Switzerland joined a host of European countries that confoundingly believes that barring women from wearing certain articles of clothing somehow increases their freedom. The country has narrowly voted in favour of banning face coverings, including burkas and niqabs. The referendum, called for by the ruling Swiss Peoples Party (SVP), an anti-immigrant far-right party, was ‘officially’ about face coverings. The advertising for the campaign, however, left no room for doubt — showing dangerous-looking caricatures of brown-skinned, niqab-clad women with messages such as “stop radical Islam” and “stop extremism”.
We would have no issue with Swiss efforts to fight radicalism or extremism if they made any sense. The problem here is manifold. For one, the niqab and burka, whatever anyone’s personal opinions, are not inherently proof of radicalisation. Equating the two is simply unfair to people who may otherwise be well-integrated into society. Then there is the problem of telling women what to wear. In a society that truly respects women, women should be free to wear as little or as much as they choose. Indeed, this is why several news outlets reported that even Swiss women who disapproved of the niqab were unwilling to vote for banning it.
Thirdly, nobody in Switzerland wears niqabs or burkas. According to research by the University of Lucerne, not a single woman in the country of 8.6 million wears a burka. Meanwhile, only “around twenty to thirty, and a maximum of three dozen women” wear the niqab out of the Muslim population of about 400,000. The referendum movement was clearly just an effort to demonise Muslims and immigrants. Keep in mind that the SVP is also the same party that successfully pushed referendums for the country’s ban on minarets and restricting immigration and asylum.
Late last year, Switzerland also passed an anti-terrorism law allowing authorities to monitor children as young as 12 and place people under house arrest or travel bans even if they face no criminal charges. Similarly, they may be forced to regularly report-in to police stations despite not facing any formal charges. It has been derided by rights groups across Europe and the world, but the Swiss have not relented. We think it is easy to guess who that law targets.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2021.