After minarets, a Swiss canton goes for burqa ban

While MUIS voluntary avoids the literal adaptation of Islamic icons in mosques in Singapore [as noted in our story under the Kaleidoscope section], Swiss Muslims are prohibited by law.

Map of Switzerland showing various cantons. The southern canton of Ticino, neighbouring Italy, will hold the referendum to ban burqas in public places on September 22. Credit: Stefan Ertmann Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Suisse_cantons.svg

Map of Switzerland showing various cantons. The southern canton of Ticino, neighbouring Italy, will hold the referendum to ban burqas in public places on September 22. Credit: Stefan Ertmann

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Suisse_cantons.svg

Switzerland's southernmost Ticino canton is set to hold a referendum on September 22, for banning burqa in public places. A burqa is a full-face covering headgear normally worn by Muslim women.  

This turns the clock back to almost four years, when in a referendum on November 29, 2009, more than 57 percent of the Swiss voters, and 22 out of 26 cantons, voted in favour of a proposal to ban the building of minarets in the country. The fact that there were only four minarets (Geneva, Zürich, Winterthur and Wangen bei Olten) on mosques in Switzerland, and only two more were proposed, didn't sway the voters a bit. 

As a result of the referendum, a third point was added to Article 72 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland, which now reads as “The building of minarets is forbidden”. 

Even the Swiss Government acknowledged that the ban may be discriminatory. Its delegation had put a statement on Minarets in Switzerland in the Permanent Council of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is the world's largest regional security organization with 57 member countries from Europe, Central Asia and North America. The statement read, “We are aware of the fact that the ban on minarets could lead to a problem with respect to international law governing the ban on discrimination – as enshrined both in the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. If, in particular, the European  Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg should come to the conclusion that a fundamental right of the European Convention on Human Rights has been violated, Switzerland would be obliged to study the consequences of such a judgement very  carefully.”

Various international human rights groups have also condemned the Swiss anti-discrimination approach unequivocally.

A report published by Amnesty International last year, titled Choice and Prejudice: Discrimination Against Muslims in Europe, noted that Switzerland has not implemented recommendations from human rights bodies for the  adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. The report added, ”The results of the referendum on minarets show that federal and cantonal authorities should implement further initiatives and measures to counteract negative stereotypes and perceptions of Muslims. These initiatives may be included in a comprehensive and ambitious plan aimed at fighting discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The Swiss government should further engage in effectively counteracting discriminatory statements such as those articulated by the Committee against the Building of Minarets in promoting the initiative against minarets.”

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But some things, it seems, don't change.

The upcoming referendum, which is the result of a petition campaign initiated in March 2011 gathering 11,767 signatures, to ban burqa is happening even when official estimates say that only about 100 women, mostly of Afghani origin, wear the full-body cloak in Switzerland. This number reduces greatly in the Italian-speaking Ticino canton. 

Earlier efforts to ban burqas and head-scarves have been rejected by Basel City, Bern, Schwyz, Solothurn and Fribourg cantons. The federal court too recently lifted a headscarf ban imposed by a school in Bürglen in the Thurgau canton. In September last year, the lower house of the Swiss Parliament narrowly voted [93 to 87] against a ban on wearing burqa and other face coverings in public places, including public transport. That vote was pushed forward by the canton of Aargau. Interestingly, the same lower house of parliament had voted in favour of a similar ban in 2011. It was titled "Masks off!" and was put forward by the far-right Swiss People’s Party. The vote was later overturned by the upper house of Swiss Parliament.

So even though burqa bans haven’t yet succeeded in Switzerland until now, commentators are saying that Ticino can become the first canton to do so – following the example of France, which in 2011 made it illegal to wear a face-covering veil in public places and imposed a fine of up to €150 for violators of the law. 

Currently, there are about 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland, which make approximately five percent of its population. According to the Co-ordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland (KIOZ), the country has around 300 Muslim associations, 200 Islamic centres, and only two purpose-built mosques - in Geneva and Zürich. d’s red-light areas.