Swiss voters on Sunday night narrowly approved a proposal to ban on facial coverings in public, including niqabs and burqas.
France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Austria have all implemented similar bans, which prohibit face coverings outside of religious institutions and other sacred sites. Face coverings will be banned in all public places in the country, including restaurants, sports areas and public transportation.
The ban also prohibits ski masks and bandanas used by some protesters, and also states that no one can be forced to cover their face based on gender. Masks worn for safety, weather or health reasons, such as the coronavirus pandemic, are exempt from the ban.
It does not mention Islam directly, but has become colloquially known as the “burqa ban.”
The controversial proposal found support among 51.21% of voters, according to official provisional results published by the Swiss government. Authorities now have two years to draw up detailed legislation of the ban, The Associated Press reports.
The ban was proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which campaigned with slogans such as “Stop extremism,” BBC News reports.
“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, told reporters before the vote.
Facial coverings are “a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland,” he said.
Several left-leaning parties that oppose the proposal joined together and put up signs ahead of the vote that read, “Absurd. Useless. Islamophobic.”
The Central Council of Muslims, a leading Swiss Islamic group, said it was “a dark day” for Muslims.
“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 said in a statement to the BBC.
The group said it would challenge the decision in court.
According to research by the University of Lucerne, almost no one in Switzerland wears a burqa, and only around 30 women in the nation wear the niqab. About 5% of Switzerland’s population of about 8.5 million people are Muslim; however, AP reports that the Swiss government opposed the ban, in part because it could harm tourism.
It also said the measure is excessive, given that most people in the country do not wear face coverings, and urged people to vote against it.
More than a decade ago, Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on minarets, barring the construction of the iconic mosque towers, which many condemned as biased and anti-Islamic.