The irony of introducing a face cover ban in 2021

Four young people with bizarre coverings over their heads - illustraing the irony of banning any kind of face coverings during the Covid pandemic
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Claudia Benstead Schlup is a second year A-level student from East Sussex who’s planning to start studying for a criminology and criminal justice degree this autumn. After university, she hopes to travel the world before embarking on a career in finding ways to improve the criminal justice system and related issues.

Banning face coverings in our new, post-Covid world of legally enforceable face mask mandates sounds implausibly ironic. But that’s exactly what has happened in Switzerland. Widely known as the ‘burqa ban’, the new law, proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, was narrowly voted in (by 51.2% in favour of the ban versus 48.8% against) in early March.

It prohibits the wearing of any full facial coverings, including bandanas commonly worn by protestors and Muslim headwear (coverings worn for health and safety reasons such as Covid are exempt). While Muslim coverings were not explicitly mentioned, it is clear that they were the targeted group for this ban and will be the most marginalised and impacted by it. Campaign ads for the new law showed a woman wearing a niqab and sunglasses alongside the slogan: “Stop extremism! Yes to the veil ban.”

As a dual citizen (I am both Swiss and British by birth), I have the right to vote in both the UK and Switzerland once I turn 18. Unfortunately, my 18th birthday fell just a month too late for me to participate in the Swiss ‘burqa ban’ referendum in March, but had I been able to, I would have voted against the ban. I believe that everyone should be able to wear what they want, and be who they are, whether this is with regards to race, religion, gender or anything else.

Contrary to what many people claim, what someone else chooses to wear does not generally have an impact on the rest of us as individuals, or even as a wider society. So why are we seeing increasing numbers of countries introducing these so-called ‘burqa bans’?

Switzerland is just the latest of several European countries to implement a national ban on face coverings. In Belgium and France, the ‘burqa ban’ took effect a decade ago, in 2011. Austria banned full-face veils in early 2017, and in 2020 the government announced plans to ban headscarves in schools for girls up to age 14.

But it’s not just mainland Europe that is introducing these bans − a complete ban on wearing burqas was proposed in Britain in 2010, and a poll by Sky in 2018 showed that a shocking 59% of British people thought the ban should be put in place.

In Switzerland, out of the 8.6 million population, just 5% is Muslim, and of those only 30 individual women wear niqabs, with even fewer wearing burqas, so the ban actually has little practical purpose. However, its effects are far-reaching. Stereotyping Muslims as dangerous ‘terrorists’, or even suggesting that they are more of a threat because of what they wear, is incredibly dangerous and harmful to entire swathes of the population of any country.

Two young Muslim women wearing headscarves and Covid facemasks while looking at their smart phones
Image by hjrivas from Pixabay

Hiding behind the veils of security and safety, purported reasons such as “improving facial recognition” and “making policing more efficient” are often cited by those in favour of the bans. But there is a much simpler and more dangerous reason for these face covering bans: Islamophobia.

The fear of those who are ‘different’ is not a new issue, and unfortunately racism is unlikely to go away overnight. But, as individuals, surely we have a responsibility to be open and accepting of all people? Whether someone looks different from us, wears different clothes, speaks a different language or worships a different god does not alter the fact that we are all part of the same human race.

The most commonly given reason by Muslim women for wearing a hijab is to ‘protect their modesty’ or to ‘hide from the gaze of men’, and many non-Muslims assume they are forced to do so by their husbands or members of their family or their husbands. But while Allah said in the Qur’an that women should wear a headscarf, He did not tell others to make them wear one. Furthermore, under the current Swiss law no one can be forced to wear a burqa and anyone making someone do so can be punished. Therefore, for most Muslim women in Switzerland, wearing a hijab is truly a choice, yet when policymaking is impacted by outdated and irrelevant stereotypes, we neglect to consider the individuals that these laws actually affect.

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The Swiss government advised against voting for the ban and instead proposed alternative options, like a rule obliging all citizens to remove a face covering for the purposes of identification if requested by authorities, a reasonable suggestion if the ban truly was for the purposes of security.

This isn’t the first example of nationwide Islamophobia in Switzerland. In a 2009 referendum, a constitutional amendment forbidding the construction of new minarets (a type of tower on or adjacent to a mosque, generally used for a call to prayer) was passed with 57% of the vote. The Swiss government recommended that the proposal be rejected, but failed to make enough of a difference.

Many countries have histories of prejudice and discrimination, whether this be against immigrants, religious groups, ethnic groups or any other. But, as individuals, we have both the right and the responsibility to use our votes and our voices to challenge outdated, prejudiced views of minority groups. Instead we can help shift attitudes and create legislation to protect them and provide them with the same rights and privileges that so many of us receive every day and take for granted.

The true reasons for the ‘burqa ban’ were revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Switzerland, along with many other European countries, made wearing face masks mandatory in 2020 due to the coronavirus. When questioned about this apparent irony a year ago, the French government reiterated that the ban on Muslim face-coverings would remain in place. Clearly, it’s not face coverings in general that are deemed to pose a ‘threat’, but just those which stand for something ‘foreign’.

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