EXPLAINED: How will Switzerland’s ‘burqa ban’ work?

What will Switzerland's burka ban look like?
A campaign poster in favour of the burka ban seen in a Swiss village in early 2021. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Switzerland is putting in place a ban on face coverings, after a referendum approved the law change. Here’s what you should know.

On March 7th, 2021, a narrow majority (51.2 percent) of Swiss voters accepted an initiative spearheaded by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to outlaw face coverings in public.

Even though it was dubbed the ‘burqa ban’ law during a heated campaign preceding the vote, the referendum did not specifically mention Islam, focusing instead on a general ban on concealing one’s face in public places.

READ MORE: Swiss voters narrowly back controversial ‘burqa ban’

What are authorities doing now toward introducing this new rule?

This provision has already been enshrined in the Constitution — a usual procedure after a proposal is accepted at the polls — but its details still have to be concretised in Switzerland’s Criminal Code.

It is now up to the Federal Council, which is the executive branch of the government, to submit proposals to the parliament on how to implement this initiative into law.

Authorities have up to two years after a referendum to draw up detailed legislation, and the Federal Council launched this process on October 20th.

Specifically, the Federal Council must define what constitutes ‘public spaces’ and also determine who will be exempted from the ban and under what circumstances.

Public spaces

The Federal Council is proposing to amend the existing legislation to state that “anyone who conceals their face in public spaces or private venues opened to the public, either free of charge or against payment, will be sanctioned”.

 In this context, “public space” is understood as all places accessible to the public — basically everywhere outside of private residences or private events not accessible to public at large.

This means facial coverings will not be tolerated in the street, shops, public transportation (including airplanes), bars and restaurants, banks, hospitals, doctor’s offices, as well as fitness, cultural, and personal wellness venues, to name just a few places.

What exemptions will be written into the new law?

According to the Federal Council, it will be permitted “to hide the face for health or safety reasons, to protect against weather conditions, to maintain local customs, as well as in all places of worship”.

While the wearing of face masks, as is the case during the current Covid pandemic, is not specifically mentioned, it falls under the above category of “health or safety reasons”.

New Swiss legislation allows face masks for health reasons, like these ones, against Covid.

While face coverings will be banned in public places in Switzerland, protective masks will be exempted from the new rule. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Two other exceptions are also proposed: “when it is necessary to conceal one’s face in public space to be able to exercise one’s right to freedom of expression or assembly, provided that it doesn’t undermine public security and order. Shows, whether artistic or recreational, and disguises for advertising purposes are also excluded from the ban”.

What will the penalty be for breaking this law?

A fine of up to 10,000 francs could be imposed,  the Federal Council said.

However, the exact amount would be determined by cantonal courts.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

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