On 7 March 2021, Swiss voters will vote on whether to ban face coverings in public.
Discussions on the ban are typically focused on the burka. However, the burka is a specific blue face and body covering found mainly in Afghanistan, which is not seen in Switzerland. The term burqa is sometimes conflated with niqab or other clothing that covers the face – an article in Le Temps shows the different types of clothing.
According to a survey roughly 30 people in Switzerland wear such face coverings. These people are mainly Swiss nationals who have converted to islam or tourists, according to Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, a religious sociologist.
Switzerland has been debating whether to introduce a ban on full facial coverings for several years. The Federal Council and Parliament have always opposed a nationwide ban. At cantonal level, St Gallen and Ticino have introduced bans while other cantons have decided not to.
The referendum ‘Yes to a ban on full facial coverings’ demands that no one be allowed to cover up their face completely in Switzerland. This rule would apply anywhere that is publicly accessible, such as streets, public offices, public transport, football stadiums, restaurants, shops or open countryside. Exceptions will only be allowed in places of worship, for health and safety reasons, because of weather or because of Swiss custom. There would be no other exceptions, for example for tourists who wish to wear facial coverings.
For the Federal Council and Parliament, the initiative goes too far. They have tabled an indirect counter-proposal. This would require persons to show their faces to the police or other officials if this is necessary for identification purposes. The counter-proposal, which would only come into force if the initiative is rejected, would also introduce measures aimed at improving women’s rights.
The Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive branch, parliament (77 yes, 113 no, 13 abstentions), and the Council of States, Switzerland’s upper house (7 yes, 36 no, 2 abstentions), all reject the initiative.
Based on a recent survey, the Swiss public appears to be fairly evenly split of the issue.