L A W – E U R O P E
Tafhim Radita Ali
First coined in 2010, the “burqa ban” came into existence when France banned all face-coverings and veils in public places. Though challenged, it was ultimately upheld for purposes of ‘integration and national security’.
Since then, the ban has swept across other European countries, with the most recent addition being in Switzerland. Ironically, just one day before International Women’s Day, Switzerland joined select countries around the world in infringing on the rights of Muslim women to wear what they want in public.
According to a BBC report, 51.2% Swiss voters voted in favour of the ban in a referendum held on 7 March. This narrowly outnumbered the 48.8% that opposed. The referendum, first proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) bans all face-coverings in public places. Their argument is that it is meant to ‘stop extremism’ as the face-covering is “a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe”.
And yet, just 5% Swiss population is actually Muslim with only around 30 people wearing the niqab in all of Switzerland’s population of 8.6 million, according to a study done by the University of Lucerne.
The burqa, a ‘symbol of extremism’, is worn by virtually no-one in Switzerland.
While debate surrounds whether or not the “burqa ban” is Islamophobic or not, the main concern here is that, once again, a minority is being suppressed by the majority. No matter how hard Muslim women fought to stop the ban, their small population was reliant on support from men and non-Muslims. Even now, the minority of Muslim women in Europe have no true voice when it comes to law-makers and voters making decisions that directly affect them.
But many would cry out that Muslim women who wear burqas and niqabs are forced to do so and are not able to fight for their own rights. The ban, while potentially Islamophobic, could serve as a means to emancipate these Muslim women.
And indeed, the primary argument for the burqa ban is that it is specifically designed to liberate Muslim women from oppressive clothing. In many countries, where misogyny is still prevalent, women are forced to cover themselves or they are otherwise seen as immodest. These countries, most of them in the Muslim-majority Middle East and none of them in Europe, use the burqa as a way to shame women into submission. For this reason, the burqa, to some, is a symbol of an oppressive, patriarchal society, where men continue to tell women how to dress.
The ‘burqa ban’, on the other hand, allows for liberal and educated people to tell women how to dress.
In both cases, the result is almost the same: women being denied the freedom to choose their own clothing.
Interestingly enough, these oppressed women who need liberation are the ones who, dressed in their niqabs and face-veils, are out on the streets of their European countries and protesting the ban.
The hypocrisy of the law doesn’t take much to recognise. For the free countries societies to fight ‘rising terrorism and extremism’ and ‘oppression of women’ with discrimination and more oppression is tragically ironic. In enacting the band, they are inadvertently echoing sexist sentiments—limiting the choice of women.
Because, even if the veil is used to oppress some women in European countries, to ban it entirely is to confine them to their homes (unless they are willing to pay the fines). This, in turn, creates a bigger problem for those who are being oppressed, as they have no opportunity to connect with the outside world. This law, meant to liberate women, ends up causing them harm regardless of how one chooses to view it.
However, some could argue that banning face-veils is a matter of national security. By covering their faces, those wearing niqabs and burqas obscure their identities in public places. This allows for crimes to take place with cameras and witnesses having no way of identifying the criminal.
This argument crumbles under scrutiny.
After all, in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone is covering their faces. For National Security.
Law-makers have quickly ensured that face masks are exempt from this by allowing face-coverings for health reasons during and after the pandemic. As Foreign Policy Insider points out,
“The deeply ironic timing of Switzerland’s burqa ban proves it was never about supposed security concerns.”
People who say that the Muslim women who dislike this ban “should just go back to their countries” are the epitome of what this ban stand for. Not only do their fail to realise that most of these Muslim women are citizens of these European countries, it also breeds ignorance and intolerance. The burqa ban is not about integration and security, it’s about discrimination and oppression. It alienates an already under-represented and marginalised group of individuals and allows for hate crimes—ranging from name-calling to outright harassment and abuse—against Muslim women who do choose to wear any variant of a headscarf.
The burqa ban creates a narrative of white, male saviours for oppressed Muslim women, or of terrible religious terrorists that hide under the guise of body coverings. In actuality, those who wear hijabs, niqabs, and burqas in Europe do so out of their free will. Some do it out of devotion, some to hold on to their cultural identities, some just because they can.
They are women, with minds and voices of their own, who may want support but do not require saving. They are simply people, devoted to a belief and attached to their identities, as many people are. They do not deserve a law that affects them and only them, that labels them as outcasts and draws negative attention towards them.
They are Muslim and they are women and they deserve to have their voices heard.
The burqa ban exists to contradict every ideology that free Europe preaches. It is a form of discrimination that has roots in a world that fights fear with fear, oppression with oppression, and upholds equality only when it suits their pre-written narrative.
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.