On Sunday, March 7th, the Swiss voted with a narrow majority for the ban on hiding one’s face, a signal against radical Islam, a xenophobic and sexist initiative for others. The text originally proposed by the right-wing populist party UDC received, according to official results of the federal government, 51.21% of the vote and the majority of the cantons. He was also supported by feminists and a section of secular left voters.
“We are very happy. We do not want radical Islam to exist in our country,” said Marco Chiesa, President of SVP Switzerland, on the Blick.tv channel. The text does not refer to the burqa – a large piece of fabric that is covered from head to toe and has a mesh slit at eye level – or to the niqab, which completely covers the body and face with the exception of the eyes, but to the campaign posters left no doubt about the purpose of the referendum.
Through years of debate, Switzerland joins France, Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium and Denmark by voting against wearing the full veil in public spaces. It is therefore now forbidden to completely cover one’s face in public – which also applies to hooded demonstrators – but exceptions are provided for places of worship, for example.
The Swiss also voted in favor of a trade agreement with Indonesia (51.65%), but largely rejected the introduction of a federal electronic identity managed by the private sector (64.36% for no).
Saying yes risks “trivializing the xenophobic and racist atmosphere” against Muslim women, said Myriam Mastour, a member of the Les Foulards Violets collective and the feminist strike on the public broadcaster RTS. On the other hand, she is happy about the small difference between yes and no, while the first surveys largely favored the SVP’s initiative.
According to opponents, wearing the full veil is not an issue in Switzerland, where it is estimated that a few dozen women dressed in this way are generally converting. It is above all wealthy tourists who, dressed in this way, visit the chic boutiques of Geneva or Zurich.
This result “is a great relief,” said Mohamed Hamdaoui, member of the Grand Council of Bern and founder of the “A face discovered” campaign at the ATS agency. “This vote is an indication of awareness,” said the PS member who claims to be a secular Muslim. It was “the opportunity to stop Islamism” and not “the Muslims who obviously have their place in this country,” he said.
“The ban on the full veil is not a measure for the liberation of women. On the contrary, it is a dangerous symbolic policy that violates freedom of expression and religion,” accused Cyrielle Huguenot, head of rights. Women at Amnesty International Switzerland, quoted in a press release.
According to the Statistical Office of 2019, around 5.5% of the Swiss population are Muslims, mainly with roots in the former Yugoslavia, where this fashion tradition is lacking.
The federal government and parliament rejected this measure. As early as 2009, the Swiss voted to ban the construction of minarets on mosques, which caused anger in Muslim countries and the approval of the nationalist parties in Europe.
Shortly after the vote on Sunday, around 150 demonstrators – mostly young people – gathered against the initiative in Bern, an AFP journalist noted. “We have to decolonize Muslim women”, one could read on a sign in German or even “My head belongs to me” on another who wears the head of a veiled mannequin.
People on Sunday also gave a little benefit to a trade deal with Indonesia. The world’s largest Muslim country is a promising market, but it was palm oil – with a sulphurous environmental reputation – that had put the debate to the center of attention.
This agreement, signed in 2018 and approved by the Swiss Parliament in 2019, provides for the abolition of tariffs on most of the products traded with Indonesia, as well as a set of rules for trade in services, intellectual property and investments.
Opponents believe their score shows that environmental concerns must be at the center of future trade negotiations.