Burqa is a good thing

Liberals have to endure full veiling

There are good liberal and feminist reasons to reject the burqa. Conversely, from a liberal point of view, there is no way of approving the burqa ban. A distinction that Kacem El Ghazzali fails to make. A replica.

A famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, reads: "I do not share your opinion, but I will defend your right to speak until death." It is this distinction that Kacem El Ghazzali deliberately omits when he argues against the symbolism of the burqa and at the same time advocates its prohibition in the Swiss constitution.

His argument is based on two problematic assumptions. First, the external attribution, which “the burqa” stands for regardless of any context. Attributions that are refuted by social science research in Europe. And secondly, the idea that what should be rejected should be forbidden.

In fact, the burqa may symbolize something like a "totalitarian ideology" in numerous contexts. But on the one hand it would also be protected in a liberal society as an expression of such a political ideology, as the old SVP National Councilor Claudio Zanetti aptly stated: «A burqa is more than a piece of clothing, it is an expression of a political program. But then wearing them in public has to be even more permissible. " On the other hand, the context of the vote on a burqa ban on March 7th is Swiss. It is therefore only relevant what the full veils that are worn in Switzerland stand for.

The socio-political context is crucial

El Ghazzali describes the symbolism of the burqa "in societies that force women to veil their faces" and at the same time emphasizes that one cannot speak of personal freedom with the burqa, "because this claim to freedom must take into account the socio-political context of freedom".

If we do exactly that, i.e. take the Swiss context into account, a different picture emerges. Firstly, it has long been banned in Switzerland, and it is a criminal offense to force someone to wear a veil. The social context is therefore the exact opposite of societies that force women to veil their faces. One might argue that access to justice and offers of help in the context of domestic violence is always difficult or inadequate, but the initiative text is silent on this.

Difficulties in enforcing a criminal offense are not remedied by simply rewriting it in the constitution. Second, research on Nikab wearers in Europe shows that they wear the Nikab out of their own conviction and that the majority of them have the right to freedom in these social contexts.

It is therefore exclusively about Nikabs worn out of their own conviction in the Swiss context, worn by women, the vast majority of whom are socialized in the West and are average to very well educated: converts and Muslim secondas. A burqa ban is an interference with their basic rights, regardless of whether they wear the veil out of religious, political or other identity-forming convictions.

For liberals, the question arises: can interference with these fundamental rights be justified? This question can be answered in the negative with the simple principle of John Stuart Mill: the freedom of some ends there, and only there, where others are harmed or their freedom is affected. And as much as you despise the face veil in public space or find it irritating: It doesn't hurt anyone. So it is important to endure it in a free society.

Who determines when dignity is violated?

El Ghazzali justifies the burqa ban with human dignity, in the name of which the so-called dwarf throwing was forbidden, even against the will of those affected. Now it is tempting to extend the argument of dignity to include Nikab wearers. In fact, many feminists argue in the same way when, in the name of dignity, they not only demand a ban on full veils, but also, for example, on sex work.

There is no doubt that there is more to human dignity than self-determination, and actions by individuals can affect the dignity of others. But from a liberal point of view, the argument is extremely delicate, especially where the voluntary behavior of discerning people is prohibited. After all, who determines when a woman's dignity is called into question if not the woman herself? Couldn't one also argue that it is unworthy of a woman of equal status to opt for a traditional family model and to become (financially) dependent on a man? And yet no one would want to forbid her to make this decision in the name of dignity.

With the external attribution of the injured dignity, individual basic freedoms can be restricted almost at will, as soon as there are enough people who perceive a certain behavior as "unworthy". The liberal state must prosecute any coercion and give everyone access to offers of assistance and justice who want to break out of a situation that is perceived as unworthy.

On the other hand, when it comes to the decision of the authorities where people violate their own dignity, they have to exercise the greatest restraint. Especially where he has credible evidence that people perceive a practice as an expression of their self-determination and dignity - no matter how incomprehensible this may seem to us.

No obligation for social interaction

Finally, Kacem El Ghazzali claims that the veiled face is to be understood as a rejection of reciprocal social interaction, as a negation of citizenship according to Hannah Arendt. But in reality it is the other way around: the widespread standard assumption of the “oppressed Muslim woman” who also does it against her will to be liberated leads to the negation of citizenship. It fails to recognize the right to freedom of women who veil themselves in Switzerland (or want to wear a headscarf) and denies them their political subject status in liberal society: they are not considered free and equal; able and entitled to make use of their basic rights.

As for the alleged rejection of reciprocal social interaction, there is no duty of active citizenship in a free society, just as there is no duty to communicate with anyone in public space. Mr and Mrs Swiss sometimes live in seclusion and do not or hardly participate in public affairs. That is their right.

As much as El Ghazzali's description of the burqa is correct in certain contexts, the socio-political context in Switzerland is different. One in which the freedom of a few women who want to veil themselves must be taken into account. If we don't, we can all undermine our freedoms along the same line of argument: this or that behavior irritates or is a symbol for whatever and should therefore be forbidden. As liberals, we have no choice but to resolutely reject the burqa ban - as much as we may despise the burqa.

Stefan Manser-Egli is co-president of Operation Libero and co-campaign leader against the burqa ban.