In a narrowly decided referendum, the people of Switzerland voted late last week to ban face coverings in public places. And yes, this includes religious garbs, such as the Islamic burka and niqab.
The referendum, supported by 51.2% of Swiss voters, was, according to critics, largely targeted towards Muslim religious attire, which range from covering the woman’s hair (hijab) to engulfing the entire body in a thick clothe, with the only opening being a small mesh eye slit.
According to NPR, the coverings are exceedingly rare among Swiss Muslims. “Niqabs and burqas, worn by almost no one even among the country’s Muslim population, will be banned outside of religious institutions. The new law doesn’t apply to facial coverings for health reasons,” NPR wrote.
Switzerland is not the first Western county to enact a facial coverings ban. Bans have been put in place as early as 2011. The small nation “will join several European countries that have implemented a ban on facial coverings, including France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria.”
“The proposal was put forward by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) which campaigned with slogans such as ‘Stop extremism,’” the BBC reported. The ban was first proposed in 2017, and the referendum does not directly cite Islam, and was also aimed at preventing protestors and rioter from covering their faces during demonstrations that turn violent.
According to the BBC, only and estimated 30 Swiss Muslims actually choose to wear Niqabs. There are no reported consistent Burqa wearers.
In 2009, the Swiss People’s Party successfully pushed through a similar referendum banning the construction of minarets – Islamic towers used to play ‘calls to prayer.’
The referendum includes an exemption for medical face coverings, like N95 or surgical masks amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
Islamic Middle Eastern nations and some extreme communities will mandate women completely cover their faces, along with other draconian restrictions on women’s rights, with refusal punishable by severe legal consequences. In the West, full facial veils are typically enforced by local cultural and religious norms held by recent migrants. To many, the Niqab and Burqa are symbols of female suppression of a bygone era.
If you’re an American 1st amendment absolutist, that is you believe in the right to freely practice your religion and freely expression yourself, bans on facial coverings should be concerning. Even from a 4th amendment perspective, this referendum opens the door to potentially concerning practices.
Deciding which garbs are acceptable and which are not is a cultural decision, not a government mandate. After greenlighting restrictions on one religious practice, Pandora’s box is ripped wide open as further restrictions on the time and manor of religious expression becomes subject to a tyrannous 51% majority.
Beginning by banning a rare practice, there is potential for more mainstream religious traditions to fall head first onto the chopping block as societies gravitate towards secularism. A 51% vote to restrict new church construction would carry the same credence as a ban on minarets.
Though proponents of the referendum call it religiously neutral, not directly targeted towards any group of people, rather it was written so police could swiftly identify rioters who historically dawn masks and other facial coverings to avoid detection.
Again, there’s an inherent right to privacy all people share, and that includes the right to be secure in anonymity.
Years ago, the totalitarian Chinese government perfected and rolled out facial recognition and camera tracking technology to establish a social credit system used to open and close privileges to citizens based on said actions. It was also used by CCP operatives to track and crackdown on Hong Kong freedom protestors last year.
When the balance between freedom and security is in question, always air on the side of freedom and privacy; the future intent of the government is murky for anyone to wager their liberty on it. Now more than ever, in the age of Cancel Culture, openly expressing innocuous views can carry disproportionate social and economic consequences that were once blown off as impossible.