WHILE concerns about violent extremism may be genuine, in many situations these valid apprehensions can be used as a cloak for Islamophobia. This appears to be the case in Switzerland, where voters have narrowly backed a ban on face coverings, widely seen as a vehicle to prohibit burqas and full-face veils that some Muslim women wear.

Just over 51pc of Swiss voters backed the ban, with a campaign spearheaded by a rightist party in the alpine nation. While the proposal did not mention the face coverings by name, ominous posters with a fully veiled woman, plastered with slogans to ‘stop extremism’ sent a clear, disturbing message. The intentions of this campaign further come into question when the number of women who wear the burqa/niqab in Switzerland are considered: according to one figure 30 women wear the niqab in a population of 8.6m.

This means there is no imminent ‘threat’ of veiled women overrunning the streets of Geneva and Zurich anytime soon. Unfortunately, Switzerland has taken such regressive steps before, such as the ban on minarets in 2009, also backed by a referendum. Amnesty International has called the burqa ban “a dangerous policy that violates women’s rights”.

Sadly, several other nations in Europe — France, Denmark, Austria etc — have taken similar steps. Rather than genuinely helping curb extremism, these moves only help propel the agenda of far-right parties in Europe, who see Muslims, people of colour and racial minorities as ‘outsiders’ trying to change the continent’s ‘pure’ culture.

We have seen the horrors this pursuit of ‘purity’ unleashed in the mid-20th century, when fascist forces seized power in several European states. Instead of promoting integration and coexistence, such moves will further fuel the divide between ethnic and religious majorities and minorities in Europe. Moreover, women should have the right to choose what they wear, and such decisions must not be imposed by the state. Has this central tenet of democratic thought been forgotten by those backing such bans?

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2021

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