Switzerland and Muslim girls swimming with boys – liberalism against religious tolerance?

Thursday the 12th saw the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in favour of the Government of Switzerland on the case of enforcing a regulation that Muslim girls must attend swimming lesion in the company of boys. The court acknowledged that religious freedom was being interfered with, but decided that there was not a case of violation. In a ruling statement, the judgement was that there was justification by the school authorities in giving precedence to enforcing “the full school curriculum” and the children’s “successful integration” into Swiss society.

The ECHR went on to say that the refusal to exempt the girls was interference with the right to freedom of religion, but also said that this law was designed to “protect foreign pupils from any form of social exclusion” and that Switzerland was free to design its education system according to its own needs and traditions.

The original case was brought by two Swiss nationals of Turkish origin. They refused to send their daughters to swimming lessons in Basel.

Parental duty

Government Education officials denied their request of the daughters’ release from the classes as they claimed that any exemptions were available only for girls who had reached the age of puberty. Both girls had yet to reach puberty at the time of the dispute. The parents received a fine “for acting in breach of their parental duty”, but they believed that such a fine was in violation of article nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.


The European Court of Human Rights

The case is an unusual one in that it seems to go against a number of factors that usually work hand in hand. To have a situation where a court has to weight one liberal law against another is rare, but in this case the ECHR has once again come up with a compromise that is both fair and correct. I would normally be considered a very liberal person. I believe that every human being should be treated equally and that equality, justice and fair treatment should be a right for every person. But I’m not a religious person; in fact, I have no belief system at all. I don’t even take the time to find out what category I fall into on the religion scale, but it’s something I have no interest in discovering. So when it comes to religious tolerance, I’m okay with someone claiming that their religious rights are being violated as long as their civil duty to their children isn’t and in this case, I’m siding with Switzerland.

Tolerance and integration

I’m a firm believer in tolerance, but I also believe in an open and diverse society which utilises the best of all the cultures that reside in it. It’s all about a middle ground and people need to realise that in some cases, religious practices must bow to a proven successful social integration policy.

It’s part of being a citizen of your state. Thankfully, the Europe of 2017 doesn’t expect its citizens to be servants of the state, but we must not forget that we are still servants to society and that integration and openness is a crucial part of it.

It will be good for the girls and won’t harm them in any way. That I truly believe.


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1 reply »

  1. I was able to discuss this with my wife but unfortunately neither with my brother in law or my step-niece. My wife is Swiss, brother in law Algerian but long term in Switzerland and his daughter by an earlier partner now an adult together with an Australian husband in that country. My wife is from the very catholic canton Ticino, which is culturally Italian and unlike Germanic Basel where the girls are in school. Whilst she is totally secular and quietly feminist, her view is that choice should choice should be given to all ages and both genders, not just girls. We have both worked in the field of child research for a long time, and have two teenage daughters who we can refer to to a point, likewise are both well known internationally for our work in the field of children’s human rights. All the components are at our fingertips to take this apart. In terms of all that we can weigh up is that all children, female or male, should have their needs and opinions taken into account. For families, irrespective of their culture or religion, to speak out for children is to deny them a fundamental human right but also to begin to cultivate the differences that breed racial, cultural and religious intolerance. All individuals, irrespective of age, should exercise such controls over their lives. If it is a question of personal modesty then that should be part of a level playing field that disregards culture and religion and is equally accepted for boys and girls. In that respect the judges decided reasonably well.

    It would be interesting to know my brother in law’s take on that given that he lives a broadly speaking secular life but has some cultural and Islamic luggage, whereas his daughter seems to have basically shrugged most (but not all) of that off, however usually now lives and works, she is a qualified psychologist as well, in either the Francophone or Germanic parts of the country and would have another and very significant take on it.


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