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Swiss Voters Narrowly Approve a Ban on Face Coverings

GENEVA — Switzerland on Sunday became the latest European country to ban the wearing of face coverings in public places, prohibiting the veils worn by Muslim women.

Official results of the nationwide referendum showed 51.2 percent of voters supported the ban on full facial coverings, which was proposed by the populist, anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (S.V.P.), compared with 48.8 percent opposing it, a much narrower margin of victory than pollsters had initially predicted.

The initiative, started long before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, makes exceptions for facial coverings worn at religious sites and for security or health purposes, but also bans coverings like the ski masks worn by protesters. Officials have two years to write legislation to put the ban into effect.

The federal government had urged voters to reject the ban as tackling a problem that didn’t exist and arguing that it would damage tourism.

Critics of the ban cited a study showing only some 30 women in Switzerland wear the veils and most of them were born in Switzerland and had converted to Islam. The only people seen wearing the burqa, a full head-to-toe covering, are visitors from the Middle East, mostly wealthy tourists from the Persian Gulf bringing welcome revenue to the country’s hospitality industry.

France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria ban face coverings, and opinion polls at the start of the year showed the Swiss initiative garnering the backing of around 65 percent of voters, but the gap narrowed quickly as liberals and women’s groups pushed back against a ban they condemned as racist, Islamophobic and sexist.

The Swiss People’s Party has “always profited from campaigning against minorities, and feel they have to keep doing it,” said Elena Michel, a manager of a campaign against the ban for Operation Libero, an activist group supporting liberal causes. “In the end all our freedoms are at stake. If we open that door, it shows a tendency that it’s OK to take away the fundamental rights of minorities.”

Switzerland’s Central Council of Muslims called the result of the vote “a dark day” for Muslims and issued a statement saying, “Today’s decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority.”

The proposal put forward by the Swiss People’s Party, the country’s largest, did not mention Islam or niqabs and burqas — veils traditionally worn by Muslim women — calling instead for a ban on “full facial covering.” But the party left no doubt as to whom it was targeting.

Menacing campaign posters depicting a black-garbed woman scowling from behind her veil carried the slogan “Stop Extremism!”

The initiative evoked memories of a successful 2009 campaign by the S.V.P. to ban the construction of minarets, the towers from which mosques traditionally broadcast the call to prayers. Switzerland had three minarets at the time but the party challenged such architecture as alien to the Alpine nation’s culture and landscape, and hammered home the message with posters depicting minarets as missiles.

The S.V.P. framed its campaign leading up to Sunday’s vote as part of a “war of civilizations” in which it was defending Switzerland against “the Islamization of Europe and our country.”

To win support from other parts of the political spectrum, the party also framed the initiative as liberating women from religious oppression and said it would help the police deal with hooligans in street protests and at sporting events.

Some liberal-leaning Muslims supported the ban.

“What the full veil represents is unacceptable; it is the cancellation of women from public space,” Saïda Keller-Messahli, president of the Forum for a Progressive Islam, told Swiss media.

Social commentators say Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims, who make up around 5.5 percent of the population, are better integrated than those in France or Germany.

Some who campaigned against the ban called the outcome better than expected.

“We lost the battle but not the war,” said Ines el-Shikh, a Muslim and co-founder of the Violet Scarves, a feminist group, who celebrated the sharp drop in support for the ban. “This is huge. It shows the power that feminism as an organized movement can bring to public debate.”

Others said they feared the outcome would merely stoke the politics of division and fuel anti-Muslim sentiment.

“Things are going in a bad direction and this is going to make them worse,” Sanija Ameti, a political activist and member of the Green Liberals Party, said. “That frightens me.”

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Indonesia Says Schools Can’t Make Girls Wear Head Scarves

The father, a Christian, was upset that his 16-year-old daughter had been ordered to wear an Islamic head scarf at her public school in Indonesia. He met with the school’s vice principal and protested the rule. And he didn’t stop there: He streamed their conversation on Facebook Live.

“This is a requirement,” the vice principal, Zakri Zaini, sternly told the father, Elianu Hia, during their recorded conversation. “It has been stated in the school regulations.”

The video of the two men’s January conversation, which has been viewed more than 830,000 times, sparked a discussion across the majority-Muslim nation about religious discrimination, and it brought a swift declaration from the national government in support of religious freedom.

The government of President Joko Widodo last month issued a decree, which took effect on Friday, ordering public schools to respect religious freedom and prohibiting them from enforcing religious-based dress codes.

a conservative form of Islam, giving rise to greater intolerance of minority groups.

The government’s decree, which declares that public schools cannot “require, order, oblige, encourage or prohibit the use of uniforms with attributes of specific religions,” was lauded by civil rights groups. More significantly, it was held up by the minister of religious affairs as a reaffirmation of Indonesia’s status as a tolerant nation.

The minister, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, called the head scarf case “the tip of the iceberg” and said the decree was intended, in part, to remind the public that Indonesia is a diverse nation built on pluralism.

“Indonesia is neither a religious state nor a secular state,” said Mr. Yaqut, a leading Muslim cleric and former member of Parliament. “It unites and harmonizes national values ​​and religious values.”

Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new decree is a long overdue step to end discriminatory dress codes.”

The decree applies to all of Indonesia’s 166,000 public schools except those in Aceh Province, which is semiautonomous and operates under a modified form of Islamic, or Shariah, law. Indonesia’s many religious schools are also exempt from the decree.

Jenni Hia, the Christian girl whose father challenged her school’s head scarf requirement, lives in Padang, the predominantly Muslim but not particularly conservative capital of West Sumatra.

The origin of Padang’s head scarf rule came to light when the former mayor, Fauzi Bahar, said he had implemented the policy in 2005. Many people protested at first, he said in an interview, but eventually they complied.

Non-Muslim students were not forced to wear a jilbab, but it was “recommended” because of its “many benefits,” he said. “If non-Muslim students do not wear the jilbab,” he said, “it will show them to be a minority.”

Mr. Hia, 56, an air-conditioning installer, has lived in Padang since 1986, and he and his family are part of a small Christian community.

“I live in harmony in my neighborhood,” he said. “I have good relations with my neighbors. They even support me on this issue and they are Muslim.”

After previously attending Christian schools, Mr. Hia’s daughter, Jenni, started attending classes at Padang Vocational Senior Secondary School 2, a public high school, in early January.

The school had not informed the family of the head scarf rule when she enrolled, Mr. Hia said, and she refused to wear one. She received five warnings before the school summoned Mr. Hia to meet with the vice principal.

Before the meeting, he searched for a provincial or education ministry rule requiring religious attire. He found none.

The situation was so “bizarre,” he said, that he decided to record the meeting and stream it live.

“This is the first time I encountered an incident like this,” he said. “I put it on live so there would be no accusation that I was making things up.”

During the meeting, Mr. Hia argued that it was a violation of his daughter’s rights, and of Indonesian law, for a public school to require her to wear the symbol of another religion.

For her to wear a head scarf, he said, was akin to lying about her religious identity.

“Where are my religious rights?” he asked. “Where are my human rights? This is a public school.”

But Mr. Zakri argued that the requirement was in the rule book. “It becomes awkward for the teachers when there are children who do not follow the rules,” he said.

After the meeting, father and daughter signed a statement that she was not willing to wear a head scarf as dictated by school regulations, and that they would await a decision from “a more authoritative official.”

Two days later, after the video went viral, the school’s principal, Rusmadi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, offered a public apology for the way the dress code had been applied. He acknowledged that 23 non-Muslim students had been inappropriately required to wear jilbabs.

“I apologize for any mistakes of the staff,” he said. “It is obligatory to obey the rules. It is not obligatory for non-Muslims to wear Muslim clothes.”

He added, “I guarantee that Jenni can still go to school as usual.”

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