Source: The OWP
Switzerland is set to pass a new ban on face coverings following a 51.2% 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% 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.’