GENEVA: Swiss voters on Sunday narrowly backed a ban on full face coverings in public places — a decision hailed by supporters as a move against radical Islam, but branded sexist and racist by opponents.
Official results showed that 51.21 percent of voters, and a majority of federal Switzerland’s cantons, supported the proposal.
Some 1,426,992 voters were in favour of the ban, while 1,359,621 were against, on a 50.8 percent turnout.
The so-called anti-burqa vote comes after years of debate in Switzerland following similar bans in other European countries — and in some Muslim-majority states — despite women in Islamic full-face veils being an exceptionally rare sight in Swiss streets.
Even though the proposal “Yes to a ban on full facial coverings” did not mention the burqa or the niqab — which leaves only the eyes uncovered — there was no doubt as to what the debate was about.
Campaign posters reading “Stop radical Islam!” and “Stop extremism!”, featuring a woman in a black niqab, have been plastered around Swiss cities.
Rival posters read: “No to an absurd, useless and Islamophobic ‘anti-burqa’ law”.
The ban would mean that nobody could cover their face completely in public — whether in shops or the open countryside.
But there would be exceptions, including for places of worship, or for health and safety reasons.
The vote came at a time when face masks are mandatory in shops and on public transport due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Yes vote risks “trivialising the xenophobic and racist atmosphere” towards Muslim women, Meriam Mastour, of the Purple Headscarves feminist group, told broadcaster RTS.
Very few women wear the full veil in Switzerland, she stressed, and those that do tend to be converts and tourists.
A 2019 Federal Statistical Office survey found that 5.5 percent of the Swiss population were Muslims, mostly with roots in the former Yugoslavia.
“It’s a huge relief,” said Mohamed Hamdaoui, a regional lawmaker in the Bern canton and the founder of the “A Face Discovered” campaign.
He called the vote “the opportunity to say stop to Islamism” and not “to Muslims, who obviously have their place in this country”.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2021