by Gerhard Lob with agencies, swissinfo.ch
September 22, 2013 – 18:08
Ticino has become the first Swiss canton to approve a ban on face-covering headgear in public places, following a vote on Sunday. It will now be up to the federal parliament to accept the change to Ticino’s constitution.
According to official estimates, only about 100 women in Switzerland wear burkas. The full-body cloaks worn by some Muslim women are few and far between in the souhern Swiss canton.
And yet about 65 per cent of voters in the Italian-speaking canton voted in favour of the change to the law.
The Ticino initiative did not explicitly target Muslims – the phrasing voted on was “nobody in public streets or squares may veil or hide their face” – but in practice it means women in burkas. The law would apply to burkas and niqabs, Arabic face coverings with a slit for the eyes often worn as part of a full-body covering, but not to headscarves.
Until Sunday, burka bans hadn’t stood a chance in Switzerland. The force behind the initiative, which was handed in in March 2011 with 11,767 valid signatures, is the political campaigner and former journalist Giorgio Ghiringhelli, who has already proven in other cases that he knows how to get the majority of the public behind him.
Votes on a wide range of issues took place at the commune and cantonal level across the country on Sunday.
The Swiss were asked to cast their ballots on everything from credits for new kindergartens to football stadiums and car-free zones. Details of a few are listed below.
For Ghiringhelli, the initiative had a “preventative character”. He told swissinfo.ch that it was important to send a clear signal that the people are against “militant Islamism”, and hoped other cantons would follow suit.
The government in Ticino only went as far as opposing the idea of adding a ban to the constitution, but presented a counterproposal to change the law on public order. This was accepted by 60 per cent of voters.
This law forbids covering one’s face in public, including during demonstrations or sporting events. However, it lists exceptions: helmets for motorcyclists, dust filters for workers or carnival masks.
One of the most vocal opponents of the initiative and counterproposal, prominent local lawyer Paolo Bernasconi, said a ban was not compatible with European human rights, and it would sully the image of the canton. He was supported in his views by NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which put adverts in local newspapers, declaring that the wearing of burkas posed no risk to public order or safety.
The European Muslims League and Islamic Central Council Switzerland held a joint news conference in Ticino’s largest city, Lugano, last week to express their opposition. They called the ban “discriminatory”. Veiled women handed out flyers calling for a no vote.
Approval by the federal parliament is anything but certain. Up to now, all parliamentary motions favouring burka bans have been voted down.
Canton Aargau had called for a nationwide ban on burkas, but this was thrown out by the federal government.
And its not yet clear how quickly parliament will vote on Ticino’s constitutional change. It could decide to wait until the European Court of Human Rights issues its verdict on a complaint filed against the ban in France.
Bans have been previously rejected by cantonal parliaments in Basel City, Bern, Schwyz, Solothurn and Fribourg.
Headscarves have also been making headlines. The federal court recently judged that a ban by a commune in canton Thurgau on headscarves in secondary schools was illegal.
The branch of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party in canton St Gallen is preparing to launch an initiative to ban burkas and headscarves in schools. No other political party supports such a ban.
Gerhard Lob with agencies, swissinfo.ch
(Adapted from German by Dale Bechtel)