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Would Australia ever consider a Swiss-style 'burqa ban'?

A woman walks behind a campaign poster of the far-right Swiss People's Party depicting a woman wearing a burqa against the background of the Swiss flag. Source: AFP

Members of Australia's Muslim community speak to SBS Arabic24 about whether they think Australia would ever ban face coverings, following a move by Switzerland to do so.

A national referendum in Switzerland last week narrowly passed a new law that bans face-covering apparel in the central European nation. 

Though not directly targeting face coverings worn by Muslim women, the move also bans protesters from wearing masks.

The result of the so-called "burqa ban" places Switzerland on the list of countries like France, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria that have passed laws regarding face coverings.

Melburnian Asmaa Shamseddine follows the Muslim faith. She started wearing the niqab as a teenager 11 years ago. 

"Initially I wore it because my mother and my friends did,” she told SBS Arabic24.

"Later, I searched for my own reason to wear it. I studied it, so my reason changed. For me, it became a symbol to show I'm Muslim," Ms Shamseddine reasoned.

Asmah Shamseddine started wearing the niqab as a teen.
Asmaa Shamseddine started wearing the niqab as a teen.
Asmah Shamseddine

She believes the Swiss decision does, in fact, "infringe upon the rights of Muslim women", and that similar laws abound across the world to "target this group specifically".

"Everyone has the freedom to wear what they want. Now it's everyone's right but for Muslim women," Ms Shamseddine lamented.

Despite the laws that have been passed in many European countries, she doesn’t expect a similar move to be made in Australia.

"I don't think this could happen here because since its inception, Australia has been a country of immigrants. So, we have experience in dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds," Ms Shamseddine argued.

Nonetheless, Ms Shamseddine said it worries her to see politicians with "extreme views" sitting in the federal parliament. 

She's no stranger to harassment over her choice to wear the niqab but said such occurrences were rare.

"I only remember being harassed once in 10 years. It was an episode of verbal abuse. I was called names and comments were made about my headdress," recalled Ms Shamseddine.

Asmaa Shamseddine
Asmaa Shamseddine

However, this experience didn't scare her about feeling safe in her hometown. 

"I grew up in Melbourne, it's my home and Australia my country. Nothing has ever happened here for me to feel unsafe," Ms Shamseddine added.

In 2017, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson entered the federal Senate chamber wearing a burqa, while calling for a ban on face coverings.

Her actions sparked debate and condemnation among fellow politicians and Muslim communities around the country.

Egyptian-born Melbourne imam Alaa El Zokm believes telling women they have no right to wear the hijab is an "infringement on women's rights to wear whatever they like".

"It's a process of restricting women and hindering their right to practice and wear whatever they choose."

"Banning the burqa is a form of discrimination against a group of women. Wearing the hijab or niqab or removing them is a choice that belongs to women and to women alone, to wear whatever they desire." the imam said.

A poster of the initiative 'Yes to the burqa-ban' is seen in Oberdorf, in the canton of Nidwalden, Switzerland.
A poster of the initiative 'Yes to the burqa-ban' is seen in Oberdorf, in the canton of Nidwalden, Switzerland.

He doesn't believe there is a need to bring Australia into the debate because of its standing as a multicultural democracy.

"Australia is one of the world leaders in religious freedoms and one of the most established multicultural and multi-faith countries in the world."

"Both Muslim and non-Muslim women are guaranteed the right to dress as they please under the protection of Australian law, which safeguards religious and cultural freedoms. This is the great thing about our beloved country, Australia. 

"So we should not ask this question in the Australian community, because this right is guaranteed and we're all grateful for it."

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