March 8 (UPI) -- Switzerland has voted to ban face coverings in public, sparking backlash from human rights groups and Islamic organizations who say it discriminates against Muslim women.
In a narrow victory for the right-leaning populist Swiss People's Party on Sunday, 51.2% of voters approved of its proposal to prohibit face coverings, including the Islamic the niqab and burqa, from public spaces, except for in situations of security, weather or health, according to official results from the Swiss government.
The populist Swiss People's Party celebrated the referendum result, calling it in a statement "a strong symbol in the fight against radical political Islam."
Party president, Marco Chiesa, said the "prohibition on veiling" is lawful and does not violate human rights, pointing to decisions by the European Court on Human Rights to uphold similar bans passed by bloc nations.
"It is legitimate for the state to take such measure to meet the requirements for co-existence in society," Chiesa said. "The burqa creates a barrier between its wearer and the environment and thus prevents integration into society."
The party also said by voting yes to the veil ban Swiss voters were saying yes to more security "because it is expressly directed against hooligans and left-wing [rioters] who commit violence and vandalism while masked."
With the vote, Switzerland joins Austria, France and the Netherlands among other European nations to ban face coverings and comes after it in 2009 voted to ban minarets.
The vote was held after researchers at the University of Lucerne said in a study published in December that only some three dozen women in the country regularly wear a niqab, which is a veil that covers one's face with an opening for the eyes.
The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland chastised the vote as representing "a dark day" for Muslims.
"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 organization said.
Cyrielle Huguenot, head of women's rights at Amnesty international, rebuked the argument that the ban will liberate women, stating, "it is a dangerous and symbolic policy that violates the rights to freedom of expression and religion."
The international human rights advocacy group said it now calls on Swiss politicians to ensure the ban does not further marginalize women or exclude them from public spaces.
"The authorities must now strengthen measures to protect women who are suffering real violence and discrimination in Switzerland, regardless of their religion and origin," Huguenot said in a statement.