Muslim Girls in Switzerland Must Attend Swim Classes With Boys, Court Says

The Norrebro district of Copenhagen. European countries are struggling to integrate an influx of migrants, many from majority-Muslim countries. Credit Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

In 2008, school officials in Basel, Switzerland, ordered a Muslim couple to enroll their daughters in a mandatory swimming class, despite the parents’ objections to having their girls learn alongside boys.

The officials offered the couple some accommodations: The girls, 9 and 7 at the time, could wear body-covering swimsuits, known as burkinis, during the swimming lessons, and they could undress for the class without any boys present.

But the parents refused to send their daughters to the lessons, and in 2010, the officials imposed a fine of 1,400 Swiss francs, about $1,380. The parents, Aziz Osmanoglu and Sehabat Kocabas, who have both Swiss and Turkish nationality, decided to sue.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Swiss officials’ decision, rejecting the parents’ argument that the Swiss authorities had violated the “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which the court enforces.

“The public interest in following the full school curriculum should prevail over the applicants’ private interest in obtaining an exemption from mixed swimming lessons for their daughters,” the court found.

The case was the latest to pit freedom of religion against the imperative of social integration, and to raise the question of whether — and how much — a government should accommodate the religious views of Muslim citizens and residents, many of them immigrants.

The ruling could set an important precedent in other cases in which religious and secular values or norms come into conflict.

The decision comes as Europe has been struggling to integrate migrants, many from majority-Muslim countries where religious and social mores, particularly around gender and sexuality, can be at odds with liberal and secular norms of the societies where they have sought refuge.

Far-right political parties with anti-immigrant bents, from the National Front in France to the Danish People’s Party in Denmark and the Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland, have argued that too many Muslims have not managed to assimilate.

In May, the authorities in the canton of Basel-Landschaft — which is next to the canton of Basel-Stadt, where the swimming case occurred — ruled that two Syrian immigrant brothers, who studied at a public school in the small town of Therwil, could not refuse to shake their teacher’s hand on religious grounds. Their refusal to do so had provoked a national uproar, and the authorities said that parents whose children refused to abide by the longstanding custom of handshaking could be fined up to 5,000 Swiss francs.

The challenge of integrating immigrants has spilled over into culture, and, at times, helped fan a simmering culture war. In Denmark, pork meatballs and other pork dishes became conflated with a debate on national identity last year after the central Danish town of Randers voted in January to require public day care centers and kindergartens to include the meat on their lunch menus.

In Germany, where nearly one million migrants arrived last year, including many from Middle Eastern countries buffeted by war, a dating coach, who calls himself “Mr. Flirt,” has been offering flirting lessons for young immigrant men, many of them from the Middle East, who have been seeking his advice on how to relate to the opposite sex in their new country.

At the end of 2015, hundreds of sexual assaults by young men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, many of them of North African origin, shook Germany and became an uncomfortable symbol of the challenges of integration there.

In France, the clash between secularism and religious conservatism came into sharp relief this summer when nearly 30 towns, mainly in the southeast of France, introduced burkini bans, suggesting that the garments impinged upon French culture and way of life.

In the case of the swimming classes in Switzerland, the authorities ruled that lessons mixing boys and girls were an important part of the school curriculum; they did allow that the girls could apply for an exemption on religious grounds, but only if they had already gone through puberty, which was not the case for the daughters of Mr. Osmanoglu and Ms. Kocabas. The parents argued that even though the Quran did not require girls’ bodies to be covered until puberty, “their belief commanded them to prepare their daughters for the precepts that would be applied to them from puberty” onward, according to the court’s summary of the case.

The decision, by a chamber of seven judges, did not dispute that the denial of the parents’ request interfered with their religious freedom, but it emphasized that the need for social cohesion and integration trumped the family’s wishes. The court also noted that schools play “a special role in the process of social integration, particularly where children of foreign origin were concerned,” and that, as such, ensuring the girls’ “successful social integration according to local customs and mores” took precedence over religious concerns.

The parents have three months to appeal the court’s decision. Representatives of the family could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

In Switzerland, politicians and civic groups across the political spectrum welcomed the ruling, calling it an important validation of the supremacy of secularism and the rule of law, even as some Muslims complained that it reflected growing intolerance for religious minorities.

“The swimming pool verdict unfortunately is what we expected,” Qaasim Illi, a board member of the Swiss Central Islamic Council, wrote on Twitter. “Tolerance toward the religious is diminishing throughout Europe.”

Source: NYTimes