In these troubled times, when countries have been mandatorily imposing face masks to contain the Covid -19 pandemic, even in airports where security is of primary concern, it is rather intriguing to see two nations with diverse backgrounds come up with proposals for a nationwide face cover ban. Recently, Switzerland joined its European counterparts in a decision to impose a countrywide ban on face coverings in public, after 51.2% of its citizens voted in favor of the ban through a referendum. Previously France, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, among others, have initiated and implemented nationwide or local bans on full face or body covering and, in some cases, both. After Switzerland, Sri Lanka emerged as the only South Asian country to have proposed a ban of such nature. Previously Sri Lanka had a temporary ban imposed in 2019 after the Easter Bombings in Colombo. However, the Minister of Public Security has now signed papers for cabinet approval to reinstate the ban permanently.
There is reason to believe that these bans are more than just a national security issue. It is not the first time a policy was brought forth by these countries to specifically target its minority Muslim population. Sri Lanka was recently under scrutiny by several human rights agencies including UNHRC for imposing a mandatory order to cremate all bodies of those who died by the pandemic. Cremation is a forbidden practice under Islam and the order has since been reversed. A decade ago in Switzerland, a controversial referendum led to banning the construction of minarets on mosques. The proponents of this initiative explicitly stated that the goal was to stop further spread of Islam in the country.
The debates surrounding the veil ban are often doused in controversy. What begins as a concern towards national security, has undertones of anxiety over migrant integration, country’s perception of secularism, and women’s equality and freedom. Opinions of politicians oscillate between “saving” women from oppression, and if they are politically active, seeing them as a danger to the public sphere. Even though most of these campaigns are presented as neutral, without targeting a specific community, the imagery and literature used in these campaigns speak a different story. They often come with an underlying note on religious fanaticism, specifically targeting the miniscule population of Muslims in these countries, particularly Muslim women. Most of the debates are spearheaded by men- be it France’s Sarkozy, Netherland’s Geert Wilders or Sri Lanka’s Sarath Weerasekara. It shows us that major political decision making still happens to be a man’s game, even if it is to dictate what a woman can or cannot wear. In circumstances where citizens directly participated in decision making, such as in Switzerland, only a slim majority voted in favor of the ban, which would impact its Muslim woman populace
The men involved in the decision making have always hidden their far-right nationalist motives under the garb of women’s freedom and equality. Most Muslim women who have voiced their opinions on this matter, have raised concerns over how taking away Muslim woman’s choice to wear a face veil can be about equality. What lawmakers often forget is that even if the veil is forced upon these women, imposing a penalty of any kind will only alienate these women and keep them further away from society. Some lawmakers stated how a burqa clad woman can carry a rocket under her clothes, forgetting how historically suicide bombers were all men carrying the suit under their “normal” male apparels. If there is a genuine security concern, authorities in countries without such bans have always had a solution.
The European refugee crisis also is at the helm of this discourse. The refugees are said to bring along with them traditionalism and fundamentalism that threaten the secular fabric of these nations. The officials have started adopting stringent migrant policies and are undertaking measures to integrate the migrant population into their predominantly culturally homogenous population. Latvia adopted the burqa ban despite only three women in the entire country wearing the garment. The justice minister of Latvia then pointed out that the need for such preventive measures is to guard the cultural and historical heritage of the country and control migrant chaos. In France, the burqa ban initiated two consequences, €150 fine or a requirement to take a class on the meaning of citizenship, or sometimes both. These classes were to inform fully veiled women about “French citizenship” and “inform or remind them of the values of the French republic”. These examples indicate that the reason for the ban was not really about national security and the politicians were crafting a notion of integration, which meant dissolving into the host society without any trace of an immigrant’s original cultural identity.
Sri Lanka is known for its three-decade long conflict between their majority Buddhist Population and mainly Hindu ethnic Tamil minority Population. Muslims constitute the island country’s second largest minority. The previous conflicts in the country were about ethnicity rather than religion. The terrorist attack linked to ISIS in Colombo’s churches in 2019 aggravated anti- Muslim sentiments throughout the country. It led to several riots targeting its Muslim population. The 9%Muslim population has very few women who wear burqa for this to be a large security concern. The terrorist attacks were unfortunate, but such decisions only bring forward the stereotypical idea that Islam is an intolerant religion, making the majority population go against the minority Muslims. The recent ban in Sri Lanka and the minister’s comments indicate that the step is to contain ‘religious extremism’ in the country, which shows that politicians are trying to drive up the divide for their own political gain.
Though the European Court of Human Rights has majorly favoured some governments in their decisions, they have still opined that a blanket ban in the name of public safety was disproportionate. In SAS v. France, the court stated that such safety concerns could be alleviated by simply obligating to show their face in case there is a suspicion of an identity fraud. They also called out the gender equality argument stating the state cannot ban a practice for being unfair towards women when it is defended by women. Notwithstanding the decisions by the European Court, the United Nations Human Rights Committee pointed out that this ban violated the rights of women and had previously asked France to review its laws. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has also questioned the intention of the new ban in Switzerland and criticized its government.
Policymakers argue that in countries with open societies, such as in France, wearing a burqa or any face covering can hamper the interactions in public spaces and thus, impede the spirit of living together in the society. Most governments are now directing people to use masks and avoid unnecessary interaction in public. The pandemic, therefore, has altered our perception of ‘public spaces’ and ‘living together’. We as a society are trying to move towards multiculturism and tolerance, but such wide bans and the subsequent court decisions that uphold these bans will only letracial and religious bigotry thrive amongst us.