After minarets, will Switzerland ban burqas too?

May 20, 2010
zurich

Zurich and the Limmat River, April 20, 2008/Arnd Wiegmann

Full Muslim face veils could become the next divisive religious issue to take centre stage in Switzerland, where voters last November approved a measure banning the construction of new minarets. The Swiss federal government said in February it saw no need for a “burqa ban.” Politicians at the national level say there’s no “burqa problem” in Switzerland. But few thought there was a “minaret problem” either, until the question was put to a national referendum and the minaret ban campaigners won.

Like the minarets, of which there are only four in Switzerland, there are very few veiled women in Switzerland. The most likely place to see them is Geneva, where many rich Middle Easterners do their banking. Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey recently told the newspaper Blick that she’d once seen fully veiled women there and was “furious, because the burqa is a symbol of the enslavement of women.” But she insisted to her interviewers: “I’m against burqas. And I’m against a burqa ban … we don’t have a burqa problem in Switzerland. Very few women wear a burqa here. Have you even seen one?”

Similarly, Economy Minister Doris Leuthard, who is also serving this year as the country’s president, has said  “we’ve got much tougher, more important problems.” Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has said “we don’t really have a burqa problem in Switzerland now.” She did add, though, that she was watching to see whether a “parallel society” was developing. “We are not ready to let our legal system and our values be compromised,” she said.

Down at the cantonal level, though, things may be moving. The legislature in the canton of Aargau has voted overwhelmingly to propose a national bill to outlaw full face veils. Two more canton legislatures, in Bern and Solothurn, are reported to be ready to do the same.

Will these initiatives lead to a national ban? It’s too early to say. But the minaret ban idea started at the regional level, too,  in Zurich canton, and turned into a national referendum that ended in a surprise. It will be worth watching to see if Switzerland looks likely to follow the example of Belgium and France.

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