Switzerland isn’t ‘Progressive’ | William Hallowell


The home of Toblerone has received praise after its vote in favour of legalising gay marriage – but it’s got far to go in terms of being ideologically ‘progressive’.

At the end of last week, Switzerland held a referendum on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The outcome was a decisive and clear victory for the LGBT community with 64% of people voting in favour of legalising a freedom that is, by European standards, long overdue. The result of the vote will also mean that same-sex couples will be able to adopt unrelated children, and lesbian couples will be able to have children through sperm donation.

This is a huge win for individual liberty and should be celebrated – but Switzerland still has a way to go before it can be seen as ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’. It seems Switzerland has always been behind its European friends, like the UK, when it comes to affording rights. Though in 1971 some women were afforded suffrage, only in 1990 were all Swiss women given the right to vote; and only in 2007 were same-sex couples granted civil partnerships after a referendum in 2005. Though the former vote was over thirty years ago and latter just under fifteen, it still has a way to go before left-wing activists can praise it for being the progressive country that it should be by modern, European standards – and when I say ‘progressive’, I mean in the modernising, contemporising sense, not in the left-wing ideological sense.

Switzerland has a small population, recording a population of 8.6 million people in 2020 – 5% of which Muslim in July of that year. Assuming the split between the Muslim population by gender is more or less even, that means a tiny portion (2.5%) of the population are Muslim women. However, the fact that Muslim women make up such a small proportion of the Swiss population should not excuse marginalisation, or comprise freedom of expression and religion, of which the former is a “fundamental right and is enshrined in the constitution”.

Yet, in March this year the people had a referendum on whether or not to “ban” the burqa, in which 51% of people voted in favour of banning the religious garment. However, the Swiss public should never have been handed the opportunity to vote on others’ rights and autonomy in the first place.

If ever there was an argument against democracy, a vote which could deny the right to free expression – whether of a religious garment or not – would be it. If countries can and do, why not hold a referendum on banning goth clothing because of its hideous nature, or the dreadful resurrection of flares from the 1970s? If liberty and bodily autonomy mean anything in a ‘free’ country, then such referenda shouldn’t take place. If plebiscites are to be held on religious clothing, why not hold them for religions themselves? Why not wholly outlaw Islam if Muslim women are not free to practice their religion as they see fit? Why not go to the ballot box over any and all freedoms afforded by bodily autonomy?

A vote to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa may as well be a vote on whether or not to criminalise medical terminations on the basis of morality (which is of course subjective), or illegalise bicycles because they cause a nuisance to drivers. A truly ‘free’ or ‘progressive’ country would not allow the ability for people to impose their own views on others… particularly when it comes to issues that are a matter of personal choice, and that do not harm or negatively impact others. If this should not be the case, why not support the role of religion within state policy? Switzerland is a majority Roman Catholic country anyway, so why not ban abortions outright?

Such a referendum should be deemed as no less than sexist and discriminatory for its purposeful marginalisation towards women of a very specific religion. Simply, the option for Muslim women to wear a burqa comes down to personal choice, and the only people who should have a say in what Muslim women wear is Muslim women.

While the legalisation of gay marriage is a step in the right direction for Switzerland, let us not be so quick to judge it as an ideologically ‘progressive’ state – because it isn’t, and it still has a way to go.


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