Opinion polls suggest a majority of Swiss will back the face veil ban, while campaigners argue that it’s about Islamophobia and controlling women in the public sphere.
Switzerland will vote on March 7 in a public referendum on whether to ban the niqab, burqa and other full-face coverings which critics slam as “deeply racist and sexist” for singling out and targetting Muslim women.
“This is clearly an attack against the Muslim community in Switzerland. What is aimed here is to stigmatise and marginalise Muslims even more,” says Ines Al Shikh, member of Les Foulards Violets, a Muslim feminist collective in Switzerland which is at the forefront of campaigns against the ban.
“We don’t want to give an Islamophobic party the possibility of introducing an article banning women from choosing to wear whatever they want to wear into the constitution. We believe this is paternalistic, sexist, and racist to tell women how they should dress in public,” she tells TRT World.
Meriam Mastour, membre du collectif Les Foulards Violets et de la Grève des femmes (@FeministeGreve), partage sa perspective sur l’initiative anti-#burqa. ✏️A lire 👉🏾https://t.co/rayuxM6iMf ou 🎧 (ré)écouter sur Spotify 👉🏾https://t.co/xDSpRJOcbE. pic.twitter.com/AlceSS58a4— Amnesty Suisse (@Amnesty_Suisse) February 28, 2021
The niqab, a face covering, is a form of religious practice observed by some Muslim women. According to current estimates, the total number of niqab wearers in Switzerland ranges from less than 30 to 130 individuals. Moreover, most niqab wearers are tourists who come to the Alpine country for vacation, which prompted the Swiss government in January to urge voters to reject the ban.
“A nationwide ban would undermine the sovereignty of the cantons, damage tourism and be unhelpful for certain groups of women,” the government said in a statement.
The “certain groups of women” are Muslims.
While the government opposes it on economic grounds, campaigners argue that it’s more about Islamophobia and controlling women in the public sphere.
According to 20 Minuten and Tamedia, media companies that conduct regular polls on the topics of national referenda, those who support the ban are still leading, but the lead is getting smaller.
Based on the latest polls conducted last week, those rejecting the ban on the veil have grown by 6 percentage points since the previous poll on February 10.
“We don't know if we can expect the law to be refused or accepted by the people, but what we see now is that our campaign has made a huge difference in that the civil society in Switzerland has really moved in our way," says Shikh. "And the campaign has been a success until now.”
However, 59 percent of those eligible to vote still support the ban, according to the poll.
“Despite the falling support, the adoption of the initiative remains likely, according to the forecasting model, which includes historical data and previous polls,” it says.
This is echoed by the Swiss Public Broadcasting Corporation, which suggests the ban may go through easily without a “political upset”, “as anti-Islamic sentiment is no longer taboo”.
Switzerland would not be the first European country to crack down on the religious freedoms and dress of Muslim women: France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Latvia, and Bulgaria have all passed legislations targeting Muslim women’s dress in particular.
“Just the first step”
Campaigners fear that the passage of the ban will have reverberating consequences for the Muslim community. Shikh and others believe that is an intermediary step toward banning the hijab, or Islamic headscarf altogether.
“These guys [the SVP] have been saying that this is just the first step. I think there’s going to be an increase of legislation or attempt to get legislation through that is targeting Muslims [if the ban goes through],” explains an anti-ban organiser in Switzerland who wanted only to be identified as K. Ahmed due to fears about repercussions.
“Don’t forget that this the second piece of legislation that they want to get into the constitution of the country targeting the Muslim community.”
The niqab ban was initiated by the Egerkingen Committee, formed in 2007 by a group of extreme right-wing politicians from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the leading far-right party of Switzerland.
The Egerkingen Committee spearheaded the controversial campaign to ban minarets over a decade ago, which passed with over a 57 percent vote among those who voted in 2009. The SVP called for a ban of the niqab soon thereafter.
In 2016, the Egerkingen Committee started collecting signatures as part of a face-veil ban campaign. Switzerland’s system of direct democracy allows for referenda for proposed changes to the constitution if supporters collect more than 100,000 signatures.
According to Egerkingen, the ban is will help prevent "radicalisation" and "defend the dignity of women."
“There are so many things that feminists in Switzerland have been asking for since day one. We are campaigning for fair retirement grants, filling the wage gap for proper penalisation of rape and sexual violence,” Shikh says. “We are fighting for so many things as feminists, and the one party who is always against anything that feminists do is this nationalist party who claims they want to do something to liberate Muslim women. This is hypocrisy.”
The ban was rejected by the government in 2018, and by the national parliament in 2020. However, a ban on face coverings was instituted in the cantons of Ticino and St. Gallen, where the ban came into effect in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
Data from Ticino within the first two years of the ban showed that it was masked football fans that were hit the hardest by the ban.
But for campaigners, it’s not about the numbers, but about the future of the rights and freedoms of Muslims. They are also pointing out the hypocritical nature of such bans under the guise of “public security” and “terrorism” as wearing masks is compulsory in Switzerland as protective measures against the coronavirus pandemic,
“This hatred against Muslims is going to grow bigger and bigger in the future, but what makes a huge difference is that now, as Swiss Muslims...we know our rights and we want to defend our rights. We want to be heard,” explains Shikh.
“We believe in democracy and the Swiss political system, and we think that we can build a better future for Muslims in Switzerland if we take the time and energy to educate civil society and political parties about the real needs and lives of Muslims in Switzerland, and especially Muslim women.”