Ticino to vote on burka ban

Geneva is one of the few places in Switzerland where one might see a burka - and even there they are far from common Keystone

On September 22, Ticino will become the first Swiss canton to hold a referendum on banning face-covering headgear in public places. Political commentators say the initiative has good chances of being accepted.

This content was published on August 12, 2013 minutes
Gerhard Lob in Bellinzona,

Burkas, full-body cloaks worn by some Muslim women, especially in Afghanistan, are few and far between in the Italian-speaking canton in southern Switzerland. According to official estimates, only about 100 women in Switzerland wear them.

“Hand on heart: who has ever seen a burka in Switzerland?” began an editorial in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in 2010, after canton Aargau tried to get a nationwide ban on burkas in public places (thrown out by the federal parliament two years later).

“You might see a few Arab tourists coming out of expensive boutiques in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse or Geneva’s Rue du Stand – but out in the sticks?”

The Ticino initiative does not explicitly target Muslims – the phrasing to be voted on is “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, Arabic face coverings with a slit for the eyes often worn as part of a full-body covering, but not to headscarves.

Until now, burka bans haven’t stood a chance in Switzerland (see box). Yet pundits believe Ticino could write history and become the first canton to introduce a ban on all face coverings – similar to the controversial one already in force in France – into the cantonal constitution.

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.

Burka bans in Switzerland

There are roughly 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland (5% of the population).

Until now, bans on burkas and headscarves haven’t got close to being accepted. They have been rejected by cantonal parliaments in Basel City, Bern, Schwyz, Solothurn and Fribourg.

Canton Aargau wanted a nationwide ban on burkas, but this was thrown out by the federal government.

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.

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“Preventative character”

For Ghiringhelli, the initiative has a “preventative character”. He is aware that the situation in Ticino isn’t the same as in France, but says a ban tackles the problem at its roots and “puts a stop to the inevitable spread of niqabs and burkas”.

The cantonal government opposed the idea of adding such a ban to the constitution. Assuming a majority of voters would accept the initiative, it put forward a counterproposal that would change the cantonal law on public order.

This law already 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.

The cantonal parliament adopted this version. Speakers who warned that veiled women would become even more isolated if they were not allowed out in public were outvoted.

If both the initiative and the counterproposal are accepted on September 22, the new article must be formally submitted for approval to the federal parliament in Bern.

“The Ticino law is practically a photocopy of the French law,” says Guido Corti, a legal advisor for the cantonal government, pointing out that the French law (see box) remains controversial and is being examined by the European Court of Human Rights.

Implementation in France

In France, as of 11 April 2011, it has been illegal to wear a face-covering veil or other mask in public places such as streets, shops, museums, public transportation and parks.

The French law applies to all citizens, including men and non-Muslims (some balaclava-wearing sympathisers of Russian girl group Pussy Riot were arrested in Marseille in August 2012 for being in breach of the ban).

The law imposes a fine of up to €150 (CHF185), and/or participation in citizenship education, for those who violate the law. The bill also penalises, with a fine of €30,000 and one year in prison, anyone who forces (by violence, threats or by abuse of power) another person to wear face coverings; these penalties may be doubled if the victim is under the age of 18.

Five months after the law was introduced, the police had noted 100 incidents of women being stopped under the law. None led to a punishment.

On 22 September 2011, Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali became the first women to be fined for wearing niqabs. They were fined €120 and €80. Hind Ahmas announced her intention to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

In July 2013, a husband allegedly attempted to strangle a police officer during a check of an entirely veiled woman in a Paris suburb. The following night a group of 250 youths threw projectiles at a police station.

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So far there has been little discussion in Ticino about the bill. Politicians are on their summer holidays and the tourism sector, which in theory could be affected by the ban, is relaxed – not many visitors come from Arabic countries.

The five-star hotel Splendide Royal in Lugano, which has refurbished an entire floor for the requirements of Arabic guests, says the ban “would not cause any problems for us”, adding that it had hardly any burka-wearing guests.

Fernando Brunner, president of the Ticino branch of Hotelleriesuisse, the main Swiss hotel association, says he basically believes “guests should adapt to the host country”.

Lorenzo Quadri, a parliamentarian for Ticino’s nationalist Lega dei Ticinese movement, is not only on the initiative’s committee but also heads the Lugano tourism office. For him, the constitutional article doesn’t target tourists – he says the law’s the law and applies to everyone in Ticino who covers their face.

Less impressed is the Ticino branch of the centre-left Social Democratic Party. It says legislation is not necessary on this issue, but if changes must be made, don’t do it at the constitutional level. For this reason, the party will abstain during the vote.

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