In what has been called a “dark day” for Muslims, Switzerland has narrowly voted in favour of a proposal to amend the constitution and outlaw face coverings.
The measure, put forward by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP), was passed by 51.2% to 48.8%. It makes Switzerland the 20th country to ban the Burka, joining the likes of France, Belgium, Bulgaria, and Denmark.
Around 5% (390,000) of Switzerland’s 8.6 million population are Muslim, and according to a study conducted by the University of Lucerne, almost nobody wears a Burka and only around 30 women wear the niqab.
Though Islam is not directly mentioned, the proposal has been widely referred to as the “burka ban”, with the SVP often using slogans such as “Stop radical Islam!” and “Stop extremism!” on their campaign posters. Walter Wobmann, a member of parliament for the SVP, exemplified his party’s view, calling the Burka:
“a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland”.
It is not the first time a referendum concerning Islam has been introduced; in 2009, the SVP instigated a vote which saw minarets banned, claiming they were a sign of growing Islamisation.
The Swiss federal government repeatedly opposed the referendum’s proposal, arguing that it was not up to the state to dictate what women wear; instead presenting an initiative that would require people to lift their face covering to confirm their identity to officials.
The results of the referendum have received widespread condemnation from leading Muslim groups, who vowed to challenge the vote. The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland said that the decision:
“opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority”
In a press release, Amnesty International declared the move an abject failure to protect women’s rights, stating that such a ban:
“is discriminatory and carries the risk of stigmatising women belonging to an already marginalised group, cementing stereotypes and increasing intolerance.”
The ban has also been criticised for undermining the Swiss values of neutrality, tolerance, and peace making, with the Federation of Islamic Organisations stating that:
“Anchoring dress codes in the constitution is not a liberation struggle for women but a step back into the past”
Despite those in favour of the ban arguing that religious veils are a “symbol of the oppression of women”, its failure to tackle the root cause of oppression has been raised repeatedly; women who may have previously felt pressured to wear a veil, as well as those who chose to wear it of their own volition, may now feel obligated to stay inside more as a result.
The imposition of this amendment is a clear violation of the rights of Muslim women in Switzerland. Implementing a state-mandated ban on certain clothing not only undermines the values the Swiss claim to uphold, but also has the potential to engender oppression and marginalisation.