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March 09, 2017

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland’s upper house of parliament has rejected an initiative championed by a right-wing populist party to ban burqas and niqabs, the face- and body-covering garments worn by some Muslim women, which have become emblematic of cultural tensions in parts of Europe.

The Council of State voted 26-9 with four abstentions Thursday against the measure that passed the Swiss lower house in September by a single vote. The Italian-speaking Ticino region in southern Switzerland enacted a ban on burqas last year.

The issue strikes at the heart of Europe’s struggle to integrate Muslims, and comes amid fears about radical Islam in some corners. Burqas are body-covering garments with screens for the eyes, while niqabs have open slits for the eyes. France and Belgium have enacted similar bans.

Proponents say such face-covering should not be allowed for security reasons, and insist wearing the burqa harms women’s rights. Opponents say the measure is a not-so-veiled attack on Islam, insist that existing laws already do the job, and note that burqas are rarely seen in Switzerland. They have also argued that national legislators should try to stay out of the clothing closet.

The measure, led by Swiss People’s Party lawmaker Walter Wobmann, would change the Constitution to ban face-covering clothing in public. A campaign poster features silhouettes of a niqab-wearing woman and a masked man poised to throw a firebomb.

Anian Liebrand, a former youth leader in the people’s party, said that a movement called “Yes to a ban on face-covering” has collected over two-thirds of the 100,000 petition signatures needed by September for the issue to be put up for a referendum in coming years.

“We are convinced that the people are going to vote ‘yes’ to this initiative,” he said. “We have done a lot of surveys as we have gathered signatures, and we are optimistic.” Andrea Caroni, a libertarian lawmaker with the Free Democratic Party who opposes the measure, praised Thursday’s “very clear decision,” but said a “real battle” looms once voters get their say.

“I don’t want to have clothing regulation in my Constitution,” Caroni said. He insisted the issue is “not relevant at all” in Switzerland, where about five percent of Switzerland’s population of about 8.2 million people are Muslim.

“There have been no proven sightings of a real Afghan burqa — not a single one … which makes the debate slightly absurd,” he said. As for the niqab, he added: “I think I’ve seen one in my whole life in Switzerland.”

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