A far-right proposal to ban facial coverings in Switzerland won a narrow victory in a binding referendum on Sunday instigated by the same group that organised a 2009 ban on new minarets.
The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed.
The proposal under the Swiss system of direct democracy does not mention Islam directly and also aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have dubbed it the burqa ban.
"In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms," Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People's Party, had said before the vote.
Facial covering is "a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland," he said.
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.
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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.
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.
Two Swiss cantons already have local bans on face coverings, although almost no one in Switzerland wears a burqa and only around 30 women wear the niqab, the University of Lucerne estimates. Muslims make up 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The measure outlaws covering one’s face in public places like restaurants, sports stadiums, public transport or simply walking in the street. There would be 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.
The Swiss government opposed the measure and says that people covering their faces is a “marginal” issue. It argued the measure could harm tourism — most Muslim women who wear such veils in Switzerland are visitors from well-heeled Persian Gulf states, who are often drawn to Swiss lakeside cities. And it says that it wouldn’t help the women affected.
It backed instead requiring people to show their faces if requested to do so by authorities.
Supporters of the proposal, which came to a vote five years after it was launched and came to be known colloquially as the “burqa ban,” argued that the full-face coverings symbolize the repression of women and said the measure is needed to uphold a basic principle that faces should be shown in a free society like Switzerland’s.
The close outcome was in line with pre-referendum expectations.
Backers included the nationalist Swiss People’s Party, which is the strongest in parliament. The committee that launched the proposal is led by a lawmaker from the party and also initiated a ban on the construction of new minarets that voters approved in 2009.
This time around, a coalition of left-leaning parties that opposes the proposal put up signs that read: “Absurd. Useless. Islamophobic.”