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Switzerland votes to restrict full face coverings in 'burka ban' referendum

Jorg Luyken
·2-min read
Pedestrians walk past a campaign poster promoting a 'burka ban'. The poster shows an image of a woman with her face covered alongside the words "Stop extremism! Veil ban - Yes" - REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Pedestrians walk past a campaign poster promoting a 'burka ban'. The poster shows an image of a woman with her face covered alongside the words "Stop extremism! Veil ban - Yes" - REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Voters in Switzerland voted narrowly in favour of banning face coverings in a referendum on Sunday, as the country’s hard-Right party won what it described as a “victory against radical Islam”, although minimal numbers of women in the country wear a full face veil.

The final result on Sunday evening showed that 51 percent of Swiss voters backed the ban. It also won support in a majority of the Alpine country’s 26 cantons, meaning it will now pass into law.

Switzerland has a system of direct democracy that allows any proposal to be put to a referendum as long as 100,000 signatures are gathered in support of it.

Opposed by the Swiss government and parliament, the proposal did not specifically mention burkas, appealing only for “Yes to a ban on full facial coverings.” However the yes campaign made clear that the conservative Muslim face and hair covering was the specific target, with posters encouraging voters to “stop radical Islam.”

“Radical Islam must be put in its place,” said Anian Liebrand of the Right-wing SVP party on Sunday, in an interview on local television.

The ban will nonetheless apply to all head coverings in public places, but not in places of worship.

Critics have described it as both Islamophobic and sexist. Posters opposing the bill stated "No to an absurd, useless and Islamophobic 'anti-burka' law".

Some five percent of the population of Switzerland is Muslim but the number of women who wear face veils is reported to be vanishingly small.

It is not the first time that Swiss voters have chosen in a referendum to curtail symbols associated with Islam. A 2009 referendum banned the construction of minarets on mosques.

Austria, France, Belgium and Denmark have also banned face veils in public in recent years as governments face pressure to stand against a dress code viewed by some as oppressive of women.

Even some Muslim majority countries have issued restrictions on the veil. Tunisia brought in a ban on face coverings in public institutions in 2019 amid security concerns.

Reacting to the referendum result, Swiss justice minister Karin Keller-Sutter conceded that "the Swiss people and a majority of the cantons see things differently" to the government.

The Swiss government had instead proposed introducing a law that would require a woman to lift her veil should she be asked to by state officials for security reasons.

Ms Keller-Sutter insisted, however, that "this is not a vote against the Muslims of Switzerland."

The Swiss cantons will now have two years to implement the decision.