Switzerland vote heading for ban on face veils

Swiss government opposed a ban on full facial coverings but partial results show far-right initiative will be passed

A woman wearing a facemask as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus casts an envelope containing her ballot during a vote by correspondence during a day of national referendum and local election on March 7, 2021 in Lausanne. Switzerland votes on March 7, on whether to ban full facial coverings in public places, despite women in Islamic full-face veils being an exceptionally rare sight in Swiss streets. Two other votes are also being held, one is on the free trade agreement struck between Switzerland and Indonesia, the other vote is on a government plan to introduce a federally recognised electronic identity, that could be used for ordering goods and services online. / AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI
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A far-right proposal to ban full facial coverings in Switzerland was heading towards a narrow victory in a referendum on Sunday.

Projections for broadcaster SRF, based on partial results, showed the vote to amend the Swiss constitution passing 52% to 48%, with a two-point margin for error. Final results were due later on Sunday.

The vote was triggered despite the sight of women in Muslim full-face veils being exceptionally rare in Switzerland. The proposal does not mention Islam directly and aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have called it the burqa ban.

Campaign posters reading "Stop radical Islam!" and "Stop extremism!", featuring a woman wearing the niqab were plastered around Swiss cities.

A rival poster read "No to an absurd, useless and Islamophobic 'anti-burqa' law".

A ban would mean that nobody could cover their face completely in public – whether in shops or the open countryside – although there would be exceptions, including in places of worship.

Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, any issue can be put to a national vote as long as it gathers 100,000 signatures in the country of 8.6 million people.

A majority vote is enough to pass an initiative.

The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland called the vote a dark day for the community. "Today's decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority," it said.

Ines El-Shikh, spokeswoman for Muslim women's group the Purple Headscarves, said: "Besides being useless, this text is racist and sexist."

A 2019 Federal Statistical Office survey found that 5.5 per cent of Switzerland's population was Muslim, mostly people with roots in the former Yugoslavia.

The full-face veil "is an extreme form of Islam", said Yes campaign spokesman Jean-Luc Addor, of the populist right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP).

He said that while few women wear the veil in Switzerland, "when a problem exists, we deal with it before it gets out of control".

France banned wearing 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.

The government had urged voters to reject the ban, warning it could hit tourism.

The vote was one of three being held on Sunday.

The others are on a free-trade agreement struck between Switzerland and Indonesia, and the potential introduction of a state-recognised electronic identity that could be used for buying goods online.