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Can Geneva’s Anticipated Secularism Law Affect Muslims?

GENEVA – Swiss citizens of Geneva will decide on February 10 whether to back a controversial new law aimed at putting more regulations on the relations between religion and state, whilst reaffirming the principle of secularism in the Swiss canton, Swiss Info reported on February 6.

“I never had any problems with my hijab as an elected official or during my work as a nurse,” expressed Sabine Tiguemounine, Meyrin’s Green municipal councilor, who’s currently the only elected hijabi official in Geneva.

“Religious peace exists in Geneva, but this law is damaging it.”

Some of the awaited law’s planned changes include a ban on visible religious symbols which can go too far to target Muslim women, while in fact no less than 40% of Geneva’s population is formed of foreign residents, and 6.24% of them are Muslims according to 2017 estimates.

Being the canton of the Protestant reformer Jean Calvin, Geneva is referred to as the Protestant Rome. However, 2016 estimates showed that there were 400 religious communities, and 38% of the population were atheist.

Some politicians have been battling to agree on a new secularism law driven by minister Pierre Maudet. Rightwing supporters and Geneva government say the new legal framework will clarify existing principles in the Constitution to protect freedom of conscience, belief, and non-believers.

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The three main religious communities in Geneva – the Protestant Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Old Catholic Church – announced their official support for the law.

The new legislation was approved by the cantonal parliament last April thanks to a center-right majority. But opponents say the law is unnecessary and arbitrary, giving government officials too much power. Moreover, they believe it violates human rights, in particular, article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Critics say teachers in Geneva are currently subject to a cantonal law that bans visible religious symbols in school.

Carole-Anne Kast, a local official from the Onex district, also worries the law could have a negative impact on workers, especially Muslim women.

“If this law is accepted, I would be forced to get rid of five hijabi women, and that’s despite the fact they were taken on by the commune in full knowledge that they wear on. They are women who help children to school or look after them after lessons. What should I tell parents?” she said.

Two-thirds of Switzerland’s 8.5 million residents identify as Christians. But its Muslim population has risen to 5%, largely because of Balkans Muslim immigrants.

Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not just a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.

As for the face veil, the majority of Muslim scholars believe that a woman is not obliged to cover her face or hands.

Scholars, however, believe that it is up to women to decide whether to cover their faces.

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