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Referendum: Switzerland bans face coverings in public

BERN, Switzerland: Switzerland has voted in favour of banning face coverings in public, including the burka or niqab worn by Muslim women.

Official results from a referendum on Sunday showed the measure had passed by 51.2% to 48.8%.

The proposal was put forward by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) which campaigned with slogans such as “Stop extremism”.

A leading Swiss Islamic group said it was “a dark day” for Muslims.

“Today’s decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority,” the Central Council of Muslims said in a statement, adding that it would challenge the decision in court.

The Swiss government had argued against the ban saying it was not up to the state to dictate what women wear.

According to research by the University of Lucerne (in German), almost no-one in Switzerland wears a burka and only around 30 women wear the niqab. About 5% of Switzerland’s population of 8.6 million people are Muslim, most originating from Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Swiss people are given a direct say in their affairs under the country’s system of direct democracy. They are regularly invited to vote on various issues in national or regional referendums.

It is not the first time Islam has figured in a Swiss referendum. In 2009 citizens went against government advice and voted to ban the building of minarets – a proposal also put forward by the SVP which said minarets were a sign of Islamisation.

The proposal in Sunday’s referendum did not mention Islam directly and was also aimed at stopping violent street protesters from wearing masks. However, the vote was widely referred to as “the burka ban”.

The latest proposal predated the coronavirus pandemic, which has meant all Swiss adults having to wear masks in many settings.

Was today’s vote about all face coverings, from niqabs and burkas to the scarves rioters sometimes pull over their faces?

That’s what the Yes campaigners from the Swiss People’s Party insisted – but their posters and literature said otherwise, showing threatening looking women in black niqabs, and warning of Islamic extremism.

So does the result mean the Swiss are becoming more extreme? Are they Islamophobic?

Perhaps not. In the end, the ban only just squeaked through.

In the past, the Swiss People’s Party has had much bigger majorities for its populist initiatives, often aimed at restricting asylum and immigration.

It successfully pushed through a ban on minarets in 2009 with a similar campaign to this one. But the debate around face coverings touched all sorts of different nerves.

Many Swiss feminists view the burka and niqab as oppressive to women but they also oppose laws telling women what they can and cannot wear.

When it came to voting they were torn. A regular answer from women asked whether they would support the ban was “Jein”, a cross between “Ja” (yes) and “Nein” (no). Today’s close vote in Switzerland was probably very much a “Jein” as well.

Supporters of the ban argue that it also intended to stop violent street protesters and football hooligans wearing masks, and that the referendum text does not explicitly mention Islam or the words “niqab” or “burqa”.

Their campaign, however, framed the referendum as a verdict on the role of Islam in public life.

The initiative behind the referendum was launched in 2016 by the Egerkingen Committee, an association that also successfully pushed for a vote to ban the building of new minarets in 2009, and which has links to the populist right-wing Swiss People’s party.

Campaign ads it paid for showed a woman wearing a niqab and sunglasses alongside the slogan: “Stop extremism! Yes to the veil ban.”

A video on the Swiss government’s website explaining the arguments in favour of a ban proposed that “religious veils like the burqa or the niqab are a symbol of the oppression of women and aren’t suitable to our society”.

The Ticino and St Gallen cantons already have local bans on face coverings. Three other cantons rejected such proposals. Face coverings at protests and sports events are already banned in 15 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

A recent study by the University of Lucerne put the number of women in Switzerland who wear a niqab at 21 to 37 and found no evidence at all of the women wearing the burqa, which women were forced to wear in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

In Ticino, where a ban on full facial veils was introduced in 2016, it has since led to around 30 police interventions.

Muslims make up around 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million, or about 390,000 people, most of whom have their roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.

The referendum outcome means Switzerland will follow France, which banned wearing a full-face veil in public in 2011. Full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public are also in place in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and the Netherlands.