Strong anti-burqa sentiment in the sleepy Swiss canton of Ticino

On July 1, Switzerland's southernmost canton of Ticino enforced a law banning the wearing of the burqa (traditional Islamic headdress for women) in public places.

Described by some as one of the most beautiful and quiet places in Europe, the region on the border of Italy — with the exception of its international film festival — has managed to stay out of Swiss and international headlines. That is, until now.

This law has been a long time coming, having been drafted in 2013 following a referendum that resulted in a 65 percent vote to ban the burqa in public places.

Earlier than that, even, there were growing tensions between Ticino’s locals and the Muslim immigrants. The Muslim population of Switzerland has rocketed from just 1 percent 35 years ago to about 5 percent now, signaling a fairly abrupt demographic shift.

Ticino’s locals are very attached to their culture and want it to remain as it is: a mixture of Italian dolce vita and the exactness and punctuality of the Swiss. Most Swiss cities are now home to prominent Muslim communities, of which some members remain decidedly foreign in lifestyle and appearance decades after their arrival.

While European Muslims have managed to successfully blend with the Ticinese identity, Arab, African and Asian Muslims often prefer to stay outsiders and not integrate, continuing in their own cultural routines and customs rather than assimilating. This is obviously a problem for Ticinese locals. 

Heeding no warnings

This is not the first time the Swiss have turned to their beloved ballot box on matters concerning their Muslim community. In November 2009, a referendum was held that resulted in a ban on the construction of minarets; a vote won by a 57.5 percent majority.

The most powerful political party in Switzerland right now is the SVP, who belong to the far-right. We are no strangers to European right-wing stances on immigration — has anyone heard of Brexit? 

Ticino has witnessed the rise of similar local sentiment, in the form of the right-wing party, Lega dei Ticinesi or LdT (the League of the Ticinese People). Led from its founding by bombastic leader, Giuliano Bignasca, who died in 2013, the LdT slowly rose to become one of the two big parties in the canton.

Despite pressure from the UN and various European nations not to ban the burqa, the people of the region have spoken in the form of the referendum. It seems that the Ticinese will do things their way, turning a deaf ear to what their neighbors have to say.

Although other countries in the EU, such as France and Belgium, have passed similar laws against the burqa, Ticino has received a great deal of backlash from international media, their actions being condemned as “Islamophobic.” Other European countries that have banned the burqa in public places include Italy, Spain, Latvia, Bulgaria and the Netherlands.

Two people have already been fined for wearing the burqa in the canton. One was Ms. Nora Illi, a member of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland, who purposefully opposed the ban. The other was Rachid Nekkaz, a political activist. Mr Nekkaz was fined 200 Swiss francs. Ms Illi faces a fine of between 100 and 10,000 Swiss francs.

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Switzerland sent out a notice to Saudi citizens in Switzerland, saying: "The embassy wishes to emphasize that the Ticino cantonal authorities in south eastern Switzerland have announced that as of July 1, 2016 they will start to enforce the burka (niqab) ban in public places in the canton… the embassy reminds all honorable citizens of the necessity to respect and conform to Swiss rules and regulations in order to avoid all problems."

Clamp down on conservatism

In a move perhaps more in line with the European trend than with the ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom, the Egyptian parliament drafted a new law earlier this year preventing women from wearing the niqab (full-face veil) in government institutions and public places. The law was announced in a statement released by MP Amna Nosseir, professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University.

This ban may have been surprising under the rule of ousted Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, but in light of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim party, it comes as no shock.

In February, Cairo University President Gaber Nassar decided to ban nurses and doctors from wearing the niqab in Qasr al-Aini Medical School and its affiliated teaching hospitals. The rule applies to nurses, graduate doctors, specialists, consultants, technical assistants and all academic staff at Qasr al-Aini hospitals.

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