On September 20, 2023, the Lower House of the Swiss Parliament voted to give final legislative passage to a ban on face coverings such as the burqa coverings worn by some Muslim women. The National Council voted 151-29 for the legislation which was already approved by the upper house. It was pushed through a right-wing populist Swiss Peoples Party easily overcoming reticence expressed by the centrist and Greens.
The Burqa Ban
The move follows a nationwide referendum two years ago in which Swiss voters narrowly approved forbidding niqabs, which leave slits for the eyes and burqas, as well as ski masks and bandannas that are worn by some protestors. With the Lower House vote, the parliament cemented the ban into federal law and set a fine of 1000 francs (about $1,100) for violators.
The measure prohibits covering the nose, mouth and eyes in public spaces and private buildings accessible to the public, though it does allow for some exceptions. Few women in Switzerland wear full face coverings like burqas which are perhaps best known as garb worn in Afghanistan.
Two Swiss cartoons, the Southern Tinco and Northern St., Gallen already have similar laws. The national legislation will put Switzerland in line with countries such as Belgium and France that have enacted similar measures.
Reaction from Muslims
The campaign to prohibit face coverings faced criticism from Muslim groups during the referendum Ines El Shiekh, a spokesperson of the Purple Headscarves (a Muslim Women’s group) told an international media agency that only a small handful of women in the country wear and follow the Islamic dress customs. Switzerland Islamic Council has pointed out that the vote reflected the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments throughout the country.
Right Wing History
The initiative to ban face coverings was launched by Egerkinger Komitee, a group of politicians of the right-wing Swiss Peoples Party, which says it organises “resistance against the claims to power of political Islam in Switzerland.” The bill does not name burqas or niqabs but prohibits people from concealing their faces in public spaces such as public transportation, restaurants or walking in the street, specifying that the eyes, nose and mouth must be visible.
For example, a Muslim woman may wear a Hijab covering her hair, but cannot wear a niqab, a garment which shows only the eyes, or a burqa, a full-body veil that covers the face as well. They are allowed in places of worship. There are other exceptions to the law including face coverings for reasons of security, climate and health meaning people are allowed to wear masks to protect against COVID-19.
Demography of Switzerland
Muslims make up five per cent of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people. Most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Kosovo. According to the estimate by the University of Lucerne, only 30 women wear the niqab in the country. Switzerland is one of the five countries where face coverings are banned.
The French banned the wearing of a full-face veil in 2011 and recently, the abaya. Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria (Balkans) have full or partial bans on face coverings in public. Amnesty International has called the face veil ban a dangerous policy that violated human rights including freedom of speech and expression and religion.