Last week, 51% of Swiss voters cast their ballots in favor of banning women from covering their face completely in public spaces. Full facial veils will only be allowed in places of worship and for native customs and events, such as carnival. Face coverings worn for health reasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic will, naturally, still be allowed.
Switzerland is following France, Belgium and Austria in implementing one of the most discriminatory initiatives of the last decade. Understood to be a “fringe phenomenon”, the use of burqas and niqabs has persistently been patronizingly interpreted by Western governments exclusively through Western eyes. They believe it to be a symbol of oppression that goes against feminism and incites violence, when in fact they’re simply masking their own ignorance. A video posted on the Swiss government’s website explaining the reason for the ban states that “religious veils like the burqa or the niqab are a symbol of oppression of women and aren’t suitable to our society”. What appears to not be suitable to their society is not oppression of women but, rather, Muslim women.
In her book Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism, Susan Carland expresses frustration at how people’s concern about the alleged oppression of Muslim women ends up actually humiliating them. The tacit assumption seems to be that these women can only be truly free once they’re completely separated from their religion. Even women who have lived in the West for most of their lives and continue to use the burqa and niqab do so because they don’t know any better. They don’t know they can be free. As Carland rightfully notes, the discourse implemented by western feminism often leaves Muslim women no option but to emulate the western notion of womanhood. In trying to empower and liberate these women, what ends up happening is the complete opposite. Such is the philosophy behind the veil ban.
There appear to be two options: either Western governments are trying to embody feminist ideals, and in so doing, fall into a predetermined script that oppresses Muslim women, or they feel threatened by Islam. Either way, the West needs to shed the instilled notion that they are the owners of freedom. The veil ban does nothing more than demonize Islam and Muslims, as well as denigrate women as being incapable of deciding for themselves. The use of facial coverings is a very delicate and personal issue. Muslim women have philosophically struggled in the past, and ultimately find, like Carland and Satrapi, that it frees them.
Image: a woman wearing a burqa, via Pixabay