On March 7, during the referendum, 51% of the voters in Switzerland cast their vote favouring banning people from covering their faces completely in shops, restaurants and streets. However, full facial veils will be allowed inside places of worship and for ‘native customs’. It has to be noted that covering the face for health and safety reason will not be affected by the ban. That means wearing a mask in situations like the Covid-19 pandemic are exempted from the law.
The final results on Sunday showed that out of 26 cantons in the country, just six rejected the initiative. The turnaround was a little over 50% which is above average. Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said that only a fraction of the Muslim women population wears such veils in Switzerland. The result should not be seen as a blanket “vote against Muslims.” She welcomed the fact that several Muslim voices took part in the campaign and noted that some of them were even in favour of the ban.
The proposal was introduced by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). They campaigned for the proposals with slogans like “Stop Extremism.” Apart from Switzerland, several other countries like France, Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium and Denmark have already banned the hijab in public places.
Opposition and criticism on hijab ban
The Parliament of Switzerland and the seven-member executive council that constitutes the federal government of the country had opposed the proposal of the referendum. They instead proposed an initiative to force people to lift the facial covering when asked to confirm their identity to the government officials.
The Muslim groups have also criticized the ban. Calling the referendum a ‘dark day’ for Muslims, Central Council of Muslims said, “Today’s decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority.” It further said that the decision would be challenged in the court by the group.
Ines Al Shikh, a member of the feminist collective Les Foulards Violets, said that the decision is an attack against Switzerland’s Muslim community. “What is aimed here is to stigmatize and marginalize Muslims even more.”
Several hoteliers and tourism professionals, especially from Berne and Geneva, where tourists from Arab countries are frequent, fear that the decision may hurt their business. Nicole Brändle Schlegel of the HotellerieSuisse umbrella organization said that it would damage the country’s reputation as an open and tolerant tourism destination.
The ban is for everyone without explicit mention of a burqa
The supporters of the ban do not see it as an attack on anyone’s freedom. The referendum text does not explicitly mention Islam or burqa, or niqab. They suggested that the ban on facial masks will stop violent street protesters and football hooligans from wearing masks. Notably, their campaign, however, mentioned the role of Islam in public life.
SVP’s campaigns to ban Islamic symbols
The initiative to ban face covers was introduced by the Egerkingen Committee in 2016. It is linked to the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The same organization successfully pushed for a vote to ban the construction of new minarets in 2009. At that time, SVP said that minarets are signs of Islamisation. During the current campaign against face cover, the ads showed a woman wearing a niqab and sunglasses with the slogan “Stop extremism. Yes to the veil ban.”