Hijab with floral print and silvery rhinestones, 1990–2005.
As a visible manifestation of devotion to Islam, the headscarf worn by Muslim women and girls became the subject of controversy in the late 1990s. In Switzerland too, religious plurality was turned into a political issue. Forms of xenophobia began to be directed at Islamic immigration. Hijab with floral print and silvery rhinestones, 1990–2005. Swiss National Museum

Whose freedom?

At one time the Muslim headscarf was a frequent source of heated debate. It can be seen as a barometer to gauge changing views of religious freedom.

Jacqueline Grigo

Jacqueline Grigo

Dr Jacqueline Grigo is an expert in religious studies, a social and cultural anthropologist and an adjunct researcher at the University of Zurich.

Switzerland sees itself as a secular state in which freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution. Religious freedom is based on state neutrality. At the same time, the separation of the public and private spheres forms the socio-political basis of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. As Mader and Schinzel have written, these fundamental rights, in turn, oblige the state: "to restrict an individual's opportunities to develop freely only to the extent that this is expedient, necessary and personally acceptable in the overarching interest of society, i.e. in the 'public' interest". Conversely, the state must ensure that questionable practices which curtail the rights of others or disadvantage them in any way are not adopted under the pretext of religious freedom. From a legal point of view, religion is: "the expression of an individual attitude towards the Divine or the transcendent", thus making it a purely private affair. However, given the closely intertwined nature of the public and private spheres, it is difficult to make a clear distinction between the two. Whenever a religious belief or membership of a religious community manifests itself, religion is made visible to others and thus becomes a matter of public concern, opening up scope for interpretation in legal disputes, which are influenced by historical and socio-political developments and discourses. Since the 1970s, Switzerland has changed from a predominantly Christian country to one marked by religious plurality. While membership of the established churches has fallen, the number of people describing themselves as 'non-religious' has continued to rise along with the number of members of free churches and non-Christian faiths. Muslim communities have experienced the most significant growth, from around 0.3% in 1970 to 5.4% in 2020. After the fall of the Berlin Wall a new, bipolar world order gradually began to impose itself on public debate. In place of the 'communist' Eastern Bloc, 'Islamism' and sometimes even 'Islam' in general were now declared an international threat. This perception became heightened following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001.
Evolution of the religious landscape in Switzerland 1970–2000.
Until the 1970s the Swiss population was almost entirely Catholic or Protestant. Since then, various reasons have led to a steep decline in membership of the Christian churches. As a result of the influx of migrants during the Balkan Wars, Muslims had become the largest religious minority in Switzerland by 2000. Evolution of the religious landscape in Switzerland 1970–2000. Federal Statistical Office
As the following example demonstrates, this shift also had an impact on the individual's freedom of religion in many cases. In 1997, for example, the Federal Supreme Court prohibited a Muslim teacher in the canton of Geneva from wearing a headscarf in the classroom, arguing that doing so influenced the children in a way that was not compatible with the school's requirement to observe religious neutrality. The ban "did not target the appellant's religious beliefs, but rather it aimed to protect the rights and freedoms of others and to preserve public safety and public order," as stated in the Federal Office of Justice press release of 27 February 2001. The Court's decision also took equal rights into consideration: "It must also be acknowledged that it is difficult to reconcile the wearing of a headscarf with the principle of gender equality [...], which is a fundamental value of our society enshrined in a specific provision of the Federal Constitution [...] and must be taken into account by schools." The teacher then took her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which upheld the Federal Supreme Court's decision. It found that the denominational neutrality of the state education system must be ensured at all times. Nevertheless, the arguments on which the various court rulings presented here rest are themselves based on suppositions and unspoken norms. This gives rise to the following questions, for instance: To what extent does the wearing of a headscarf threaten the 'rights and freedoms of others' or 'public order and security'? Why does banning rather than tolerating headscarves contribute more to fostering tolerance and respect for others? And to what extent can the headscarf generally be seen as a sign of female subordination?
Page 3 of the Walliser Bote of 20.11.1997.
Article reporting on the Federal Supreme Court's 1997 judgment prohibiting a Muslim teacher in Geneva from wearing a headscarf while teaching in class. The Court based its decision on the article of the Constitution enshrining the neutrality of the state school system. Consequently, the appellant was required to accept a restriction of her religious freedom or renounce her profession. Page 3 of the Walliser Bote of 20.11.1997. e-newspaperarchive.ch
Increasing attention has been paid to religion by politicians, the general public and the media in Switzerland and Europe over the last few decades. However, coverage of religious issues tends to be rife with value judgements. Whilst representatives of the Christian and Jewish faiths are sometimes portrayed negatively and sometimes positively, Buddhism is generally considered to be peaceful, non-violent, open, tolerant and undogmatic. In the case of Islam, on the other hand, negative representations dominate. It is primarily associated with conflict, extremism, violence, backwardness and terrorism, not forgetting the suppression of women's rights. This media-driven 'clash of civilizations' is fond of framing the headscarf as a symbol of irreconcilable values. Islamic dress codes are often treated as the opposite of what our society is striving to be: in other words, free, equal, safe and just.
Report on Swiss voters agreeing to the "burqa ban" in March 2021. YouTube / Reuters
Since the start of the 21st century, the 'headscarf controversy' has been used throughout Europe as a means of renegotiating the social status of religion. But the debate is also inevitably about the conditions under which we can live together in a pluralist society. However, it is precisely young, second- and third-generation Muslims searching for their identity who often wear the headscarf with a new sense of empowerment. They see themselves as religious, enlightened and modern all at the same time. They strive for independence and professional success, and distance themselves from the expectations and values of their parent's generation, which they perceive as conservative and restrictive, as well as from the attempts to marginalise them by the host society in which they now live. They wear the headscarf with confidence, not as an expression of their relationship with God, but as a means of voicing their right to participate in society and its decision-making.
Tourism poster for Arosa, 1957.
For a long time in Switzerland, headscarves were part of the traditional dress. Women working in the countryside used them to protect their hair from dust and dirt. In the 1950s, this particular head covering became a fashion accessory. Stars like Grace Kelly, who liked to sport a headscarf when riding in a cabriolet, helped add a touch of feminine glamour. Tourism poster for Arosa, 1957. Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, Poster Collection, ZHdK © Roland Kupper

Every person has the right to choose freely their religion or their philosophical convictions, and to profess them alone or in community with others.

Cst. 1999, Art. 15, para. 2

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