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Women in burqas

Women in burqas, Photo: Jamin Gray Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The burqa ban in Switzerland represents the latest in a series of Islamophobic policies and must be resisted, argues Maddalena Dunscombe

On 6 March, a referendum was held in Switzerland which resulted in the banning of burqas. A nation-wide democratic referendum was held, in which the entire country voted on whether or not to restrict the freedoms of Muslim women living in Switzerland. Just over 51% of the country voted in favour, and won the initiative.

The results of the referendum were released on international woman’s day.

Over the past week, protests have taken place in major cities such as Zurich and Basel – protests in which the women’s rights movement and anti-racist movement converged. The feminist collective which organised the protests identify strongly with intersectional feminism and anti-imperialist ideals.

Many of their campaigns revolve specifically in defending the rights of migrant women, as well as putting an end to gender-based violence and murder, which is all-too frequent in Switzerland.

Charged with the shocking news of the referendum, the protests which took place from Sunday and continued well into the week, were met with brutal force from the Swiss police. 

On Sunday’s protest, one woman was arrested for carrying an unopened spray can. The officers who detained her refused to inform her friends as to which police station they would bring her to and also refused to bring the asthmatic woman‘s bag, which contained her inhaler. 

Other reports soon surfaced.  Male police officers in full riot gear were photographed repeatedly punching women protestors who had fallen, while hitting and pushing others to the ground. One woman had been pushed to the ground on her front and an officer kneeled on her back for three minutes. 

Weaponising feminism

On Tuesday and Wednesday, protests took place which were organised by the Muslim community in Switzerland. Women in hijabs were pictured carrying placards reading ‘it was my NO’ – the decision to refuse the burqa or niqab was theirs and theirs alone. Nevertheless, this protest (though thankfully far less violently) was also dispersed by the police.

The sickening irony here cannot be missed. The anti-burqa campaign, although overtly racist, also carried thinly-veiled justifications for some, who believed that banning the burqa would ‘rescue’ Muslim women from 'Islamic extremism’.

However, Switzerland does not have the best track record for women’s rights, which asylum seekers in the country have pointed out. Explained in this interview, women – who, in their country of origin, might have had the opportunity to become IT professionals or scientists – can see that, in Switzerland, there are still strong old-fashioned pressures placed on women to adopt typically ‘female’ roles. The prominent wage-gap shows this. And yet even women in the government have stated that they ‘don’t see a problem’ in how women are treated in Switzerland.

Double-edged sword

The members of the Feminist Strike Collective have been calling for the true liberation of Swiss women since 2018, and yet, as we have seen in the events of the recent protests, their demands are often crushed.

There is a high rate of domestic violence against women in Switzerland. Once a week on average, a woman survives a murder attempt, while one woman is murdered every two weeks. The way that male police officers have behaved towards women protestors during the last week adds salt to a festering injury.

It might be worth remembering that it only been 50 years since women were given the right to vote in Switzerland. ‘Given’ is perhaps an overstatement, as in 1971 a national referendum took place, during which the male population voted on the women’s right to vote – even though one Canton (Appenzell Innerrhoden) did not grant women the right to vote until 1991.

Living in Switzerland, you are constantly presented with the double-edged sword of these national referenda. Minorities are not protected by basic laws against racism, even homophobia. Until a referendum was held in February 2020, homophobia was still legal in Switzerland, and members of the LGTBQ community had a hard time reporting or protecting themselves from homophobic violence. The referendum ended with positive results for the LGBTQ community, but the votes for their safety could have just as easily been overpowered.

Islamophobic history

As someone who has grown up in Switzerland, the events of the last week have been hurtful, but not at all surprising. As a child, I would frequently walk past anti-minaret posters on my way to school, and in train stations, posters which openly demonised Islam would serve as the backdrop for rushing commuters.

The minaret was subsequently banned in 2009, but year after year the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) continued to ramp up their Islamophobic campaigns and more racist posters would emerge. I’m sure the most infamous of the posters is the one of a black sheep being kicked off a Swiss flag by white sheep.

These racist campaigns were not supported by the entire government, but our system of government means that the Federal council (the Bundesrat) is made up of seven people, so that there is never only one party in power. The President of Switzerland rotates between these seven people each year, so that ostensibly there is always a balance. It is purposefully done so as to avoid extremism of any kind. However, regardless of who the president is, the SVP would only need 100,000 signatures to get a campaign going.

The SVP has a long history of openly dehumanising immigrants and people of colour, and stoking nationalist and xenophobic feelings amongst the more right-leaning voters. For example, in the 1960s when the first Italian community was established in Switzerland, the SVP led similar xenophobic campaigns and pushed a referendum in 1970, which resulted in a mass-deportation of Italian migrant workers, children and families.

This dark chapter in Swiss history makes it clear that the SVP has a more severe goal than simply banning burqas.

This year’s anti-burqa poster campaign, with the slogan ‘Stop Extremism’ were also, as usual, decorated with the SVP logo – a smiling sun rising over green hills; an image that you might expect to see as a poster at a farmer’s market. The image, and what it evokes, is no coincidence, as the majority of SVP voters are in living in the more rural areas of Switzerland.

What is also deeply disturbing is that the Socialist Party members who also hold positions in the federal council allowed the bill the pass, or even allowed this it to be drawn up in the first place. The personal freedoms of any minority should be protected. In the name of direct democracy, the SVP are allowed to pursue harmful campaigns, but the rest of the Swiss government needs to understand that protecting minorities by blocking racist referendums is not preventing democracy or justice, but preserving it.

There is an old German saying that I have been thinking of in light of this week’s events, and it is a phrase that we would do well to remember: ‘If ten people are sitting at a table with a Nazi, then there are actually eleven Nazis at the table.’ 

Silence is complicity and the anti-racist and women’s movements must continue to challenge Islamophobia

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