The Swiss Burqa Ban: An Open Letter to the 51.2%

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Dear 51.2 percent,

On Sunday, the 7th March 2021, you decided to vote yes to an initiative that bans Muslim women from wearing niqabs and burqas in public spaces. That afternoon the results trickled in slowly, and every new vote counted fueled the heat that was boiling my blood. How could you let this happen?

For so long I was told this country is open to the world and has a great humanitarian tradition. For so long the establishment insisted that we need to safeguard our values of liberty and democratic choice. We had to avoid dictatorship. We couldn’t become oppressive. Then, suddenly, a slap in my face. You restrict a woman’s fundamental right to choose what to do with her body; to choose how to express her faith. My eye is still hot from the hit, and yet you smile lovingly telling me that my Muslim sisters are finally freed. Now one of you is on TV, with a polite smile, proper and decent. I cannot believe what she is saying – accepting this initiative is a great thing for women. It was the feminist thing to do. Freedom at last.

« No free woman can accept to walk around with a cloth on her body that hinders her from breathing, hinders her from showing herself as a person, as a woman. »

Jacqueline De Quattro, National Council member, FDP/PLR [i]

No, I am not crazy. I have noticed the red flags along the way. You voted to ban minarets, you voted to keep out migrants, you voted to kick out the black sheep at the slightest misstep.  In my childish idealism and clear white privilege, I just didn’t want to see that this was who you really are. Your racism and islamophobia emanate from you left, right and centre.

To those who consider this vote a feminist statement against oppression: know that my soul aches for the women who have been beaten as a result, and those who will be targeted next by this false advertisement for women’s protection. The people behind this initiative have a legacy of harming women by refusing funding for shelters, stripping money from childcare services and fighting to keep us under their thumb for decades. Now they claim to be our saviours while simultaneously slipping more of their poison into our cups, dividing us for their benefit. I know there are some among you who have fought for our rights for a long time now. You have seen the tactics of our oppressors. So, when every rational and feminist argument for this vote falls apart, how can you now take the apple from the snake and knowingly bite it?

What about protecting women from their imposing husbands?

There are around 30 women in Switzerland who wear a niqab, most of them converts who do not have a Muslim man in their lives.[ii] If a woman is forced to wear a face-covering, then how exactly are you helping by making her a criminal? Making someone wear something they do not want to is already punishable under the law on coercion.[iii]

But if I go to a Muslim country, do I not also have to adapt to their culture?

Just because another country forces you to wear something, does not mean you should impose clothing restrictions here.

If the burqa and niqab are a symbol of oppression, isn’t forbidding them a sign of solidarity with women internationally?

If you want to show solidarity for the oppressed, then celebrate freedom. Do not go into the other extreme. There are regimes that force women to wear the niqab and that is horrendous and needs to be called out. But the answer is not to criminalize women in our country. The burqa and niqab may be symbols of patriarchal oppression, I’m no expert in the Islamic theology, however, I bet my bottom dollar that you aren’t either. There are women who say that they wear it because it brings them closer to their God and gives them control over their own body. [iv] Do not take that away.

The counterarguments to the proposed ban were plainly laid out – you heard them on TV, in the newspapers and via social media. Yet you refused to listen. In doing so, you have legitimized the fear and racism that fueled the campaign. You have isolated the very women you wanted to include by making them targets for hate. You’ve opened the door to discrimination of Muslim women in general, with voices already calling for a ban on hijabs in schools. [v]

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Since 9/11 islamophobia has gained prominence in the political discourse of Western Europe, recycling the colonial complex of the westerner white saviour. Nationalist ideas of secular progressive women needing to save the backward Muslims from their own barbaric ways have re-emerged, alongside an urge to civilize them with “our” feminism. [vi]

This is a clear danger to the feminist movement. If we truly want equality for all women, we need to fight for all women. We need to question our motives, face our own racism, and reconsider who we trust with our fight.

Luckily, there are the 48.8 percent, who already saw the reality of this initiative and rejected it. The no campaign already had success in diminishing the number of yes ballots predicted in the polls prior to the vote.[vii]

« We are thrilled to have been able to enter the public debate and to have brought more complexity into this public debate. »

Meriam Mastour, Member of the collective Les Foulards Violets [viii]

Even though the result of the vote enrages me, the silver lining is that intersectional and anti-racist feminist connections have grown due to the great work of those who campaigned against the hate. Indeed, there are already calls to challenge the ban in court.[ix] This fight is far from over. In the words of the 8mrzunite collective: “From anger to resistance.”[x]

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