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Switzerland votes to ban face coverings worn by Muslim women to counter radical Islam

Women wearing burqas in public. (Flickr/Marius Arnesen)
March 08, 2021

Switzerland voted by referendum on Sunday to ban face coverings, including burqas and niqabs worn by some Muslim women, in an effort to counter radical Islam.

The referendum vote amends the Swiss constitution and outlaws the wearing of full-face coverings in public. According to Swiss Info, the ban on full-face coverings does not affect masks worn to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and burqas and other face coverings worn for religious reasons are still permitted in places of worship.

Jean-Luc Addor, a Swiss People’s Party politician said “some Muslims also understood that the niqab [a type of veil] is a clear symbol of radical Islam,” adding, “when a problem exists, we deal with it before it gets out of control.”

Switzerland uses a referendum system in which initiatives must pass on a double majority vote, winning the majority of the popular vote, as well as a majority of the country’s 26 state-like cantons. In this case, the referendum passed with 51.2 percent of the vote, and 48.8 percent of voters opposing the referendum. All but six of the country’s canton’s backed the initiative.

The referendum was primarily backed by the Swiss People’s Party, a right-wing populist political party. According to Deutsche Welle, the party backed the referendum vote despite relatively few instances of burqa-wearing women in the country.

Some Muslims backed the ban, such as the Forum for a Progressive Islam. Saida Keller-Messahli, the founder of the group, said the referendum result was the rejection of a “totalitarian ideology which has no place in a democracy.”

The Swiss government and parliament opposed the referendum and urged voters to vote against the referendum. The government offered a counter-proposal that would allow people to wear their face coverings but requires them to show their faces if asked to by authorities, such as at border checkpoints. If the referendum is rejected, the counter-proposal will automatically be triggered, according to Deutsche Welle.

Opponents of the referendum also included Muslim women, such as Ines El-Shikh, the spokeswoman for the Purple Headscarves, a Muslim women’s group. She said, “Besides being useless, this text [for the proposal] is racist and sexist.”

Over half of Switzerland’s cantons already have regulations in place that ban full-face coverings like burqas being worn in public during occasions like demonstrations and sporting events.

France, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have previously passed similar bans on full-face coverings.

Muslims make up about five percent of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people. Almost no one wears the burqa and, according to the University of Lucerne, only about 30 women wear the niqab.

The Swiss People’s Party similarly backed a successful 2009 referendum banning the construction of new minarets on Muslim mosques in the country.