EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s ‘anti-burqa’ initiative all about?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s ‘anti-burqa’ initiative all about?
A picture taken on February 4, 2021 in Lausanne shows an electoral poster in favor of a "burqa ban" initiative reading in French: "Stop extremism!" ahead of a nationwide vote by Swiss citizen on whether they want to ban face coverings in public spaces or not. - The vote will take place on on March 7, 2021, as part of the country's famous direct democratic system. A clear majority of Swiss voters favour introducing a nationwide prohibition against wearing face-covering garments in public spaces, known as a "burqa ban", a poll showed last month. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Swiss voters will go to the ballot box on March 7th to weigh in on three issues. One of the most controversial ones is the so-called ‘anti-burqa’ initiative.


What is this issue about?

The ‘Yes to a ban on full facial coverings’ initiative seeks to outlaw both religious and non-religious forms of facial concealment in public spaces.

It is ironic, of course, that currently everyone from the age of 12 must be wearing masks which, in itself, are a form of facial concealment.

OPINION: Switzerland’s ‘burka ban’ curtails rather than strengthens individual freedoms

However, this particular initiative applies to total disguise, as in burqa or niqab, both of which cover women’s faces to different degrees.

Exemptions would apply to religious sites, health reasons or in the event of particular weather conditions.


Who is backing this initiative?

A group called the Egerkingen Committee is behind the drive to outlaw burqas and other forms of Muslim wear that conceal the face.

The group consists of members of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has a long history of anti-Muslim actions, including the highly contentious 2009 referendum to ban the construction of minarets on Switzerland’s mosques.

The measure was accepted by Swiss voters. 

"The full veil is closely linked to radical Islamist ideology and is contrary to our way of life," said Walter Wobmann, chairman of the Egerkingen committee. "

“In our culture, it is customary to show your face in public space. Hiding your face violates social order”, he noted.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is at stake in Switzerland’s March 7th referendums? 


Who is opposing this measure?

All of Switzerland’s other major political parties have spoken against the ban.

Centrist and left-leaning parties have formed a committee which campaigns against this move.

“Clothing regulations have no place in the Federal Constitution. The initiative tackles a false problem, ignores existing rules and stokes social tensions. In addition, it intrudes on private life and does not take into account cantonal disparities. Politicians from all major parties therefore oppose this populist proposal”, the committee wrote on its website.

The government is also urging voters to defeat this proposal, arguing that it goes too far.

Instead, the Federal Council and the parliament have created a counter-proposal, which require persons to show their faces to the police or other officials if this is necessary for identification purposes.

“The counter-proposal, which can only come into force if the initiative is rejected, would also introduce measures aimed at improving women’s rights,” authorities said.

Are burqas really a problem in Switzerland?

The opponents of the initiative point out that in Switzerland, no woman wears what is called 'burqa', that is to say, a full veil that also hides the eyes with a grid.

“According to a recent study, in addition to Arab tourists, there are 20 to 30 women in Switzerland wearing the niqab. The majority of niqab wearers in Switzerland are socialised in the West, have an average to very good education and wear the niqab out of conviction”, not to spearhead radical Muslim ideas, they say.

In all, Muslims account for just over 5 percent of Switzerland’s population of 8.6 million people, and form the third largest religion group after the dominant Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, although just 50,000 are estimated to worship openly.

READ MORE: Switzerland to hold a referendum on ending coronavirus restrictions 




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