Switzerland votes to ban wearing of the burqa and niqab in public spaces
Switzerland has followed France, Belgium and Austria after narrowly voting in a referendum to ban women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public spaces, including on the street, on public transport and in shops and restaurants.
The controversial proposal gained the support of 51.21 percent of voters and the majority of the country's 26 cantons, according to official provisional results published by the federal government.
The referendum had been put forward by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which campaigned with slogans such as "Stop extremism" and framed the referendum as a verdict on the role of Islam in public life.
Ahead of the vote, Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and an SVP lawmaker, described Muslim face coverings as "a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland".
"In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms," he said.
Switzerland’s parliament and the seven-member executive council that constitutes the country’s federal government had opposed the referendum proposal. They had argued that full facial veils represented a “fringe phenomenon”, and instead proposed an initiative that would force people to lift their facial coverings when asked to confirm their identity to officials.
The proposal in the 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 burqa ban".
The only exceptions include places of worship and other sacred sites. Face coverings will also be allowed if worn for health and safety reasons, because of the weather and in situations where it is considered a "local custom" to do so, such as at carnivals, according to the text of the proposal published by the Swiss federal government.
There will be no additional exceptions, for example for tourists, the government document said.
'A dark day for Muslims'
The proposals have been criticised by a number of Swiss religious organisations and human rights and civic groups, as well as the federal government. The Swiss Council of Religions, which represents all major religious communities in Switzerland, condemned the proposal earlier this year, stressing that the human right to religious freedom also protects religious practices such as dress codes.
A leading Swiss Islamic group called it "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.
'Swiss voters have once again approved an initiative that discriminates against one religious community in particular'
- Amnesty International
“This is clearly an attack against the Muslim community in Switzerland," said Ines Al Shikh, a member of Les Foulards Violets, a Muslim feminist collective. What is aimed here is to stigmatise and marginalise Muslims even more.”
Amnesty International spoke out against the ban, calling it "a dangerous policy that violates women's rights, including to freedom of expression and religion".
"Swiss voters have once again approved an initiative that discriminates against one religious community in particular, needlessly fueling division and fear," the group said in a statement on Sunday.
A recent study by the University of Lucerne put the number of women in Switzerland who wore a niqab at between 21 and 37, and found no evidence at all of any women wearing the burqa.
Muslims make up around 5 percent 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.
Swiss people are given a direct say in their own 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.