• The Law Gazette

Suppressing the Rights of Muslim Community Women on Burqa Ban: Case of Switzerland

During the 2000s, the dress of Muslim women became a matter of debate amongst the Muslim-minority countries especially in Europe, which is also a subject matter of legislation. The garment which is needed to cover the face is now a matter of concern as many countries in Western Europe have had their motion in barring the use of face-veiling like burqa or niqab by proposing different notions of arguments in criminalizing the use of the garment. Muslim women’s attire consists of a burqa which is a full-body garment including the head covering, niqab whereas, is the body and head covering dress and the veil covering below the eyes.


SWITZERLAND

Since January, the lockdown was imposed in Switzerland due to the hard hit of the coronavirus pandemic. Face masks are one of the important things for preventing the virus.


On March 7, 2021, the government and the cantons proposed a referendum which they called a “ popular initiative” led by the head of Swiss People’s Party (SVP) Marco Chiesa, to ban the face coverings in public places like restaurants, bars, shops and in public transports with exceptions like places of health and safety reasons and worships. The proposal got approval from about 51.2% of the voters i.e., 1,426,992 while 1,359,621 were against it.[i]Similar initiatives were taken place by several other European Union like France, Bulgaria, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and Austria which succeeded in bring anti- Muslim sentiment upfront.


THE REFERENDUM

The proposal to ban the full-face coverings was promoted by various campaigns implying “ Stop radical Islam” and “ Stop extremism!” and featuring a picturesque of a Muslim woman wearing a black niqab which was plastered around the streets of Switzerland.


In the year 2004, similar atrocities were witnessed against the Muslims which would have eased the citizenship to the second and third-generation immigrants. More “cultural referendums” were initiated which imposed the question on Muslims being an integral part of the Swiss community. The committee was formed in the year 2009 known as “Egerkinger Komitee” which aimed in banning the minarets which symbolizes political Islam and was approved by 57.5% of the Swiss voters.[ii]


In the year 2014, SVP ( Swiss Political Party) again sought to prohibit by the way of parliamentary initiative, the full face covering amongst the Muslim minority by supporting that wearing Burqa was a grave threat to the national security. The proposal was rejected by the Swiss Council of States in March 2017 with the reasoning that such a small number of Muslim women would not disturb the public order.


Since Muslims became a part of Europe’s culture, it was a continued fashion of misrepresentation of it in media and politics and are often framed to be called as the inherently violent religion and therefore, become incapable of dissolve amongst the European societies. Some national conservative parties like the Federal Democratic Union of Switzerland and the Ticino League and including SVP’s electoral strategy, tend to demonize the Islam community and other immigrants to hostile to basic human rights and freedom- of expression, religion, and sexual orientation.


On the contrary, the Swiss government and parliament had opposed the nationwide ban on the full coverings with the view that few women who wear the full veil mostly tend to be converts or travellers. The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland criticized the ban with great disappointment to Muslims.


OTHER COUNTRIES

Some of the narratives also claim that the left-wing parties are too involved in accusations against Islam that they violate the democratic standards and practices in the society and are susceptible to the use of violence or terrorism.


France, with about five million Muslim population, was the first European country to prohibit the use of full coverings Islamic veils by women of any origin. Laïcité- the French brand of secularism, the nascent debate about how to erase the Muslim visibility and enforce assimilation amongst the political and intellectual elite.[iii]Moreover, the laïcité has been used as a weapon to target the fundamental rights of Islam that are incompatible with French culture, even though it is a narrow understanding amongst them. Both the rightist and the gauche laïcarde (secularist left) gave their support to effectively make Muslims, especially women, remove them from the public spaces. The problem had taken a bigger picture in the year 2016 when other cities across France also banned the use of burkinis as the attire in Muslims. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy had also denounced the full coverage of the body as a mark of “provocation” in support of radical Islam. Later, the ban which was imposed by the French Rivers mayors was overruled by the top administrative court.


In 2007, similar protests were seen in the southern state of Bavaria, Germany where “full-face coverings” was prohibited in school, universities, and government. In the year 2011, the ban on the full-face veil was initiated with the reason that it obscures the identity of a person in public streets. Later, the law on the ban was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2017.


A similar case was witnessed in Austria, where the coalition was formed to prohibit full use of niqab and burqa in public areas like courts and schools and gave the reason for an “ open communication” to a fundamental getaway to an “open society”.[iv]


In Britain, presently there has been no imposition of the ban but still, in places like schools, they have been provided with their dress codes. In the year 2014, when the election was held, with the winning streak of 24 seats, UKIP (UK Independence Party) won in Brussels.[v] The then former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, opposed the use of veils by saying that it is a symbol of “ increasingly divided Britain” and hence, is a security threat. Unlike in Turkey, where the two- thirds of the population women cover their heads, the law on abolishing face covering was quite lenient. In October 2003, the overall ban was finally lifted with an exception of the judiciary, military, and police resulting in allowing the Islamic community into public life.


POLITICAL ISLAM: VAGUE NOTION

The new controversial bill “ strengthening republican principles” is the main crux of fighting separatism in which Islam is becoming a target. The initiative of SVP in banning Islam traditions like wearing burqa and niqab by successfully leading the party to convince the large swath of the Swiss population and telling them that the culture is attempting to “ Islamize” the overall public life. With the referendum, they aimed at banishing all signs of Muslim presence in Switzerland is more of an inevitable inconsistency.


With the Muslim community being targeted as a whole, women, on the other hand, are being framed as being victims of society. Some authorities, politicians, and some groups of feminists are claiming that women need to lead- free from this process as it would lead to distrust of true freedom and moral autonomy.


One reason behind this outrage is that of the anti-Muslim political parties who are successful in inflating the Muslim population to instigate the fears amongst the voters. The Muslim population is vanishingly small in Europe. As per the survey by a Swiss media company, Tamedia, the population of only 17.2% are Muslims which in reality lies at 5.1% according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. It is tough to think of another scenario where the citizens would support the proposal by the government that targets a few. At present, what works for the government is that they are successfully convinced the voters by fear of losing their “traditional culture” of Europe. If they want to save their authenticity of culture, they need to view the Muslims like the ones who are fully capable of self-determination and can formulate political will by themselves.


ENDNOTES

[i] Rim- Sarah Alouane, Where Face Masks Are Required but Burqas Are Banned, Foreign Policy.com (April 30, 2021, 20:22PM), https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/10/switzerland-europe-burqa-ban-referendum-coronavirus-face-masks-egerkinger-komitee/ [ii] Ibid at 1. [iii] Ibid at 1. [iv] The Islamic veil across Europe, BBC NEWS.com (May 1, 2021, 13:42PM), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13038095 [v] Ibid. at 3.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This blog has been authored by Ananya Thapliyal, who is a 5th Year B.A., LL.B. student at New Law College, Bharati Vidyapeeth University, Pune.


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