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Burka ban approved in Italian-speaking Switzerland

Giorgio Ghiringhelli launched the initiative Keystone

Ticino has become the first Swiss canton to approve a ban on face-covering headgear in public places, following a vote on Sunday. It will now be up to the federal parliament to accept the change to Ticino's constitution.

According to official estimates, only about 100 women in Switzerland wear burkas. The full-body cloaks worn by some Muslim women are few and far between in the southern Swiss canton. 

And yet about 65% of voters in the Italian-speaking canton voted in favour of the change to the law.

The Ticino initiative did not explicitly target Muslims – the phrasing voted on was “nobody in public streets or squares may veil or hide their face” – but in practice it means women in burkas.

The law would apply to burkas and niqabs, face coverings with a slit for the eyes often worn as part of a full-body covering, but not to headscarves.

Until Sunday, burka bans hadn’t stood a chance in Switzerland.

The force behind the initiative, which was handed in in March 2011 with 11,767 valid signatures, is the political campaigner and former journalist Giorgio Ghiringhelli, who has already proven in other cases that he knows how to get the majority of the public behind him.

Votes on a wide range of issues took place at the commune and cantonal level across the country on Sunday.

The Swiss were asked to cast their ballots on everything from credits for new kindergartens to football stadiums and car-free zones. Details of a few are listed below.

“Preventative character”

For Ghiringhelli, the initiative had a “preventative character”. He told that it was important to send a clear signal that the people are against “militant Islamism”, and hoped other cantons would follow suit.

The government in Ticino only went as far as opposing the idea of adding a ban to the constitution, but presented a counter-proposal to change the law on public order. This was accepted by 60% of voters.

Glencore: Voters in the village of Hedingen outside Zurich have voted in favour of donating CHF110,000 ($121,000) to aid projects in countries where Swiss-based commodities giant Glencore Xstrata operates and allegedly has a poor human rights and environmental record. Hedingen received an additional CHF1 million in tax revenue from 2012 – its share from the CHF360 million tax bill paid by Glencore Xstrata CEO, Ivan Glasenberg who resides in canton Zurich.

Foreign residents: About three quarters of voters in canton Zurich threw out an initiative which would have given communes the right to decide whether non-Swiss residents can vote at the local level.

Football stadium: The city authorities of Zurich failed to win approval at the ballot box for a CHF220 million credit for a new football stadium, where the city’s two main clubs, FC Zurich and Grasshoppers, would play.

Car-free: People in the city of Lucerne came out clearly in favour of banning cars from a stretch of road along the Reuss river and across from the landmark Chapel Bridge that is Lucerne’s most popular tourist attraction.

This law forbids covering one’s face in public, including during demonstrations or sporting events. However, it lists exceptions: helmets for motorcyclists, dust filters for workers or carnival masks.

One of the most vocal opponents of the initiative and counterproposal, prominent local lawyer Paolo Bernasconi, said a ban was not compatible with European human rights, and it would sully the image of the canton. He was supported in his views by NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which put adverts in local newspapers, declaring that the wearing of burkas posed no risk to public order or safety.

The European Muslims League and Islamic Central Council Switzerland held a joint news conference in Ticino’s largest city, Lugano, last week to express their opposition. They called the ban “discriminatory”. Veiled women handed out flyers calling for a no vote. 

Federal decision

Approval by the Swiss parliament is anything but certain. Up to now, all parliamentary motions favouring burka bans have been voted down.

Canton Aargau had called for a nationwide ban on burkas, but this was thrown out by the Swiss government.

And its not yet clear how quickly parliament will vote on Ticino’s constitutional change. It could decide to wait until the European Court of Human Rights issues its verdict on a complaint filed against the ban in France.

Other cantons

Bans have been previously rejected by cantonal parliaments in Basel City, Bern, Schwyz, Solothurn and Fribourg.

Headscarves have also been making headlines. The federal court recently judged that a ban by a commune in canton Thurgau on headscarves in secondary schools was illegal.

The branch of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party in canton St Gallen is preparing to launch an initiative to ban burkas and headscarves in schools. No other political party supports such a ban.

Adapted from German by Dale Bechtel

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR