Burka bans in Europe

Why the burka is so important for right-wing populists

On 7 March, Switzerland became the latest European country to vote in favour of a so-called "burka" ban. It was yet another feather in the cap of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) on an issue that remains a perennial favourite with the Right across Europe. Essay by Daniel Bax

Nearly four years ago, Germany's then Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere drew up a catalogue of ten things he considered part of the German Leitkultur (defining or dominant culture) in an essay for a major tabloid newspaper. A couple of them already seem a bit outdated. "We shake hands in greeting," the CDU politician wrote at the time, and "We show our faces", because, as the minister put it in questionable German, "We are not burka."

Today, with the German population required to wear masks and keep their distance, these phrases seem like something from a bygone age. But the buzzword "burka" continues to conjure up ghoulish terror – a symbol of maximum foreignness guaranteed to rile people and stir emotions on both sides.

At the beginning of March, in the midst of the global pandemic, a major referendum was held in Switzerland on a nationwide ban on veiling, of all things. The venture was also referred to as the "burka initiative". But it wasn't really about the burka, which is traditionally common in Afghanistan and was forced on all women there by the Taliban during their rule. The burka is a blue cloak in which even the eyes are covered by a close-mesh piece of fabric netting. The Swiss initiative, on the other hand, mainly targeted those face veils that leave only a narrow slit free around the eyes and are much more widespread – especially on the Arabian Peninsula and among rich female tourists from the Gulf who like to holiday in Switzerland with their families. These face veils are called niqabs.

In Switzerland, there are said to be around 30 women who cover themselves in this way. But at the end of the day, these are trivialities; it's all about the effect: the word "burka" is enough to provoke the Sharia-and-violence horror that right-wing populists need to send cold shivers of fear down the spines of their voters and drive them to the polls.

Poster urging Swiss voters to approve a ban on full-face veils in a recent referendum (photo: Arnd Wiegmann)
On Sunday, 7 March 2021, Swiss voters voted in a referendum to introduce a nationwide ban on full-face coverings. In Switzerland, there are said to be around 30 women who cover themselves in this way. "But," writes Daniel Bax, "at the end of the day […] it's all about the effect: the word 'burka' is enough to provoke the Sharia-and-violence horror that right-wing populists need to send cold shivers of fear down the spines of their voters and drive them to the polls"

The gamble paid off

In Switzerland, the gamble paid off. On the posters of the pro-ban campaign – designed as always in red, black and white for maximum impact – fierce eyes glared at the viewer from stylised, veiled women's faces, or remained mysteriously and dangerously hidden behind sunglasses. There were also images of a protester wearing a baseball cap and a bandana across his face and throwing a Molotov cocktail. "Yes to a ban on face coverings" and "Stop extremism" were emblazoned next to them.

Once again, the anti-"burka" campaign with its provocative motifs was the work of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) and its fellow campaigners. The "Egerkinger Committee", led by SVP politician Walter Wobmann, which secured the referendum, claimed to be fighting "parallel societies", the "claim to power of political Islam" and "the creeping Islamisation of Switzerland": no catchword was left out. In something of a test run, referendum-sanctioned veiling bans have been implemented in two Swiss cantons – Italian-speaking Ticino and German-speaking St. Gallen – in recent years. Now a nationwide ban has been achieved in the same way.

The SVP is the most successful right-wing populist party in Western Europe. It is the largest parliamentary group by far in the Swiss Federal Assembly, has huge influence, presents itself as conservative and economically liberal and is thus the declared model of the German AfD. Using the referendum model, which by tradition is firmly anchored in the Swiss constitution, the SVP has for decades repeatedly driven the other parties and the Swiss public before it in a bid to further its agenda. It is against immigration and the EU, against Muslims and refugees, and in favour of national isolation and a "Christian occidental" identity for Switzerland.

A man and a woman wear face masks with traditional Bavarian patterns (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Hornager)
Nearly four years ago, Germany's then Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere wrote an essay for a major tabloid newspaper in which he said that it is customary in Germany to "show our faces" – the implication being that burkas are not German. "Today, with the German population required to wear masks and keep their distance, these phrases seem like something from a bygone age. But the buzzword "burka" continues to conjure up ghoulish terror – a symbol of maximum foreignness," writes Daniel Bax. Pictured here: a man and a woman wear face masks with traditional Bavarian patterns

Burka bans as an effective political instrument

Repeated referendums also allow the SVP to basically run a permanent election campaign. Its grey eminence is 80-year-old billionaire and media mogul Christoph Blocher, who has shaped Swiss politics like nobody else in recent decades. Blocher's greatest success was in 1992, when he almost single-handedly used a referendum to block closer ties with the EU and ultimately Switzerland's accession to the union. Today, his eldest daughter, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, manages the patriarch's legacy as a functionary in the party and as a business woman in the EMS-Chemie group.

Up until 2014, the SVP appeared to be going from strength to strength. One milestone was the Swiss referendum on a ban on minaret construction, which garnered a majority in 2009. At that time, there were only four mosques with minarets in the whole of Switzerland, but it was enough for the SVP to stir up fears of Switzerland supposedly being "swamped by foreigners".

But recently, the SVP and its allies have suffered heavy defeats. Their initiative to have "criminal foreigners" deported even in cases of hardship was rejected by a majority in 2016. In 2018, it failed even more resoundingly with its demand to abolish broadcasting fees and thus deal a death blow to Switzerland's public broadcasters.

In the same year, the SVP also wanted to have Switzerland's national law put above international law by referendum: this was also defeated. One of the main reasons for these defeats was "Operation Libero", a political movement launched in 2014 in which the country's young and socially liberal groups joined forces and finally found a powerful way to fight back.

The demand for a "burka ban" was now a welcome means for the right-wing populists to score a comparatively easy win and regain the upper hand. After all, who likes burkas? The topic was ideally suited to appeal to traditionally conservative and even left-wing authoritarian circles. After all, conservative Christians, convinced secularists and old-school feminists are united in their aversion to radical Islam, despite being at loggerheads with each other the rest of the time.

Arab tourists in Austria (photo: Imago/Eibner Europa)
According to Daniel Bax, "the Swiss initiative mainly targeted those face veils that leave only a narrow slit free around the eyes and are much more widespread – especially on the Arabian Peninsula and among rich female tourists from the Gulf who like to holiday in Switzerland with their families"

Hot-button topic and perennial favourite

Since Islam in general and veiled Muslim women in particular make the perfect hate figure, calls to ban the burka are a perennial favourite among Europe's right-wing populists. But even established parties, keen to portray themselves as fighting against supposed "parallel societies", have repeatedly transformed themselves into ban parties when it comes to tackling this hot-button topic.

Several governments across Europe have banned, or at least restricted, the wearing of full-body veils in public in recent years. First out of the blocks was France, whose conservative-populist president Nicolas Sarkozy decreed the first ban of this kind in Europe almost exactly ten years ago, in April 2011. Since then, anyone who covers their face in public in France can expect a fine.

Over the years, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and most recently Denmark have followed suit with similar bans, always preceded by protracted public discussions.

Even the small Baltic state of Latvia issued a "burka" ban in 2016 – after months of debate. At the time, there were reportedly only three women in the entire country who wore a full-body veil.

However, these bans also cause collateral damage: in Ticino, it has so far been mainly masked football fans who have fallen foul of the law. In Austria, people wearing ski masks or animal costumes have also been reported. This is also likely to happen throughout Switzerland. But that doesn't faze "burka" ban advocates.

Freedom of religion also protects burka wearers

In Germany, too, there have been repeated calls for such a ban in recent years – not only from the AfD, but also from politicians in other parties. At the insistence of the CSU, the federal government enacted a "burka ban" for certain areas of public life in 2017. Since then, it has been illegal in Germany to cover your face while driving a car. Female civil servants, soldiers and judges are not allowed to cover their faces while on duty, and it is now a legal requirement to show your face when applying for identity papers, during identity checks, or at the polling station. Violations are considered an administrative offence and result in a fine.

Individual federal states and universities have also enacted regulations prohibiting female students from attending classes or taking exams while wearing a face veil. However, an universal ban on wearing a face veil in public remains incompatible with Germany's Basic Law: a fact determined in 2015 by the Bundestag's academic service.

The freedom of religion granted in Germany's Basic Law protects women who wish to wear a face veil because of their faith. This holds true despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims categorically reject the full-body veil.

A Muslim woman wearing a headscarf and a medical mask with her child, the Netherlands (photo: Sanne Derks)
The irony that face coverings are now not only acceptable but also compulsory will not be lost on many Muslim women. Pictured here: a Muslim mother wears a headscarf and medical mask while out and about in the Netherlands

Right-wing populists seek to undermine the rule of law and discriminate against minorities. How relevant the minority is, is of no concern here. There is always some marginal group against which one can mobilise "healthy common sense". Veil-wearing women are just a particularly easy target. Tomorrow it could be criminal migrant youths, transsexuals, Roma or the homeless again.

Ironically, countries that impose special dress codes for women are moving closer to illiberal and authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia or Iran, which also tell women what to wear. The hallmark of liberal states, on the other hand, is that anyone and everyone can dress as they wish, as long as they do not curtail anyone else's freedoms.

Right-wing populists need a hate figure

There are other and better ways to combat religious fundamentalism, which undoubtedly exists in immigrant communities. Indeed, "burka" bans can actually be rather counterproductive. French sociologist Agnes de Feo conducted a long-term study on the impact of the "burka" ban in her country, interviewing 200 women who wear a face veil. Many of them only decided to wear the niqab after the introduction of the French anti-"burka" law: out of spontaneous protest and defiance.

Most of them came from less religious families or were converts, frequently single or single parents, and even cultivated a feminist stance. Their acquisition of basic religious knowledge was in many cases a gradual process. This can also be said about the most famous niqab wearer in Switzerland, Nora Illi. A Muslim convert, she often appeared on Swiss television and repeatedly caused a stir with provocative statements. In 2016, she was a controversial guest on Germany's Anne Will talk show.

Last year she died of breast cancer, aged just 36. The daughter of a German psychotherapist and a Swiss social pedagogue, Illi was active in the Zurich punk scene before her conversion and was anything but typical of Muslim women in Switzerland. Nevertheless, she had a lasting impact on the image of Islam in the Swiss media.

The example of France shows that by specifically targeting Muslim women, the veiling ban in Switzerland will strengthen any inclination these women may have to take refuge in appealing fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. But that doesn't bother the right-wing populists. They are not out to solve social problems, but to intensify them. In doing so, they are consciously driving social polarisation, because they stand to gain from it. If this gives Islamic fundamentalists a boost, so much the better. After all, right-wing populists need Islamic fundamentalists as their hate figure and as their own raison d'etre.

Daniel Bax

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Lucy James

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