An alliance between feminism and nationalism may seem unlikely to some. Usually, nationalists are not particularly concerned with women’s rights or gender equality and feminists would be opposed to nationalist positions. However, feminists and nationalists were both complicit in the recent vote in favour of the Swiss “burqa ban”. This alliance entails a blurring of right-wing and left-wing positions and has to be seen as a sign pointing to the erosion of fundamental conditions of liberal democracy.
On 7th March 2021, the initiative for the ban of face coverings in Switzerland passed with a majority of 51,21% of the votes – against the recommendation of the Federal Council. Even though the ban also targets protestors at demonstrations and spectators at sporting events (associated with rioters and hooligans), it is primarily directed at Muslim women wearing a niqab or burqa. Exceptions that permit covering one’s face in public, such as health and safety reasons, the carnival, or the climate, indicate an asymmetrical evaluation of the face cover. Clearly, it is not the cover itself that poses a problem, but the assumed intention behind it.
The initiative had been launched by the Egerkinger Komitee, a far-right anti-Islam movement which also stood behind the initiative to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland, adopted back in 2009. The “burqa ban” is their second initiative and amongst its members there is already a conversation about banning the hijab from schools. As France begins implementing a so-called bill against “Islamist separatism” (2021), Austria is introducing a controversial bill targeting “religiously motivated extremism” (2021). In suppressing signs of Muslimness, Switzerland conspicuously links up with a wider European trend of Islamophobia.
The Egerkinger Komitee is devoted “to organise resistance against claims to power by political Islam in Switzerland”. Its president, Walter Wobmann, specifies their target: “In parts of such [European] cities, radical Islam already reigns with its entire ugly face. […] An Islam embodying a completely different social system that is diametrically opposed to our liberal and democratic value system.” It is slightly unexpected to witness a far-right politician being concerned about liberal, democratic values. But the combination of arguments of national security and women’s rights, is exactly what motivated self-proclaimed feminists to join forces with seemingly opposed political positions in favour of a “burqa ban”.
The security argument clearly referred to a supposed threat from (female) “Islamist terrorists” and was aimed at taking a stand against “political and extremist Islam”. The Egerkinger Komitee created the image of an imminent “Islamisation” of Switzerland – even though we are speaking about only thirty women in the country wearing the niqab (none wearing the burqa). The real issue promoted by the criminalisation of Muslimness through its association with violent extremism is the reconstruction of an exclusive identity invoking Swiss traditions and Christian culture. Thereby, Islamophobia is used to feed a position to be understood as nationalism.
The strategy of lumping together Muslims with hooligans and rioters under the slogan “stop extremism,” and putting up posters on which both are not always clearly distinguishable, certainly has triggered support for the initiative from across the political spectrum. But the main argument paving the way for the conjunction of seemingly opposed positions was established by linking the notion of “political and extremist Islam” to the allegedly oppressive treatment of women. Introduced by traditionally anti-feminist protagonists, this reasoning was strongly supported by voices defining themselves as feminist. This shows in a striking way how right-wing nationalism is capable of co-opting an emancipatory discourse and, conversely, how representatives of feminism are willing to join nationalist narratives. What we are witnessing here is an alliance which Sara Farris calls “femonationalism,” which describes the appropriation of feminist arguments on behalf of nationalist anti-Islam claims as well as the compliance of certain feminist positions.
The centre right politician Marianne Binder-Keller argued for a ban because she considers the burqa an expression of “coercion and oppression”. Similarly, Saïda Keller-Messahli, President of the Forum for a Progressive Islam, was in favour of the initiative for “emancipatory reasons”. She interprets face coverings as a political message, “a rejection of democracy, of women’s freedom and, of course, of equality.” Feminist author Gisela Widmer supported the ban despite her opposition to the Egerkinger Komitee. She described the niqab as the “cowl of political Islam” and a “symbol of a worldwide, increasingly fascist ideology” fostering gender segregation, homophobia, anti-Semitism, inhumane punishment, and a lack of freedom of religion – opposing all the values she fights for: “A ban on veiling would be a clear message, not primarily to women, but also to their husbands.” With a Left-Wing Manifesto for a Burqa Ban, some women, such as Lea Kusano from the Social Democratic Party, tried to distance themselves from the initiators. However, they nevertheless sustained the fantasy that achievements of equality and emancipation were at risk. Even if feminists involved may not generally agree with the Egerkinger Komitee, their positions merged with the right-wing under the banner of liberating oppressed Muslim women from their fathers and husbands.
The combination of security and women’s rights issues recalls similar discourses that Lila Abu-Lughod analysed in a post-9/11 US war on terror context, which accords her article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” a striking timeliness. The conception of feminism evoked in favour of a Swiss “burqa ban” stigmatised Muslimness in order to activate a saviour narrative which, conversely, helped to reaffirm a liberal enlightenment idea of freedom and emancipation. Now, not only white men but also white feminists are concerned with “saving brown women from brown men,” as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously put it. The Swiss case can be seen as a reinvigoration of colonial feminism.
“Full-face veiling has always to do with oppression!”
It is remarkable that the wide support from self-proclaimed feminists was upheld despite the evocation of long-known colonialist and civilising saviour narratives. It is even more remarkable to notice that on some posters the women, supposedly victims of oppression, are actually pictured as furious and dangerous rather than in need of being saved or protected. This takes the hypocrisy of the feminist saviour argument to extremes. In the end, the very conjunction of what has been presented as a feminist argument and the supposed threat of “political Islam” facilitated the construction of a liberal, enlightened, and exclusive idea of an emancipated women’s identity complementing what it is to be Swiss.
I suggest that the “burqa ban” and surrounding debates have to be seen as part of a struggle to forcefully control authority over interpretation concerning national identity. In support of this broader hegemonic effort, feminists accepted to side with outright nationalism to formulate exclusive identities and protect the privileges of a long-established core of the nation. Feminists accepted to give up the emancipatory claim to self-determination as far as a minority of the population was concerned, and thereby to betray liberal and democratic values. It should be noted that the co-optation of feminist arguments by nationalist positions, the unlikely complicity of feminist voices, and the wide-ranging agreement with Islamophobic and saviour arguments in the context of the Swiss “burqa ban” is more than a surprising phenomenon. Rather, it is to be seen as threatening to undermine Switzerland as a liberal democracy.
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 Farris, S. R. 2017. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Duke University Press.
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 Abu-Lughod, L. 2002. Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others. American Anthropologist. 104(3), pp. 783-790.
 Spivak, G. C. 2010. . Can the Subaltern Speak? New York: Columbia University Press.