European court: Swiss Muslim girls must take swimming classes with boys

Basel authorities had tried to accommodate the parents' beliefs by allowing the girls to wear the burkini swimsuit. [Al-Jazeera/Google]

Muslim parents in Switzerland cannot refuse to send their daughters to mixed school-run swimming lessons, Europe’s rights top court ruled Tuesday (10 January), responding to a challenge by a Turkish-Swiss couple who argued the classes violated their beliefs.

The European Court of Human Rights accepted that the refusal by authorities to exempt girls from the lessons interfered with their freedom of religion.

But the interference, it said, was justified by the need to protect the children from social exclusion.

School plays “a special role in the process of social integration, particularly where children of foreign origin were concerned”, ruled the court, which is based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg.

Swimming lessons are “not just to learn to swim, but above all to take part in that activity with all the other pupils”, it added.

The case was brought by a Turkish-Swiss couple who argued that forcing their pre-pubescent daughters to attend the classes violated their faith.

The court found that the Basel authorities had tried to accommodate the parents’ beliefs by, for instance, allowing the girls to wear the full-body “burkini” swimsuit.

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Swimming lessons are “not just to learn to swim, but above all to take part in that activity with all the other pupils”, it added.

The case was brought by a Turkish-Swiss couple who argued that forcing their pre-pubescent daughters to attend the classes violated their faith.

The court found that the Basel authorities had tried to accommodate the parents’ beliefs by, for instance, allowing the girls to wear the full-body “burkini” swimsuit.

The court also said that the fine of 1,400 Swiss francs (around €1300) imposed on the couple in 2010 after a warning was “proportionate to the aim pursued” of getting them to comply with the regulation.

The case was brought by Aziz Osmanoglu and his partner Sehabat Kocabas, whose daughters were born in 1999 and 2001.

All their appeals were rejected by Swiss courts, after which they took their case to Strasbourg.

Tuesday’s ruling is not final. The couple has three months to appeal the decision.

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The decision parallels a similar ruling, by Germany’s top court for public and administrative disputes, in 2013.

Muslim girls must take part in school swimming lessons with boys, the court ruled, provided they were allowed to wear so-called ‘burkinis’, full-body swimsuits worn by many Muslim women which leave only the face, hands and feet exposed.

The plaintiff was a Muslim girl, originally from Morocco, who goes to school in the western state of Hesse.

Her parents have tried for several years to stop her from joining swimming lessons with boys. She was 11 years old when the case started.

Earlier in 2013, the Swiss Supreme Court rejected a Muslim family’s case against a school rule that their daughter had to take part in swimming classes and could not wear a burkini.

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