Swiss government outlines counterproposal to burqa ban

The Swiss government on Wednesday provided more details of a proposal that would see forcing women to wear a burqa or niqab punishable by law.

Swiss government outlines counterproposal to burqa ban
A woman wearing a burqa in Vevey. Photo: Depositphotos

With the plans, the Swiss government hopes to take the wind out of the sails of a popular initiative calling for a nationwide burqa ban.

The initiative, which garnered more than the required 100,000 signatures to put it to a popular vote, calls for it to be made illegal for anyone to cover their face in public, with some exceptions including for local customs, the weather, and health and safety reasons. 

But the Swiss government has rejected the initiative, instead launching a counterproposal, which was first mooted in late 2017 and is now up for consultation.

In a statement on that consultation process published on Wednesday, the Federal Council said it was “aware that covering the face can be problematic”.

But the Council said it wanted “targeted action instead of a general ban on face coverings”.

That targeted action includes changes that would see people who force women to wear a burqa or niqab punished with a prison sentence of up to three years or by a monetary penalty.

The Federal Council also said it wanted to establish clear rules on when people are required to show their face in dealings with authorities. It noted that while the law already makes express provision in law for the areas of security, migration and social security, the rules are not clear in other areas such as public transport.

The Council also noted that, under the proposed rules, anyone who refused to show their face to authorities in situations where there was a legal obligation to do so would be fined.

In its statement, the government criticised the popular initiative for a nationwide burqa ban by saying it would see federal authorities overstepping their powers and entering into an area that was traditionally a matter for individual cantons.

In 2013, the canton of Ticino introduced a ban on burqas while other cantons have rejected such a move.

The Federal Council also said that the popular initiative on a nationwide burqa ban could be counter-productive because women could be driven to stay at home, thus becoming more socially isolated.

Switzerland is a liberal society and the introduction of such a ban goes against that, the Council added.

The government’s counterproposal was welcomed by Swiss Islamic Council member Nora Illi, who Swiss news portal 20 Minuten described as the “best-known” niqab wearer in Switzerland.

But Swiss MP Walter Wobmann of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – one of the members of the committee behind the initiative – described the Federal Council’s move as a shameful attempt to block the popular initiative.

Wobmann said laying responsibility at the hands of the cantons was not constructive and would also create problems for tourists.

He slammed the Swiss government for failing to take account of the fact that the popular initiative would also address the problem of violent demonstrators and football hooligans who covered their faces.

He said other countries including Denmark, Austria and France had introduced burqa bans for good reasons. “In our culture, you show your face. The fact that you do this in front of the authorities is nothing new,” said the SVP politician.

No date has been set for the vote on the nationwide ban on face coverings. A 2016 survey run by the Le Matin newspaper suggested more than 70 percent of people in Switzerland were in favour of such a ban.

Read also: Rail passengers complain to SBB over burqa posters


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

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.

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s ‘anti-burqa’ initiative all about?
A campaign poster to ban burqas in Switzerland. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

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