterhorn mountain in background at the Gornergrat rocky ridge, 3'089 meter hight, above the resort of Zermatt as heatwave sweeps across Europe on August 8, 2020. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Heatwaves are now a common occurrence in Switzerland. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The goal of the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

We know from the science that a deep transformation is needed to achieve this goal. Transformation must start early and result in major emission reductions even before 2030. That’s just around the corner, yet there is little sign of this happening. 

READ MORE: How to keep your cool during Switzerland’s heatwave

The latest interim report from UN Climate Change, the UN entity tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change, does not inspire confidence. The results so far have been paltry and the need to increase ambition, to use the UN formulation, is “high and urgent”. 

Adrien Michel, with his focus on rivers, gives an indication of what level of ambition is needed. “Our study of river discharge and temperatures shows, for one, that the impact of global warming is inevitable, and that we must begin making changes today, through energy and agriculture policies, for example. It’s also showing us that we can still save a part of our environmental heritage – but only if we act swiftly and aggressively.”

Do you see anything swift and aggressive coming out of the Swiss political system? I don’t. Nor do I see my own behaviour changing enough. Part of the problem is that the enormity of the issue breeds denial or apathy. Responsibility is spread too thin, a version of the bystander effect. 

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland’s largest cities are combating the heat

In Andri Snær Magnason’s climate crisis book On Time and Water he talks about how the impact of our lifestyle, the fire we are stoking, is invisible and that we therefore do not perceive our everyday disasters. 

“It would be instructive if everyone had to store the oil barrels they use, if we saw the world that way. Our family’s trips abroad over the last ten years amount to a hundred barrels of oil.”

More often than not, I don’t walk to my precious river, I drive. In fact I drive short trips almost every day that could be done on foot, by bicycle or by public transport. Our family will also burn through some barrels later this summer on unnecessary flights.

As I receive another heatwave warning on my phone, and plan to avoid going outdoors for another day, I wonder how long it will be before these unwelcome temperatures become the norm and the perfect summer’s day spent by a cool, clear river will be an impossible dream.