Switzerland follows France, Belgium and Austria after a referendum decided in favour of banning women from wearing the burqa in public spaces. Just over 51% of Swiss voters cast their ballots in favour of the initiative to ban people from covering their face completely on the street, in shops and in restaurants.
Full facial veils — called niqāb and hijāb (described at the end of this report) — will still be allowed to be worn inside places of prayer and for “native customs”, such as carnival.
Face coverings worn for health and safety reasons are exempt from the ban, meaning face masks worn because of the Covid pandemic will not be affected by the new law.
Parliament of Switzerland and the seven-member executive council that constitutes the country’s federal government opposed the referendum proposal. They argued that full facial veils represented a “fringe phenomenon”, and instead proposed an initiative that would force people to lift their facial coverings when asked to confirm their identity to officials.
Muslim groups have criticised the ban. “This is clearly an attack against the Muslim community in Switzerland. What is aimed here is to stigmatise and marginalise Muslims even more,” said Ines Al Shikh, a member of Les Foulards Violets, a Muslim feminist collective.
“This symbolic policy is directed against female and male Muslims,” said the Swiss Federation of Islamic Umbrella Organisations in a statement. “But it damages the whole of Switzerland, which has undermined its own values by accepting the initiative.”
An alliance of hoteliers and tourism professionals from the Berne and Geneva regions opposed the ban on the basis that it would reduce the number of visitors from Arab countries.
“A burqa ban would damage our reputation as an open and tolerant tourism destination,” said Nicole Brändle Schlegel of the HotellerieSuisse umbrella organisation.
Supporters of the ban argue that it intended to stop violent street protesters and football hooligans wearing masks, and that the referendum text does not explicitly mention Islam or the words “niqab” or “burqa”.
Their campaign, however, framed the referendum as a verdict on the role of Islam in public life.
The initiative behind the referendum was launched in 2016 by the Egerkingen Committee, an association that successfully pushed for a vote to ban the building of new minarets in 2009, and which has links to the populist rightwing Swiss People’s party.
Campaign ads it paid for showed a woman wearing a niqab and sunglasses alongside the slogan: “Stop extremism! Yes to the veil ban.”
A video on the Swiss government’s website explaining the arguments in favour of a ban proposed that “religious veils like the burqa or the niqab are a symbol of the oppression of women and aren’t suitable to our society”.
The Ticino and St Gallen cantons already have local bans on face coverings. Three other cantons rejected such proposals. Face coverings at protests and sport events are already banned in 15 of Switzerland 26 cantons.
A recent study by the University of Lucerne put the number of women in Switzerland who wear a niqab at 21 to 37, and found no evidence at all of women wearing the burqa, which women were forced to wear in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In Ticino, where a ban on full facial veils was introduced in 2016, it has since led to around 30 police interventions.
Muslims make up around 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million, or about 390,000 people, most of whom have their roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The referendum outcome means Switzerland will follow France, which banned wearing a full face veil in public in 2011. Full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public are in place in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and the Netherlands.
The term burqa is sometimes conflated with niqāb. In more precise usage, niqāb is a face veil that leaves the eyes uncovered, while a burqa covers the entire body from the top of the head to the ground, with only a mesh screen allowing the wearer to see in front of her. The burqa is also not to be confused with the hijāb, a garment that covers the hair, neck and all or part of the chest, but not the face.