On the Map: About Those Swiss Minarets

At first glance, the ominous poster made by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) seemed to me to be depicting a burqa-clad woman standing in front of a stockpile of missiles. The starkly dubious message being: Stop Islamic Fundamentalism. After reading the accompanying article on Al Jazeera (and than many, many more elsewhere), the poster took on a new meaning: This is what Islamophobia looks like.

I do not claim to know the intricacies of Switzerland’s history; however, this ban comes across as a thinly veiled tool intended to force assimilation on the 400,000 Muslims who reside in the country, a minority comprising just 5% of the population. The SVP, which has a history of advocating for anti-immigrant initiatives, has made statements calling minarets a symbol of Islamic political influence that could undermine the nation’s so-called Christian values and democracy, arguing that minarets are the start of a slippery slope toward the implementation of Sharia law. These types of combative tactics toward social integration only serve to further stigmatize and already marginalized group and many Swiss citizens–including Christians and Jews–have condemned the ban and say they fear it will increase the anti-Islamic sentiment that is already present in the country. Indeed, since the referendum was introduced the mosque in Geneva has been vandalized three times.

Despite synagogues, churches, and other groups joining together to advocate against the SVP’s proposal; the posters being barred from at least three Swiss cities; and opinion polls predicting the ban’s defeat, 57% of voters ultimately endorsed the referendum. The Swiss government, media, and businesses swiftly responded by condemning the ban and assuring members of the Muslim community that its passage is not a rejection of their religion or culture–a statement that feels a lot like lip service to me. In spite of its stated embarrassment, the Swiss government vowed to respect the majority-approved decision, proof that democracy doesn’t necessarily bring equality.

From a feminist perspective, the fact that women were more likely to support the ban than men is troubling to me. American feminists have long been accused (and rightfully so) of exploiting the image of the helplessly oppressed Muslim woman (demonstrated in this campaign  through the visual strategy of using a niqabi woman on the SVP poster and its invocation of Sharia Law as scare tactics) to justify anti-Islamic ideologies and actions, and with this referendum, Swiss women are falling victim to the same (ir)rationalizations. A teacher named Tatiana said she would vote for the minaret ban because she could “no longer bear being mistreated and terrorized by boys who believe women are worthless.” In her eyes Islam is equated with women’s oppression, an equation with which many Muslim feminists would beg to differ, and feminist concerns trump multiculturalism–a convenient position for someone who occupies a position in the dominant culture to take.

“If we give them a minaret, they’ll have us all wearing burqas,” housewife Julia Werner told Times Online. “Before you know it, we’ll have Sharia law and women being stoned to death in our streets. We won’t be Swiss any more.” The last part of Julia’s statement is telling, as the implication is that the Islamic faith is not a part of Swiss national identity–an obvious statement of exclusion.

International leaders have already pushed back by telling the Swiss government that this change to its constitution violates guarantees of religious freedom it agreed to in the European Human Rights Convention. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged Switzerland to reverse the decision quickly, saying, “If you are not allowed to build minarets, that means that religion is being oppressed.” Let’s hope pressure at home and abroad will lead to an overturning of this decision.

by Mandy Van Deven
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Swiss are some of many

What's distressing about this is that it isn't an attitude limited to Switzerland. A lot of the supposedly progressive countries in Europe, like Denmark (where I live), are increasingly giving power to right wing parties that are openly nationalistic but also extraordinarily anti-immigrant (or against anyone perceived as "non-native" or "other") and xenophobic (the Danish version being the Danish People's Party, the British one is the British National Party). As these parties gain even the slimmest margins of power in parliaments in Britain, Switzerland, and Scandinavia, the middle adjusts and moves slightly right. For whatever reason, these fringe opinions hold enough political weight to make allies across party lines. This comes on the heels of Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time, the BBC current affairs show that has a mandate to represent a range of opinions. That Griffin is a well-known Holocaust denier, for example, does not bar him from speaking in public as a political figure. Similarly, there is widespread (or certainly noisy) opposition to plans for a mosque to be built in Copenhagen, even though there are assurances (as if we should require such a thing) that no calls to prayer will be made and the towers will only be ornamental. The Danish People's Party also gets considerable press coverage, even though their views are intolerant and damaging. A lot of it is cloaked in language about religion and social programs that will be taxed by immigrants, but any minimal investigation of these kinds of claims shows how deeply misguided they are. It seems to surprise people in the U.S. that these sentiments have been festering in Europe for the past decade, but to see it on the ground - as an outsider/immigrant myself - is downright chilling.

Since when has being a

Since when has being a feminist been about being PC? American feminists exploited the helpless muslim woman image? I call BS! When you have a culture of oppression, exploitation, and second class citizenship (Saudi women still can't drive a car in urban centers and can be snatched off the street by religous quasi-police for not being with a male relative, and let's not even touch on the "evidence" needed to bring a charge of rape) then it is a legitimate standard to express the ground still needed to be covered in our cause. It's not Islampahobia to point out institutional problems seen even in places like Indonesia where going to rock concerts and wearing pants are outright banned for Muslim women. Our forbearers are spinning in their graves. And before I'm billyclubbed by the bleeding heart PC police; the poster and the efforts discussed in the article are spot on otherwise, much like with any other knee jerk reaction to growing immigrant population, is founded in fear and ingnorance that is not acceptable.

it's the ad hominem, cherry-picking, PC accusation game!

Nearly every culture is one of institutional oppression, exploitation, and second class citizenship for women. This is not a phenomenon that is specific to Muslims, and positing that it is by ignoring the existence of gender inequities in other religions and cultures is most definitely Islamophobic.

One look at the <a href="http://www.weforum.org/en/Communities/Women%20Leaders%20and%20Gender%20P... Global Gender Gap Report 2009</a> shows that gender inequity is prevalent in countries without a Muslim majority. So, for example, India (a predominantly Hindu nation) and Guatemala (nearly evenly split between Catholics/Protestants) are both ranked <i>lower</i> than your stated Indonesia in terms of women's equality. But we could do quid pro quo 'til the cows come home and never get anywhere because there will always be a counter example available.

Also important to this discussion is a consideration of the colonial histories in countries that have extracted valuable resources and fostered poor economic climates for those living in the colonized country, which also contributes to this types of gendered social inequalities. You can't simply decontextualize global and state histories when speaking of this issue and expect your statements to have merit.

Well, the democracy is in

Well, the democracy is in the streets and this time the people had their say. This is an outcome of EU elites not caring about the honest hard working people of Europe and get lost in their maniac vision of multiculturalism. Islam is no way European culture and will never be integrated here. You wanna be a Muslim, that's fine with me. I guess people are afraid cause there's a lot of problems with minorities in Europe these days and I they want to speak about it they're branded racist. Don't they get it it's nothing race related. It's all about walking safe streets at night and not get your car burnt.

"Let's hope pressure at home and abroad will lead to an overturning of this decision."

Yeah, that's what democracy is about! The same goes with the voting on Lisbon Treaty in Ireland - is it just me concerned about how politicians care about our decisions in Europe nowadays?

I apologize in the name of 43% of my country

Ever since the SVP started gaining some serious political weight with their politics of fear (helped on by campaigning budgets far outweighing that of all other parties), there have been more and more moments when I feel very much like my American friends (mostly Democrats) after the Bush election, apologizing to the world with great embarrassment.

I am generally a fan of my country and our direct democracy, but if the majority of the people is scared into supporting rightwing legislation (very much like during WWII, they said "the boat is full" to justify turning back refugees), the drawbacks of this become quite clear. And now that the EU has cautioned that the minaret ban very likely violates the European Human Rights Convention, the SVP is already talking about quitting the contract, stating "the will of the Swiss people supercedes international law and human rights". So yes, these days I am seriously embarrassed to be Swiss.

Us vs. Them

Slavov Zizek has written a wonderful piece about the seemingly disproportionate and irrational nationalist resurgence in Europe. The piece is "Eastern Europe's Republics of Gilead", and while it focuses on the ex-Soviet and communist states, it can be more widely applied to nationalist movements.

Whether you like it or not,

Whether you like it or not, the Swiss people have exercised their constitutional right. They have spoken.


As a student living in Geneva and attending its university in 1998-99, I grew to love so many things about Switzerland. Especially the international nature of Geneva, "the world's smallest international city" and all that jazz. I'd hear 5 languages minimum on the bus, viewed great cultural exhibits from all over, met great people (swiss and non-swiss) and was very safe walking home or traveling solo as a woman. So when I make complaints, please understand it is from disappointment in knowing that Switzerland can and should do better.

1. Switzerland was the last country in Europe to give women the vote...in 1971!
"In 1968 Geneva, then the country's third largest city, had a woman mayor - but she still couldn't vote in federal elections. This advance did not prevent Switzerland from suggesting that when it signed the human rights convention of the Council of Europe, it should opt out of those parts calling for sexual equality. The uproar this provoked forced the government to revise its position. A new referendum was put to the country."

<i>So I call bullshit on Switzerland being the heart of either women's, or in general human, rights! And this is also precendent for trying to get out of Europe's human rights regulations, in this case religious freedom.</i>

In fact, in the swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden they held out against women's suffrage until forced to do so in <b>1990!</b>

2. Calling further BS on Switzerland as the epicenter of all known feminism, women who choose to "keep" their given (maiden) name after marriage actually are only allowed to have it listed before the husband's last name, without a hyphen. It is permitted to be used without the addition of his family name afterwards, in professional/everyday life, however this is not your official name. And your kids have to bear the 'common name' i.e. HIS last name. Too bad!

3. Speaking of another unfair Swiss ban...pitties and other breeds banned, and unfair restrictions on ALL large dogs:


Switzerland, please - I know you can do wonderful things. Please get off of this smug xenophobic (and dogphobic - see above - but I digress) train and pass some thoughtful legislation. That's what I wish for the U.S., too...I'm looking at you, useless border fence!...sigh.

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