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Swiss voters okay ban on face coverings in public, including burqas and niqabs

After referendum, authorities have two years to draw up legislation; exceptions expected to be made for COVID face masks

A tram passes by campaign posters in favor of the 'burqa ban' initiative reading in German: 'Stop extremism!' on March 3, 2021 in the streets of Zurich, ahead of a nationwide vote on March 7, 2021, by Swiss citizen on whether to ban full facial coverings in public places. (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)
A tram passes by campaign posters in favor of the 'burqa ban' initiative reading in German: 'Stop extremism!' on March 3, 2021 in the streets of Zurich, ahead of a nationwide vote on March 7, 2021, by Swiss citizen on whether to ban full facial coverings in public places. (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

BERLIN (AP) — Swiss voters narrowly approved on Sunday a proposal to ban face coverings, both the niqabs and burqas worn by a few Muslim women in the country and the ski masks and bandannas used by protesters.

The measure will outlaw covering one’s face in public places like restaurants, sports stadiums, public transportation, or simply walking in the street. It foresees exceptions at religious sites and for security or health reasons, such as the face masks people wear to protect against COVID-19, as well as for traditional Carnival celebrations. Authorities have two years to draw up detailed legislation.

Two Swiss cantons, or states, Ticino and St. Gallen, already have similar legislation that foresees fines for transgressions. National legislation will put Switzerland in line with countries such as Belgium and France that have already enacted similar measures.

The Swiss government had opposed the measure as excessive, arguing that full-face coverings are a “marginal phenomenon.” It argued that the ban could harm tourism — most Muslim women who wear such veils in Switzerland are visitors from well-heeled Persian Gulf states, who are often drawn to Swiss lakeside cities.

Experts estimate that, at most, a few dozen Muslim women wear full-face coverings in the country of 8.5 million people.

Supporters of the proposal, which came to a vote five years after it was launched, argued that the full-face coverings symbolize the repression of women and said the measure is needed to uphold a basic principle that faces should be shown in a free society like Switzerland’s.

In the end, 51.2 percent of voters supported the plan. There were majorities against it in six of Switzerland’s 26 cantons — among them those that include the country’s three biggest cities, Zurich, Geneva, and Basel, and the capital, Bern. SRF public television reported that voters in several popular tourist destinations including Interlaken, Lucerne, and Zermatt rejected it.

Backers included the nationalist Swiss People’s Party, which is the strongest in parliament. The committee that launched the proposal is led by a lawmaker from the party, Walter Wobmann, and also initiated a ban on the construction of new minarets that voters approved in 2009.

A torn electoral poster in Geneva, in favor of a ‘burqa ban’ initiative, reads in French: ‘Stop extremism!’ on March 1, 2021, ahead of a nationwide vote by Swiss citizen on whether they want to ban face coverings in public on March 7, 2021, as part of the country’s famous direct democratic system. (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

A coalition of left-leaning parties that opposes the proposal put up signs ahead of the referendum that read: “Absurd. Useless. Islamophobic.”

Wobmann told SRF that the initiative addressed both “a symbol of a completely different system of values… extremely radical Islam” and security against “hooligans.” He said that “this has nothing to do with symbolic politics.”

Voters had their say on two other issues Sunday. They clearly rejected a proposed voluntary “e-ID” to improve the security of online transactions — an idea that ran afoul of privacy advocates, as it would have been issued by private companies — and narrowly approved a free-trade deal with Indonesia.

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