Saturday 21 April 2018

Muslim girls must take mixed swim class - court

A woman in a burkini carries her child on the beach in Marseille, France, last summer
A woman in a burkini carries her child on the beach in Marseille, France, last summer

James Rothwell in London

Girls in Switzerland cannot be excused from mixed swimming lessons on religious grounds because it prevents them from integrating with society, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled yesterday.

The court in Strasbourg threw out an appeal which had been brought by a "fervently religious" Muslim Swiss-Turkish couple who had been fined by the Swiss authorities for removing their children from the lessons.

It was not a violation of the pupils' human rights to make them take part in mixed lessons, the court ruled, adding that schools have a "special role" in integrating young children, especially those from foreign backgrounds.

"The children's interest in a full education, thus facilitating their successful social integration according to local customs and mores, prevailed over the parents' wish to have their children exempted from mixed swimming lessons," the ECHR said in its ruling.

The couple had appealed to the ECHR after being fined 1,400 francs (€1,300) by the Swiss authorities in 2010 for keeping their two daughters out of mixed-gender, mandatory public-school swimming lessons for reasons linked to their Muslim faith.

The couple were "fervent practitioners of the Muslim religion", the ECHR said, adding the girls had been offered "very flexible" options to accommodate their beliefs, including allowing the girls to get changed in private, as well as permission to wear the so-called 'burkini', an Islamic swimsuit that covers the whole body, except the hands, face and feet.

The judges acknowledged that "interference" with religious freedom had taken place when the couple was disciplined, but denied that it amounted to a violation of religious freedoms.

They also upheld the fine issued in 2010, which they said was "proportional" and would help ensure that "parents do send their children to compulsory lessons, which is above all in their own interest, for socialisation and successful integration." It comes after Germany's highest court ruled in December that Muslim girls must take part in swimming lessons with boys.

The country's constitutional court said that girls who objected to the mixed lessons on religious grounds should wear the 'burkini' instead.

In the German case, an 11-year-old Muslim girl of Moroccan descent living in Frankfurt had claimed she was given an "unsatisfactory" grade due to refusing to take part in mixed lessons. The girl argued she was entitled to be exempt on religious grounds, and said she was offended by the sight of young men and boys in swimming costumes. She also said the 'burkini' offered insufficient coverage.

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