Member of Islamic Central Council of Switzerland member distributes flyers against veil ban

A few weeks back Switzerland passed a law banning women from going out in public in a burqa. The fine for such an offence is $10,000. Even tourists are not exempt from this law. A similar contentious debate over Muslim women wearing burqas in public arose in Canada. Conservative candidates want to bring about a ban on the hijab or burqa, while liberals argue for freedom of religion. In protest, one man appeared at the polls wearing a pumpkin mask and another covered his face with a Mexican wrestling mask to make a statement on the foolhardiness of a law that bans burqas in public.

Comedy aside, what are the repercussions of such a law that conveys that some people are not welcome unless they assimilate with the majority culture? Perhaps the burqa makes the Swiss uncomfortable. But in this era of mass migrations, multicultural societies should have made that discomfort passé. So will the Swiss next ban Indian women from wearing saris because this clothing exposes women’s midriffs?

Such a law will further ghettoize Muslims and make them hardened in their beliefs because they are reacting to a majority culture that demonizes Muslims for such customs. Such a hardening in fact harms future generations of Muslims within Switzerland and also increases the gulf between them and the majority culture.

The choice or lack of choice to wear the burqa depends on particular families and the cultures from which they originate. The politics within these cultures have also influenced the wearing of this clothing. There are many debates within Muslim societies about women’s freedom and their choices. If we do not allow for a community to figure out its choices, but impose a choice (or lack) from outside, we are colonizing these communities. The Swiss may argue they are liberating Muslim women by enacting the ban on the burqa. The Swiss are doing exactly what feminists did in much of the last century by imposing their ideas of liberation on minority communities. It is paternalistic and condescending to impose an assimilationist model on Muslim women.

Many of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, may feel that the burqa is a symbol of women’s subjugation, but do we have the right to impose our view on another? And if a Muslim woman does choose to wear a burqa as a sign of her surrender to Allah, do we have the right to tell her that her experience of spiritual liberation does not match with our idea of women’s freedom? Of course, in many fundamentalist communities, women are forced to wear the burqa. But does it mean that the members in these communities are not debating the issue?

In fact, the Swiss will be surprised to find that if the ban did not exist, Muslim women in the next decade could very likely appear in public without the hijab or the burqa or the niqab.


(Photo Credit: AFP / AlJazeera)