Muslim campaigners in Switzerland have condemned a vote to ban full face coverings in a move which one group described as a “step back into the past”.
On Sunday, Swiss voters narrowly backed an amendment to the constitution by a 51.2-48.8 per cent margin in the legally-binding referendum. The law, which does not mention Islam directly, aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks.
However, opponents say the amendment was discriminatory and contrary to Swiss values of neutrality and tolerance. Some Muslim groups have promised legal challenges to laws implementing the ban and a fundraising drive to help women who are fined.
“This is clearly an attack against the Muslim community in Switzerland. What is aimed here is to stigmatise and marginalise Muslims even more,” said Muslim feminist campaigner Ines Al Shikh.
About 1,426,992 voters were in favour of the ban, while 1,359,621 were against it, on a 50.8 per cent turnout. Two Swiss cantons already have local bans in place.
The Swiss government had urged people to vote against the proposals, which had been put forward by a hard-right political group. Under the Switzerland’s direct democracy model, any topic can be put to a national vote as long as it gathers 100,000 signatures.
Government proposals suggested introducing laws that would instead force a woman to lift her veil to police for security reasons.
Swiss justice minister Karin Keller-Sutter said "the Swiss people and a majority of the cantons see things differently”. However, she stressed this “not a vote against the Muslims of Switzerland".
Hoteliers and other tourism professionals warned the move would reduce the number of visitors coming from Gulf and other Arab nations. Opponents of the ban said the few women who wore the full veil in Switzerland tended to be converts or tourists.
“A ban would damage our reputation as an open and tolerant tourism destination,” said Nicole Brändle Schlegel of the HotellerieSuisse umbrella organisation.
Switzerland now follows France, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria which have all introduced their own full or partial bans on public face coverings. Muslims make up 5 per cent of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.
"Swiss voters have once again approved an initiative that discriminates against one religious community in particular, needlessly fuelling division and fear," said Amnesty International Switzerland's women's rights leader, Cyrielle Huguenot said, adding that Muslim women could be marginalised as a result.
“The authorities must now strengthen measures to protect women who are suffering real violence and discrimination in Switzerland, regardless of their religion and origin”, she added.
Decrying a “clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority", the Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland promised legal challenges to laws implementing the ban.