Switzerland is voting on Sunday on whether to ban face clothing in public places, despite the fact that women in Islamic veils on their faces are an unusually rare sight on Swiss streets.
Polls suggest a slim majority supports the move, in a vote that comes after years of debate following similar bans in other European countries – and in some Muslim majority states.
Although the proposal “Yes to a ban on full face-covering” does not mention the burqa or the niqab – which leaves eyes naked – there is no doubt about what the debate is about.
Campaign posters with the text “Stop radical Islam!” and “Stop extremism!”, with a woman in a black niqab, have been picked up around Swiss cities.
Rival posters read: “No to an absurd, useless and Islamophobic” anti-burka “law”.
The ban would mean that no one could cover their face in public – either in shops or in the open countryside.
There would be exceptions, even for places of worship.
“Apart from being useless, this text is racist and sexist,” said Ines El-Shikh, a spokeswoman for Purple Headscarve’s feminist Muslim women’s group.
She told AFP that the proposed law created the impression of a problem, but “there are only 30 women in cans in Switzerland”.
A survey by the Federal Statistical Office from 2019 showed that 5.5 percent of the Swiss population were Muslims, mostly with roots in the former Yugoslavia.
‘Extreme’ Islam worries
The whole face veil “is an extreme form of Islam”, said yes-campaign spokesman Jean-Luc Addor, from the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP).
He acknowledged that “fortunately” there are not many burka-wearing women in Switzerland, but stressed that “when there is a problem, we deal with it before it gets out of control”.
The government and parliament oppose a nationwide ban.
Their counter-proposal – automatically triggered if the initiative is rejected – would require people to show their faces to the authorities if needed for identification, for example at borders.
According to the Swiss system of direct democracy, any subject can be put to a national vote as long as it gathers 100,000 signatures in the rich country with 8.6 million people.
The voting round takes place every three months.
Supporting initiatives requires the support of a majority of voters across the country and of a majority of the federal Swiss 26 cantons, six of which are counted as half cantons in votes.
A 2009 vote banning the construction of minarets in mosques sparked outrage abroad.
Indonesia’s trade, e-ID votes
Two other votes will be held on Sunday.
One is about the free trade agreement between Switzerland and Indonesia.
The tariffs would be gradually removed from almost all of Switzerland’s largest exports to the world’s fourth most populous country, while the Swiss would abolish tariffs on Indonesian industrial products.
Opponents, who are particularly critical of Bern’s attempt to cut import duties on palm oil, successfully won a popular vote on the deal.
A survey in February for the newspapers Tamedia showed that 52 percent supported the deal, with 42 percent against.
The second vote is on a government plan to introduce a federally recognized electronic identity that can be used to order goods and services online.
The idea is that e-ID would be regulated by law, which provides a certain security and reliability when providing identity information on the internet. It can also be used to open a bank account or request an official document.
Recent polls suggest that a comfortable majority is against the move. It was pressured into a popular vote by critics who are worried about the plan to rely on private companies for the ID, giving them access to sensitive, private information.
Although most of the votes have been cast in advance, polling stations will be open for a few hours on Sunday.
Polling stations close at noon (1100 GMT), with the first results expected in the early afternoon.