Face coverings have been banned in public in canton St Gallen in northeastern Switzerland. Two-thirds of voters agreed with the cantonal parliament and supported the so-called “burka ban”, which had been challenged by parties on the political left.
St Gallen thus becomes the second of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, after Ticino in 2016external link, to ban the burka. The Swiss government has come out against a similar proposal at a national levelexternal link.
Turnout on Sunday was 35.8%, with a total of 73,830 people – out of a canton of some 500,000 – backing the measure.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party said it hoped the ban would have a preventative effect. Opponents spoke of “playing to the gallery”, pointing out it was already illegal to force a woman to wear a burka and that the law’s implementation would be “completely random”.
Cantonal police will now have the discretion to decide whether a person whose face is covered “threatens or endangers public safety or the religious or social peace”.
The cantonal police and justice director said he wasn’t surprised by the result, but said it would have almost no effect.
“I’ve never seen anyone in a burka in St Gallen,” said Fredy Fässler, who added he couldn’t imagine the conditions of the ban ever being fulfilled. What’s more, he didn’t expect cantonal police officers would ever fine a woman wearing a burka.
Switzerland's largest Islamic organisation, the Islamic Central Council, recommended women continue to cover their faces. It said it would closely monitor the implementation of the ban and consider legal action if necessary.
Last month, figures released by the justice ministry showed that the ban had affected masked football supporters the most. Hardly any wearers of burkas or niqabs, the original targets of the ban, have been fined.
Muslims make up around 5% of the total Swiss population, with most being immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.