Jumping in at the deep end

Jumping in at the deep end

Muslim women must attend swimming lessons © Rolf Haid

May schools require young Muslim girls to take mixed swimming lessons? Yes, now says the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in a landmark ruling after careful consideration.

Compulsory attendance restricts religious freedom, it argued, but the state's interest in social integration through common education justifies rejecting Muslim parents' religiously based request for exemption.

Complaint from Swiss parents

In the case in question, two Muslim families in Basel had signed their young daughters out of mixed-sex swimming lessons. School regulations provide for exemption only from puberty or for health reasons. However, the parents with Turkish and Swiss citizenship referred to their religious convictions, according to which girls should not swim together with boys before puberty.

Basel school authorities had made sweeping concessions to the affected families, such as offering the nine- and 11-year-old girls the chance to wear the burkini, a full-body swimsuit. It was also ensured that the girls could change in a separate locker room from the boys. However, the parents refused, so that the authorities finally imposed a fine of the equivalent of about 325 euros per schoolgirl. Swiss courts rejected challenges to these fines in two instances.

Religious freedom restricted

Strasbourg now confirmed the action. The state has the right to restrict religious freedom in this case, he said, in order to guarantee that the schoolgirls take part in physical education classes. School plays a "prominent role" in the process of social integration, especially for children with immigrant backgrounds, Strasbourg judges' unanimous ruling says. It is in the interest of the children to participate in all educational and upbringing offers of the school. This interest of society as a whole outweighs the family's personal religious beliefs.

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