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Muslim Group, UN Rights Office Object to Swiss Veil Vote

FILE - A woman wearing a niqab takes a picture from a lookout above lake Lungenersee at the Bruenigpass mountain pass road, Switzerland, Aug. 3, 2017.

A Muslim group and the U.N. human rights office have voiced dismay at a recent decision by Switzerland to ban face coverings in public. Those coverings include veils that some Muslim women commonly wear.

In a Sunday referendum, voters narrowly approved the initiative by a margin of 51% to 49%. The referendum was the idea of the socially conservative, anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party.

The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland described the decision as “a dark day” for Muslims, saying the move to outlaw such coverings “opens old wounds…”

U.N. human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said Tuesday that countries with such bans are “actively discriminating against Muslim women.”

Speaking in Geneva, Shamdasani said, “The use of the law to dictate what women should wear is problematic from a human rights perspective.” She added, “The legal ban on face coverings will unduly restrict women's freedom to manifest their religion or beliefs and has a broader impact on their human rights.”

Ahead of the referendum, the government urged voters to oppose the ban, arguing that it would damage tourism from Muslim countries, while calling full-face covers a “marginal phenomenon.”

Shamdasani says the decision would only increase polarization in the country and could lead to physical violence.

“Now that the initiative has passed, in the wake of a political publicity campaign with strong xenophobic undertones, Switzerland is joining the small number of countries where actively discriminating against Muslim women is now sanctioned by law,” Shamdasani said. “And this is deeply regrettable.”

Around 400,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, making up around 5.5% of the population, according to The New York Times, which says the ban also targets ski masks worn by protesters. Officials say there are exceptions to the ban, such as for health reasons.

Swiss legislators now have two years to turn the decision into legislation.