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Switzerland: Burqa Ban Approved by Voters

(Apr. 16, 2021) On March 7, 2021, Swiss voters approved by a vote of 51.21%–48.79% a popular initiative that prohibits covering one’s face in public, with some enumerated exceptions. Voter turnout was 51.40%.

Content of the Prohibition

The initiative adds a new article 10a to the Swiss Constitution. Article 10a prohibits covering one’s face in public places, places that are open to the public, or places where the public is served, with the exception of places used for religious worship. In addition, the provision prohibits forcing a person to wear a veil over her face because of her gender. Exceptions are allowed for health reasons, security, climatic conditions, and local customs. Further details will be set out in implementing legislation by the cantons (states) within two years. The Swiss Federal Council (government) announced that it would support the cantons in their efforts—for example, by publishing a model law.

Recommendation from the Federal Council and Parliament

The Swiss Federal Council and the Swiss parliament recommended rejecting the initiative because very few people in Switzerland actually wear a burqa or a niqab. They stated that a nationwide ban would encroach on the rights of the Swiss cantons (states), harm tourism, and not help the affected women. The Federal Council and the Swiss parliament therefore submitted an indirect counterproposal that would have obligated persons to show their face to public authorities, including on public transportation, if necessary for identification. However, as the popular initiative was approved, the indirect counterproposal will not enter into force.

Background on Burqa Bans

On March 9, 2017, the Swiss Council of States (upper house of parliament) rejected a parliamentary initiative to ban the burqa and niqab and amend the Swiss Constitution accordingly. As a reaction, the “Egerkinger Committee” was set up by National Council (lower house) member Walter Wobmann to gather signatures for a popular initiative on a veil ban. On October 11, 2017, the Swiss government announced that the popular initiative had achieved the required 100,000 signatures to be put to a vote.

Individual Swiss cantons have enacted burqa bans for their respective regions, which are now superseded by the federal ban. On July 1, 2016, a burqa ban entered into force in the canton of Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton located in the southern part of Switzerland. It has been reported that since the ban entered into force, around 30 proceedings were initiated. The canton of St. Gallen enacted a ban at the beginning of 2019 on face coverings in public places when wearing them would threaten public safety, or religious or public peace. No one has been charged with violating the prohibition since it entered into force. (Übertretungsstrafgesetz art. 12ter.)