One of the debates around migrants that settle permanently in a country is whether they should integrate or assimilate into their new environment. This has been a concern for some governments that argue that migrants can be a threat to cultural integrity. As a result, migrants are often forced by legislations to assimilate and leave behind their traditions and culture to adapt to the host community, even though this could mean an ethnic-cultural exclusion.
An example of it is the French case, where integration and assimilation are highly attached to citizenship, connected with the concept of citoyenneté, which means the compatibility with the French values and the willingness of people to belong. However, this willingness to belong is often associated with the obligation to embrace the dominant mainstream and forget their heritage, culture, and tradition. Since 2011 France became the first country to ban face veils in public spaces justifying that it was a necessary measure for secularism and gender equality. This initiative was followed by Belgium and Austria.
It can be seen as a contradiction that countries that supposedly guarantee freedom of expression are controlling the way women dress. The United Nations Human Rights Committee intervened declaring that France violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing the niqab, an Islamic veil. Regardless of the international pressure, this legislation remains.
Recently, Switzerland followed the steps of France and it passed a referendum that bans the use of burqa and niqab in public spaces. This is not the first time Switzerland decides to ban a Muslim tradition. In 2009 the swiss government banned the building of Minarets in Mosques. These prayer towers are forbidden because according to the 2009 justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, it “reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies”.
This demonstrates a rejection, legitimated by the law, towards Muslims, who are mostly immigrants or descendants of immigrants. This xenophobic governmental discourse is strengthening Islamophobia. It can be said that these laws are far from protecting citizens, on the contrary, are an example of social exclusion. Which is the term used to the group of disadvantages dependable on economic, social, environmental, norms and laws that leave behind and preclude the full participation of some groups in society; and is attributed to factors such as gender, race, migration, and disability.
The bans presented by Switzerland and France as a form of inclusion and secularism are excluding and violating civil liberties by forcing women to abandon their traditions and to follow western forms of dressing. The Swiss right party and right-wing movements in the country argue that the face veil ban will “combat the oppression of women and to uphold a basic principle that faces should be shown in a free society.” But women disagree and Amnesty International has catalogued it as a disproportionate measure that “threaten women to stay confined and excluded from public life” since they consider it as important for them to wear this piece of clothing. Niqabs and burqas are used for different reasons, it could be for religious affiliation or an inherited cultural tradition, either way, it is a personal choice and the state should not private women from wearing anything they want.
Switzerland portrays itself as an open and tolerant country, but currently is polarizing and excluding Muslim immigrants and second generation, which represent “5% of its population, or about 390,000 people, most of whom have their roots in Turkey, Bosnia, and Kosovo”. The country is sending the message that their culture is not accepted.
It is valid to ask, why are these cultural traditions and values seen as a threat? Why are some migrant’s traditions rejected while others are accepted? The answers to these questions are only speculations since it is difficult to know the intentions behind these governmental restrictions. However, it is possible to affirm that they reinforce racism and are discriminatory, they also stigmatise and marginalise a particular group of people, mostly foreign.
Under this current scenario of an increasing nationalist, anti-immigrant and racist sentiment in many western countries, the state should play the role of mediator and remove the barriers for integration. On the contrary, it is enhancing and legitimising exclusion with laws that promote censorship of traditions. Switzerland is ignoring that nations can be dynamic and foreign and host values can coexist, it is the responsibility of the state to promote a multicultural approach that highlights the beauty of diversity rather than the fear of the other.
It is often mentioned the duty of migrants and refugees to adapt but little is said about the host community and state, and their role in integration. Migration often means adjusting to a different language, climate, and norms, but it also demands compromise from the host community that should respect the foreign culture. Currently migrate or being born in Switzerland or France with Muslim traditions can mean changing and abandoning your culture and way of dressing to follow xenophobic norms. It is necessary to re-evaluate these policies, protect migrant’s rights and accept an ethnically and culturally diverse society.