German court rules Muslim girls must join swimming classes

September 11, 2013

(Twenty-year-old trainee volunteer surf life saver Mecca Laalaa runs along North Cronulla Beach in Sydney during her Bronze medallion competency test January 13, 2007. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne)

A German court ruled on Wednesday that Muslim girls must take part in school swimming lessons with boys, in a landmark decision that touches on the sensitive relationship between religion and the state.

The decision by Germany’s top court for public and administrative disputes signals that the state’s constitutional obligation to educate children can take precedence over customs and practices linked to an individual’s religious beliefs.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right government have sought dialogue with the country’s roughly four-millions Muslims, but have also said they must make an effort to integrate and learn German.

The court said Muslim schoolgirls could not be exempted from swimming lessons, 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.

The girl’s lawyer argued that she was embarrassed to see boys wearing nothing but swimming trunks. “The Koran not only forbids being seen by others in light clothing but she herself should not see boys and girls with (swimsuits) on,” Klaus Meissner, her lawyer, was quoted in German media as saying before the hearing.

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