What the ruling on swim classes in Switzerland means for Muslims in Europe

The human rights court in Strasbourg rules that Swiss Muslim girls must swim with boys in mandatory swim class, rejecting their parents' appeal.

In this file photo, a Muslim woman wears a burkini, a swimsuit that leaves only the face, hands and feet exposed, as she swims in the Mediterranean Sea in Marseille, France, Aug. 17, 2016.

PARIS – When must a newcomer adapt and when must a host society accept?

Europe has been struggling with where to draw this line with its Muslim population, and the latest splash comes from a swimming pool in Basel, Switzerland.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg seems to have sided for now with “adapt,” in ruling that Swiss Muslim girls must swim with boys. It rejected the appeal of two Swiss citizens, originally from Turkey, who cited their Muslim faith in seeking to keep their two prepubescent daughters out of a mixed, mandatory swimming class.

In dismissing the parents’ challenge, the court acknowledges the blurriness of these lines. While its decision might interfere in religious freedom, the court places a higher value on social inclusion in the public school system.

Across Europe, similarly, leaders and citizens are finding that these lines aren’t always clear. When German leaders voiced plans to ban full-face veils while driving cars or in court – a measure backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in December – a debate raged over whether Germany was reverting to a historic intolerance.

Clash of fundamental principles

Mohammad Hajjaj, chairman of the Berlin branch of the Central Council of Muslims, said in an interview this fall that he thought Germany was crossing a line in considering the veil ban, especially since only a tiny fraction of German Muslims wear the burqa or niqab. The line should be firmly drawn at the Constitution, he argues, which enshrines religious freedom, full stop.

But what if that comes into conflict with other principles, German society has asked?

Karlies Abmeier, a team leader on religion, integration, and family policy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is close to Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, says that in her view such a ban is practical and principled. If a mother has to pick up her kindergartner, she posits, the school must be able to identify her.

Ms. Abmeier says she also agrees with Merkel, who said recently a fully covered woman in Germany stands little chance of full integration. “The burqa is really something that separates her from the rest of the world,” Abmeier says.

The ECHR seemed to show similar reasoning in its ruling Tuesday. In the public school system in Basel, swim classes are obligatory in grade-school, with exceptions granted at puberty. The Turkish-Swiss couple, who objected to their girls being in swimsuits in front of male counterparts in a case dating back to 2010, decided to keep their daughters out of class. They were fined for violating the rules, an amount equaling about $1,400, and brought a suit alleging a violation of freedom of thought and religion.

'Burkini' offered as a solution

The court put emphasis on the integration process, saying public schools hold “a special role in the process of social integration,” particularly with children of foreign origin. “The children’s interest in attending swimming lessons was not just to learn to swim, but above all to take part in that activity with all the other pupils, with no exception on account of the children’s origin or their parents’ religious or philosophical convictions.”

The court added that the school wasn’t being intransigent: in fact, the girls were allowed to wear a “burkini”– the suit that took France by storm this summer, when a town on the southern coast, followed by several others, tried to ban it.

Two very different visions of cultural adaptation emerged in France after the beach row. To then Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and his many supporters – including a majority of the French public – the burkini represented a tool of gender inequality.

“The burkini is not a new range of swimwear, a fashion. It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women,” said the Socialist’s now presidential hopeful.

Neslihan Cevik, author of “Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond: Religion in the Modern World” and founder of M-Line Fashion in Turkey, says she sees it in the opposite light, as a tool of liberation. As she sets out to release her own burkini line, expected out this summer, she says Muslim fashion is about increased participation of Muslim women in modern life – including in beaches and public pools.

The water wars in Sweden

The water wars have struck much of Europe. Elisabeth Braw, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, was dispatched to the Hyllie sports center, a municipal swimming pool in the southern Swedish city of Malmö, that became part of a raging debate in Scandinavia over the issue of gender-segregated splash time.

Forget that many women simply prefer single-sex pools or gyms (this correspondent included, who desperately misses her women-only gym in Boston). Feministiskt Initiativ, Sweden's feminist party, made this very point.

“It's not just Muslim women who want women-only swimming hours; it's women from many different backgrounds,” Toktam Jahangiry, Feministiskt Initiativ's sexual policy spokeswoman, told Ms. Braw. And when it comes to Muslim women specifically, as the supporters of the burkini in France argue, advocates of women-only swim time argue that without the separation Muslim women would simply never get a chance to swim.

Many in Sweden have seen this as a step too far, and above all a threat to women’s equality. In May last year Sweden's democracy minister, Alice Bah Kuhnke, told Swedish TV that mixed-gender swimming is “a victory after many years and generations of gender-equality struggle.”

From school cafeterias that serve pork, to prayer space in offices, to classroom exceptions, the object of protest might differ. But the larger issue is always the same. Europe sits at the front lines of a culture war in Europe. Today it’s at the pool.

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