The Swiss government has sent a draft law to parliament, seeking to fine people who violate a national ban on face coverings up to 1,000 Swiss francs ($1,000).
The draft law, which was sent on Wednesday, follows last year’s referendum on banning face coverings. The proposed ban, also known as the “burqa ban”, was supported by 51.2 percent of voters, but was criticised at the time as Islamophobic and sexist.
After consultations, the cabinet watered down calls to anchor the ban in the criminal code and fine offenders up to 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,000).
“The ban on covering faces aims to ensure public safety and order. Punishment is not the priority,” it said in a statement.
The initiative to ban facial coverings was launched by the Egerkinger Komitee, a group including politicians of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which says it organises “resistance against the claims to power of political Islam in Switzerland”.
The bill does not name burqas or niqabs, but prohibits people from concealing their faces in public spaces like public transportation, restaurants or walking in the street, specifying that the eyes, nose and mouth must be visible.
For example, a Muslim woman may wear a hijab covering her hair, but cannot wear a niqab, a garment which only shows the eyes, or a burqa, a full-body veil that covers the face as well. They are allowed in places of worship.
There are other exceptions to the law which include face coverings for reasons of security, climate, or health, meaning people are allowed to wear masks to protect against COVID-19.
Muslim groups have previously condemned the ban.
“Anchoring dress codes in the constitution is not a liberation struggle for women but a step back into the past,” the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland said, adding Swiss values of neutrality, tolerance and peacemaking had suffered in the debate.
Muslims make up 5 percent of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
According to estimates by the University of Lucerne, only about 30 women wear the niqab in the country.
Switzerland is one of the five countries where face coverings are banned. France banned the wearing of a full-face veil in public in 2011, while Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have full or partial bans on face coverings in public.
Amnesty International has called the face veil ban “a dangerous policy that violates women’s rights, including freedom of expression and religion”.