Switzerland is on track to follow France, Belgium and Austria after voting narrowly in a referendum to ban women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public spaces.
With 99% of the votes counted, 51.5% of Swiss voters had voted in favor of the initiative to prohibit people from covering their faces completely in the street, shops and restaurants.
Full face veils will still be allowed within places of worship and for “native customs” such as carnival.
Face covers that are used for health and safety reasons are also exempt from the ban, meaning that masks used due to the Covid-19 pandemic will not be affected by the new law.
Switzerland’s parliament and the seven-member executive council that makes up the country’s federal government opposed the referendum proposal. They argued that full face veils represented a “fringe phenomenon” and instead proposed an initiative that would force people to lift their face covers when asked to confirm their identity to officials.
Muslim groups have criticized the ban. “This is clearly an attack on the Muslim community in Switzerland. The aim here is to further stigmatize and marginalize Muslims, ”said Ines Al Shikh, a member of the Purple scarves, a Muslim feminist collective.
A alliance of hoteliers and tourism professionals from the Bern and Geneva regions also opposed the ban on the grounds that it would reduce the number of visitors from Arab countries.
“A ban on the burqa would damage our reputation as an open and tolerant tourist destination,” said Nicole Brändle Schlegel of the umbrella organization HotellerieSuisse.
Supporters of the ban argue that it was 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”.
However, his campaign 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 lobbied for a vote to ban the construction of new minarets in 2009, and which has ties to the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party.
Ads for the campaign he paid for featured a woman in a niqab and sunglasses alongside the slogan: “Stop Extremism! Yes to the prohibition of the veil “.
A video on the Swiss government website explaining the arguments in favor of a ban proposes that “religious veils such as the burqa or niqab are a symbol of the oppression of women and are not suitable for our society.”
The cantons of Ticino and St Gallen already have local bans on face covering. Three other cantons rejected such proposals. Face covering at protests and sporting events is also prohibited in 15 of the 26 cantons of Switzerland.
A recent study from the University of Lucerne estimated the number of women in Switzerland wearing the niqab between 21 and 37, and found no evidence of women wearing the burqa, which women were forced to wear in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In Ticino, where the ban on full face veils was introduced in 2016, it has since led to some 30 police interventions.
Muslims make up about 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million, or some 390,000 people, most of whom have their roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The result of the referendum means that Switzerland will follow France, which banned the wearing of a full veil in public in 2011. Full or partial bans on face covering in public are also in force in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and the Netherlands. .
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism