Swiss ‘burka ban’ accepted by slim majority

No longer possible: a veiled woman pictured in Geneva. Keystone / Martial Trezzini

Supporters of a people’s initiative to ban face coverings in public have carried the vote with a majority of 51.2%.

This content was published on March 7, 2021 - 19:20

A decade after another national vote that banned the building of minarets, Switzerland will introduce a clause in its constitution to outlaw face coverings, including the Islamic burka and niqab, in public spaces.

In doing so, it will join five other European countries, including neighbours France and Austria, who have already banned such garments in public.

Exceptions to the law will include face coverings for reasons of security, climate, or health – which means protective masks worn against Covid-19 are acceptable. Niqabs and burkas will still be allowed in places of worship.

Final results on Sunday showed just six of the country’s 26 cantons rejecting the initiative, which was launched by the right-wing Egerkinger committee – the same group who were behind the minaret vote in 2009.

Turnout was just over 50%, a little above average.

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Government setback

It’s only the 23rd time in 130 years that a people’s initiative has been accepted, and the first time since 2014. Swiss citizens have voted on a total of 219 such initiatives – launched by gathering 100,000 signatures – over the course of the country’s modern history.

It also marks a blow for the government and parliament, who had opposed the ban on the grounds that it was unnecessary – both because of the low number of niqab-wearers in the country, and because the 26 cantons can legislate on such issues themselves.

On Sunday, Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter repeated that only a “tiny” fraction (estimated at a few dozen) of the 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland wear such veils. She also welcomed the fact that various Muslim voices had taken part in the campaign – including in favour of the ban.

As such, Keller-Sutter said she did not see the result as a blanket “vote against Muslims”.

Fractured campaign

Walter Wobmann of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, who chaired the “yes” campaign, welcomed the result and said it wasn’t mere symbolism, as some opponents had alleged.

“Facial coverings are contrary to our value system,” Wobmann told Swiss public television, SRF. He said there were now clear rules in place so that “people know that in our country, you show your face in public”.

Wobmann’s party colleague Jean-Luc Addor said the initiative had succeeded because it managed to build support beyond merely right-wing camps: he praised the involvement of left-wing feminists and of progressive Muslims, some of whom also supported the ban.

Addor said that “some Muslims also understood that the niqab is a clear symbol of radical Islam”, which represents not only a challenge for “our civilisation” but also for Muslims themselves.

Saida Keller-Messahli, founder of the Forum for a Progressive Islam and a prominent backer of the ban, said the result was a rejection of a “totalitarian ideology which has no place in a democracy”. She added that she thinks the result will be “understood” abroad.

Other Muslims and Muslim groups were not so upbeat. The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS) said it was a “big disappointment for all Muslims who were born in and grew up in Switzerland”. Ferah Ulucay, secretary-general of the ICCS, said the vote “had succeeded in anchoring in the constitution a widespread islamophobia in Switzerland”.

For Pascal Gemperli of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, the vote “targeted a specific community, just like with the minarets [in 2009]”. Gemperli said it wasn’t clear what would happen next, but that he had some fears for the security of Muslims in the country.

Feminist groups had also been heavily involved in the campaign, with some seeing the face coverings as a symbol of patriarchal oppression, and others opposing the ban on the grounds that women should be allowed to dress how they like.

Reacting on Sunday, Tamara Funiciello, a well-known feminist from the left-wing Social Democrats, said the result would have no impact on real problems like sexism, racism and violence. It’s another example of women being told what they can and can’t wear, she said.

Memory of minarets

Switzerland, like many other western European countries, has debated over the past decades how best to integrate its Muslim community, who are estimated to make up about 5% of the total population.

In November 2009, 57.5% of voters accepted another people’s initiative – proposed by the same committee behind the burka vote – to ban the building of minarets in the country: a result that went against the predictions of opinion polls and which came as a shock to the political establishment.

Debates about the various symbols of Islam, including burkas and niqabs, which were part of the discussion at the time, continued in the years after, and two cantons introduced full face-covering bans in the past decade – St Gallen and Ticino. Other cantons have previously rejected such proposals.

In the southern region of Ticino, where over 60% of the population backed a ban in 2016, the first three-and-a-half years after it came into force saw 60 people being charged for infringements – 32 of them sport hooligans, and 28 women wearing facial coverings.

Over half of all Swiss cantons already have regulations in place that ban the wearing of face-coverings during demonstrations or sports events.

Results vote March 7, 2021

Ban on facial covering/Burka:              51.2% yes      48.8% no

Digital identification/eID:                      35.6% yes      64.4% no

Free trade accord with Indonesia:       51.6.% yes      48.4% no

Turnout: 51.4%

About 5.5 million Swiss citizens, including registered expat Swiss, were eligible to take part in the votes.

There were also numerous ballots at cantonal and local levels on March 7.

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