Voters in St Gallen today approved a ban on facial coverings such as the burka by a two-thirds majority, becoming the second Swiss canton to do so.
Full-face coverings such as niqabs and burqas are a polarising issue across Europe, with some arguing that they symbolise discrimination against women and should be outlawed.
Under the Swiss system of direct democracy, voters in the north eastern canton demanded tightening the law to punish those who cover their faces in public and thus ‘threaten or endanger public security or religious or social peace’.
Voters in St Gallen approved a ban on facial coverings, becoming the second Swiss canton to do so. Austria, France, Belgium and Bulgaria have similar laws (stock image)
The regional government, which had opposed the measure, now has to implement the result of the vote, which drew turnout of around 36 per cent.
Switzerland’s largest Islamic organisation, the Islamic Central Council, recommended women continue to cover their faces. It said it would closely monitor the implementation of the ban and consider legal action if necessary.
The Swiss federal government in June opposed a grassroots campaign for a nationwide ban on facial coverings.
The canton voted to tighten the law to punish those who cover their faces and thus ‘threaten or endanger public security or religious or social peace’ (pictured: protesters in France)
The Swiss cabinet said individual cantons should decide on the matter, but it will nevertheless go to a nationwide vote after activists last year collected more than the required 100,000 signatures to trigger a referendum.
Two-thirds of Switzerland’s 8.5 million residents identify as Christians, but its Muslim population has risen to 5 percent, largely because of immigrants from former Yugoslavia.
One Swiss canton, Italian-speaking Ticino, already has a similar ban, while two others have rejected it.
Several European countries have already adopted bans, but to varying degrees.
At least half of Germany’s 16 states have bans on teachers and public servants wearing full-face veils.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed banning full-face veils ‘wherever it is legally possible’ in 2016, but no national legislation has yet been passed.
In 2004 Denmark banned most religious symbols, including the hijab, in public schools, but six years later an act of parliament was passed banning the wearing of face-covering headgear, including burkas, in public places.
The ban on wearing facial coverings in public is a controversial issue but many European countries have already adopted it to varying degrees
Those caught flouting the rules face a 150 euro (£135) fine, while anyone who forces another person to wear a face covering can be fined 30,000 euros (£27,000) and sentenced to a year in prison.
In 2010 the Belgian parliament passed a bill banning any clothing that would obscure the wearer’s identity in public places. Two Muslim women challenged the law in 2017 but the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban.
Bulgaria banned wearing clothing that ‘partially or completely covers the face’ in public places such as government offices, educational institutions, and places of public recreation in September 2016.
In 2017 the Austrian parliament adopted a legal ban of wearing face-coverings in public spaces.
Earlier this year the Netherlands outlawed face-coverings in public places, including schools, hospitals and public transport, but the ban does not affect the hijab, which only covers the hair, and does not apply in public streets.