Freedom Demands That We Ask The Right Questions
To the surprise of most foreigners living in Switzerland, including myself, Swiss citizens will be called to say whether the use of burqa and niqab should be prohibited. Promoting the referendum is Egerkinger Komitee, a group which includes politicians of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (UDC), with other UDC members having distanced himself from the initiative.
While the language people will vote on mandates that “no one shall cover their face in public” (with some exceptions for religious sites, health reasons, and special weather conditions) without actually mentioning the burqa or the niqab, Egerkinger has explicitly positioned the initiative as “resistance against the claims to power of political Islam in Switzerland”, and has wallpapered Swiss streets with billboards featuring an angry-eyed Muslim woman with a black niqab. The same group brought another initiative to ban the construction of new minarets twelve years ago, which passed with a 57,5% share of yes.
Behind a seemingly easy formulation – namely, “should the burqa be banned or not” – the question hides a tremendously important issue of identity and freedom, and it is on that basis that Swiss citizens should exercise their vote.
Different points of view
Like other countries, Switzerland is becoming more diverse. 5 percent of the population is Muslim. A survey conducted in 2018 showed that mistrust of Islam is high. Islamophobia has been a trend since 9/11 and has found its way in most sovereigntist political narratives, many of which have managed to gain large slices of popular consensus in the US and in Europe.
The opponents of the Swiss referendum argue that niqab-wearing women are being judged more negatively simply because of a perceived association to the extremist side of Islam.
But there is another aspect that interests me more. It is the view of the niqab/burqa as a symbol of oppression. I am not foreign to this perception. I have travelled the Middle East extensively and felt privileged coming from a culture that does not expect me to dissimulate the elements of my femininity in the name of avoiding being a temptation for men. Whilst I am generally critical of the role assigned to women in all monotheistic religions, Islam presents a set of practical rules for women also prescribing how they should appear externally making it particularly difficult to be reconciled with the idea that women could truly aspire to enjoy an equal place on this planet. There is nothing strange in admitting that seeing a woman walking in the street covered from head to toe does not exactly align with my and others' idea of freely expressing identity. While the Quran prescribes men “not to stare at women”, it puts on the woman the burden to cover “her adornments”.
But this is just one point of view.
Muslim women’s rights attorney Qasim Rashid writes: “Here’s another novel idea for those seeking to understand how hijab applies to Muslim women. Ask them”. Muslim women organizations around the world have strongly voiced their right to follow the prescriptions of their religion. They say that every Muslim woman can interpret whether the prescription to “cover” entails a simple veil or more, and how they wish to express their deference. They have also explained that covering their face can be a way to feel safer.
The point of view of women choosing to wear face coverings becomes even clearer when it is these very women opposing that it be mandatory. In 2019 for instance, authorities in two Pakistani cities issued a directive to all government educational institutions mandating female students to wear an abaya (a garment covering a woman's body from head to toe), causing a stir in the public debate which forced the withdrawal of the order.
When freedom may resemble its opposite
Switzerland is a small country with many foreigners which enjoys a significant adherence to the law, due to efficient administrative systems and law enforcement mechanisms and corps. Freedom is by far the most important value recognized in the constitution. There is a legitimate expectation from citizens and many foreigners alike that Swiss values and cultures be preserved against behaviors that are seen as incompatible. They (and I) - who grew up in Western cultures - would all prefer that Muslim women take off their headscarves once they arrive on Swiss soil and regard it as an act of ‘liberation’. But the reality is that many Muslim women made the decision to cover their faces. Thus, how could depriving them of the right to wear the veil be any better than forcing it upon them? Since burqas and niqabs are pieces of clothing, asking that they not be used is not very different from expecting women to wear high heels and sexy garments. Women’s battles against stereotypes and objectification cannot credibly make an exception on the ground that it is a religion-driven choice, and even worse, a Muslim choice – back in time covering heads has long been a common habit for many Christian women.
Additionally, if a woman is, in fact, being oppressed into covering up, then enforcing a stance which makes it difficult or impossible for her to move about in public cuts off her chances of finding any support outside the home. As a British politician said, "if someone is in a situation where their choice has been taken away, actually the best recourse for women like that is that they be able to integrate more, have more exposure, more connections, so they can be reached and helped. Otherwise, you're forcing them to have less interaction, and isolating them forever." The Swiss government has recognized this concern when recommending to reject the referendum saying banning face coverings “may be unhelpful for certain groups of women”, and has counter-proposed a law that would mandate citizens to show their faces whenever necessary to guarantee identification.
It is understandable for the Swiss to want those with migrant backgrounds to “integrate” with Swiss culture and values. Yet, how prohibiting the construction of news mosques or to use a religious garment squares with the right to freely profess one’s faith which is an important aspect of integration is far from obvious. It would be tempting to vote “yes” to the referendum with the idea that we are sending a strong message to promote the dignity and equality of women. But would that be the right thing to do?