Banning the hijab in Geneva

FARID HAFEZ @ferithafez
Published 27.02.2019 00:45

While the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation secures individual freedom of beliefs, it leaves it up to the cantons to decide on the specific relationship between church or religious communities and the state. Hence, the diversified map of state-church relations in Switzerland has cantons that officially recognize certain churches (soft secularism), while also having examples such as Geneva, which follow the French notion of hard secularism.

While the law has some advantages and improvements in that it will divide from a voluntary religious tax, which previously would only go to the three main churches, that will now be shared with other religious communities, the new law will also ban religious gatherings in public unless the organizers receive official authorization. In a nutshell, the state's influence on religious affairs will grow enormously, again a typical feature of hard secularism that pretends to separate church and state, while in reality, it gives the state power to take more control over the church.

While the bill was pushed by Minister Pierre Maudet and approved by the cantonal parliament that is composed of a center-right majority; the far left, Greens, feminists, unions and Muslims have fiercely criticized the bill for violating human rights and giving too much power to the state. But the largest three religious communities in Geneva, the Protestant Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Church, together voiced their support for the law, although they also criticized measures to impose religious neutrality on local civil servants as policies that reached too far. This aspect of the law especially targets Muslim, first and foremost women, who wear the hijab.

A last-minute amendment was taken to include a ban on wearing or showing visible religious symbols for elected politicians and government employees, who are in direct contact with the public. In Geneva, the hijab was already outlawed for teachers in public schools. Similar to other hard secularist policies such as the one in French schools, such a policy will primarily target Muslim women. However, Sikhs, who wear the turban or Jews, who wear the kipa, are also concerned. Obviously, Muslim women will be targeted much more, since many of them wear the hijab as a sign of their faith and thus religious practice is manifested in this garment.

Currently, Sabine Tiguemounine from the Green Party is the only municipal councilor and elected official in Geneva who wears a veil. But as in the other countries in the West, one can observe that these limitations are implemented once Muslim women organize themselves and get into respectable jobs away from the first-generation immigrant Muslims, who had been doing low-paying jobs. Institutional exclusion from the political space has become a feature in these areas, where the beginning of growing participation on behalf of observant Muslim women can be seen.While 8,000 opponents signed a petition to force a cantonal vote on the issue, another two legal challenges are pending, one by the Geneva Evangelical Network against the ban on religious gatherings and one by the Greens against the ban on elected officials wearing religious symbols. Also, the left-wing Ensemble a Gauche group presented its own version of a new secularism bill in parliament, which excludes the contentious part relating to religious "symbols." While these legal appeals and interventions have to wait for an answer, the political struggle to create an inclusive society that respects diversity and allows for equal opportunities for everybody in a society has to be done. Otherwise, the French Republican notion of égalité becomes nothing but a mask for white privilege that excludes Jew, Hindus and Muslims.

* Political scientist in the Department of Political Science at Salzburg University and senior research ccholar at Georgetown University's The Bridge Initiative in Washington D.C.

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