Swiss voters have narrowly approved a proposal to ban face coverings in a decision that critics branded Islamophobic and sexist.
Official results showed that 51.2 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 vote comes after years of debate in Switzerland following similar bans in other European countries, despite Muslim women wearing full-face veils being an exceptionally rare sight in Swiss streets.
Even though the far-right proposal “Yes to a ban on full facial coverings” did not mention the burqa or the niqab, local politicians, media and campaigners dubbed it the “burqa ban”.
Campaign posters reading “Stop radical Islam!” and “Stop extremism!”, featuring a woman in a black niqab – a veil worn by some Muslim women which, in addition to a headscarf, covers the lower half of the face – have been plastered around Swiss cities.
Rival posters read: “No to an absurd, useless and Islamophobic ‘anti-burqa’ law”.
The measure will outlaw covering one’s face in public places like restaurants, sports stadiums, public transport or simply walking in the street.
It foresees exceptions at religious sites and for security or health reasons, such as face masks people are wearing now to protect against COVID-19, as well as for traditional Carnival celebrations. Authorities have two years to draw up detailed legislation.
Muslim groups condemned the vote and said they would challenge it.
“Today’s decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority,” the Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland said.
It promised legal challenges to laws implementing the ban and a fundraising drive to help women who are fined.
“Anchoring dress codes in the constitution is not a liberation struggle for women but a step back into the past,” the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland said, adding Swiss values of neutrality, tolerance and peacemaking had suffered in the debate.
The vote compounded Switzerland’s tense relationship with Islam after citizens voted in 2009 to ban the building of any new minarets. Two cantons already have local bans on face coverings. The Swiss government and Parliament opposed a nationwide ban.
Practically no one in Switzerland wears a burqa – a full-body veil that covers the face as well – and only about 30 women wear the niqab, according to estimates by the University of Lucerne. Muslims make up 5 percent of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
France banned the wearing of a full-face veil in public in 2011 and Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public.
Amnesty International has called the face veil ban “a dangerous policy that violates women’s rights, including freedom of expression and religion”.