With the plans, the Swiss government hopes to take the wind out of the sails of a popular initiative calling for a nationwide burqa ban.
The initiative, which garnered more than the required 100,000 signatures to put it to a popular vote, calls for it to be made illegal for anyone to cover their face in public, with some exceptions including for local customs, the weather, and health and safety reasons.
But the Swiss government has rejected the initiative, instead launching a counterproposal, which was first mooted in late 2017 and is now up for consultation.
In a statement on that consultation process published on Wednesday, the Federal Council said it was “aware that covering the face can be problematic”.
But the Council said it wanted “targeted action instead of a general ban on face coverings”.
That targeted action includes changes that would see people who force women to wear a burqa or niqab punished with a prison sentence of up to three years or by a monetary penalty.
The Federal Council also said it wanted to establish clear rules on when people are required to show their face in dealings with authorities. It noted that while the law already makes express provision in law for the areas of security, migration and social security, the rules are not clear in other areas such as public transport.
The Council also noted that, under the proposed rules, anyone who refused to show their face to authorities in situations where there was a legal obligation to do so would be fined.
In its statement, the government criticised the popular initiative for a nationwide burqa ban by saying it would see federal authorities overstepping their powers and entering into an area that was traditionally a matter for individual cantons.
In 2013, the canton of Ticino introduced a ban on burqas while other cantons have rejected such a move.
The Federal Council also said that the popular initiative on a nationwide burqa ban could be counter-productive because women could be driven to stay at home, thus becoming more socially isolated.
Switzerland is a liberal society and the introduction of such a ban goes against that, the Council added.
The government’s counterproposal was welcomed by Swiss Islamic Council member Nora Illi, who Swiss news portal 20 Minuten described as the “best-known” niqab wearer in Switzerland.
But Swiss MP Walter Wobmann of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – one of the members of the committee behind the initiative – described the Federal Council’s move as a shameful attempt to block the popular initiative.
Wobmann said laying responsibility at the hands of the cantons was not constructive and would also create problems for tourists.
He slammed the Swiss government for failing to take account of the fact that the popular initiative would also address the problem of violent demonstrators and football hooligans who covered their faces.
He said other countries including Denmark, Austria and France had introduced burqa bans for good reasons. “In our culture, you show your face. The fact that you do this in front of the authorities is nothing new,” said the SVP politician.
No date has been set for the vote on the nationwide ban on face coverings. A 2016 survey run by the Le Matin newspaper suggested more than 70 percent of people in Switzerland were in favour of such a ban.
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