Story at a glance

  • Swiss voters approved a referendum to ban religious veils like the burqa or the niqab.
  • A survey found no evidence that the minority who wear a niqab are connected to extremism, instead choosing to do so out their own conviction.
  • The ban exempts face coverings worn to protect against COVID-19 or for other health and safety reasons.

A country known widely for its neutrality, Switzerland is putting itself in the crosshairs of debate around freedoms of religion and expression by banning women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public spaces.

By a narrow margin, Swiss voters elected to ban people from covering their face completely on the street, in shops and restaurants, exempting coverings for health and safety reasons as many across the world continue to wear face coverings to protect themselves against COVID-19. Switzerland did not mandate wearing face coverings until much later than other European countries. 


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A video on the Swiss government’s website explaining the arguments in favor of a ban claimed “religious veils like the burqa or the niqab are a symbol of the oppression of women and aren’t suitable to our society,” according to The Guardian. Religious veils and head coverings are worn by followers of many different practices, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, among others. The burqa or the niqab, however, are specific to Islam and have been conflated with extremism. 

"The public debate that has been taking place in the media and politics in Switzerland since 2006 mostly paints a general picture of helpless, poorly integrated women who are forced to completely cover up by their father or husband," said Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, a researcher at the University of Lucerne and coordinator of the Center for Research on Religions, adding that the evidence does not support this.


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Muslims, many of whom originate from nearby Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo, make up around 5 percent of the 8.6 million Swiss population. Of this, at most 37 women in Switzerland wear a niqab, a veil that covers the entire face and only leaves the eyes free, and none wear the burqa, a full-body veil, according to a survey by the center. The study also found that those who wear niqabs, a majority of whom are socialized in the west and were not raised Muslim, do so out of their own conviction, with no evidence of connection to extremism.

“This symbolic policy is directed against female and male Muslims,” said the Swiss Federation of Islamic Umbrella Organisations in a statement. “But it also damages the whole of Switzerland, which has undermined its own values by accepting the initiative.”


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Published on Mar 08, 2021