GENEVA, 7 March 2019 – No country in the world has a perfect record on women’s rights and gender equality and there is a felt need for cooperation and joint endeavours in order to reach the common goal of empowering women and putting an end to gender inequality. Muslim women must be given the right to freely choose what to wear and what not to wear, and fully included in society, be it through insertion on the labour market or simply through the practice of sports.
These were the main conclusions of a debate and book presentation organized by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue on the eve of International Women’s Day. The debate, entitled Muslim women between stereotypes and reality: an objective narrative, was held on 7 March 2019, as a side-event to the 40th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.
The panel discussion was an occasion for the Geneva Centre to present its latest publications on the topic of gender and women’s rights, entitled Women’s Rights in the Arab Region: Between Myth and Reality and Veiling /Unveiling: The Headscarf in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The panellists focused in their presentation on the persisting gender inequalities that hinder the full enjoyment of women’s rights worldwide, on the hostility to the headscarf as a politically correct expression of xenophobia on the Western political scene; as well as on the worrying rise of the latter. They also referred to the adoption of discriminatory legislation aimed at marginalizing Muslims, particularly women who choose to wear the headscarf.
The members of the panel included HE Ms Nassima Baghli, Ambassador and Permanent Observer of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva; Dr. Elisa Banfi, Research assistant at the Institute of Citizenship Studies (InCite) at the Department of Political Science, University of Geneva; and Dr. Amir Dziri, Director of the Swiss Centre for Islam and Society at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.
Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, Executive Director of the Geneva Centre, delivered opening remarks and moderated the panel debate.
In his remarks, Ambassador Jazairy deplored the new heights reached in the political manipulation surrounding the headscarf across Europe and other Western countries. He referred to the new law on secularity voted in February 2019, in the canton of Geneva, and to similar legislation adopted in Europe. Moreover, Ambassador Jazairy recalled the recent controversy concerning a hijab for women runners launched by a French sports brand, when high officials condemned the sports headgear as contradictory to the values respected in their country.
In this regard, the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre underscored that human rights are universal. The universality of these values had to be equally applied not only to Muslim and Islamic societies, but also to European and Western countries. It was therefore unfortunate to invoke national or local values in an attempt to prevent women from enjoying the “freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief”, as stipulated din Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Furthermore, quoting the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, Ambassador Jazairy underscored that gender inequality persisted in societies around the world, irrespective of culture, religion or geographical location. In this regard, joint endeavours should seek to close the gender gap worldwide, instead of playing the “naming and shaming” game in an attempt to relegate all issues of gender inequality to one culture, religion or region of the world.
Ambassador Jazairy welcomed the presence in the audience of Ambassador Naela Gabr, Member of the CEDAW Committee, who contributed to the publication of the Geneva Centre on Women’s Rights in the Arab Region: Between Myth and Realit. Her Excellency Ms Nassima Baghli commended the Geneva Centre for its efforts towards providing a better understanding of the complex realities of today’s world, far from misconceptions, stereotypes and shortcuts. Her Excellency remarked that women’s rights in the Arab region had recorded a notable progress over recent years, but the road towards equality and full enjoyment of human rights was still long.
Ambassador Baghli noted that Muslim women were more prone to discrimination and negative perceptions in the framework of Western societies. She reiterated that they are often perceived as in need of salvation, victimized and weak, and lacking free will. Furthermore, Ambassador Baghli remarked that these forms of discrimination were exacerbated in the case of veiled Muslim women. According to her, the negative stereotypes conveyed by the media contributed to this discriminatory environment.
Ambassador Baghli noted that Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries would not be deterred in their resolve to control of their destiny. She added that at the OIC level, a Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women was adopted in 2016, to encourage Member States to take measures for the full enjoyment of women’s rights. In this regard, Ambassador Baghli concluded with an encouragement for the courageous Muslim women on the ground, who through education and participation in the labour market were determined to be fully involved in societies and to deconstruct all stereotypes and prejudice.
Dr. Elisa Banfi delivered a compelling presentation based on a study and an article that she co-authored entitled “Institutionalizing Islamophobia in Switzerland: the burqa and minaret bans”. Her presentation focused on the racialization of Muslims by gendered Islamophobia
Dr. Banfi noted that institutional Islamophobic discourses and policies in Switzerland had led to an “otherization” of Muslim women in the public perception. She emphasized the fact that Switzerland had a record of late adoption of policies and international instruments that sought to achieve equality and to empower women, such as the national right to vote (adopted only in 1971), or the UN CEDAW Convention (signed only in 1997).
In this regard, Dr. Banfi underscored that the leading party that had opposed the advancement of Swiss women had become the most influent promoter of the ban on minarets and. She noted that as a result in the political discourse, Muslim women became represented as women in danger in their States, isolated from their communities and threatened by them, whilst Swiss institutions were represented in the dialectical relation as protectors of these women. Dr. Banfi concluded that this discourse built on stereotypes of Muslim women sought the construction of an internal enemy, as well as the creation of internal and external frontiers of nationhood, further marginalizing Muslim communities and institutionalizing discrimination.
Dr. Amir Dziri remarked in his presentation that Muslim women are depicted, in common Western opinion, as an instrument of culture conflict between the “Enlightened” West and traditional Islam. He deplored the fact that Muslim women were for the most part perceived as threat or as in need of salvation, and their autonomy remained unrecognized.
Furthermore, Dr Dziri underscored that Muslim women had become the centre of ideological combats in Western societies as a form of political aberration, seeking to obscure political responsibility on other major issues and to channel public attention to such matters that in reality were not urgent or problematic. The Director of the Swiss Centre for Islam and Society further noted that one of the most challenging issues faced by pluralistic societies in Europe nowadays was precisely the acceptance of visible diversity.
Finally, Dr Dziri described a recent phenomenon described as “integration-paradox”, remarking that the better migrants were integrated in societies, the more resistance they would face. In this regard, Muslim women in European societies benefited from high education and showcased excellent professional skills, which paradoxically lead to them being perceived as a threat, fuelling hostile attitudes towards them.
During the Q&A session, former Ambassador George Papadatos requested the panel to discuss the attitude of right wing movements in Europe towards women, and Muslim women in particular. He further pondered on what European country would be more likely to employ a Muslim woman wearing headscarf. Dr Banfi responded that numerous right wing movements were positioned overtly against the freedom of Muslim women, as they exclude them from the national identities of European states. She remarked that there are far-right movements in the Netherlands for example, which were not per se against women rights in general, but which use the defence of women’s rights to discriminate Muslim women, in a concept known in academic circles as “femo-nationalism”
Ambassador Jazairy remarked that in England, customs officers wearing a headscarf or policemen with turbans are a non-event. He reiterated that the position of the Geneva Centre is that all women should have the liberty of choosing what they wear and that their decisions should not be imposed by the State, either to force them to wear a headscarf or to forbid them from wearing it.
Replying to the question of an Independent Consultant present in the audience, Ambassador Baghli deplored the fact that the headscarf was manipulated in Europe as a political matter, by populist and intolerant groupings.
Another question from the floor referred to the concrete measures that should be taken to build more tolerance and to tackle everyday discrimination acts against Muslim women. Dr Dziri replied that the question was difficult to answer, as in societies very diverse, like in Germany and Switzerland, the idea of the normalisation of visible religious diversity was still a challenge.
Finally, a representative of the Right to Livelihood Award, Ms Ruth Manorma, underscored the important discrimination against Muslim women occurring in India.
The panel concluded by observing that globalization implies diversity and consequently necessitates its acceptance. Europe has in the past accepted migrants and its residents have themselves migrated. Today, the large-scale migration from the Middle East in particular has taken Europe by surprise, triggering defensive attitudes and nationalistic policies aimed at setting up barricades. It is to be hoped that this is a transitional phase. There is indeed need to promote globalization, but with a human face and accept and embrace diversity which is its consequence.