European court upholds mandatory swimming lessons for Muslim girls

Swimming classes are compulsory in Swiss schools Keystone

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld a decision by Swiss authorities to fine a Muslim couple who refused to allow their daughters to attend mandatory swimming classes during school hours. 

This content was published on January 10, 2017

On Tuesday, the Strasbourg-based court ruled that the fine imposed by the authorities of canton Basel City did not violate the girls’ freedom of conscience and religion. However, the parents have three months to request a re-examination of the case, something that the court is not obliged to grant them

In 2010, the parents - Swiss nationals of Turkish origin - were fined CHF1,400 ($1,382) in the first move of its kind after they withdrew their daughters aged seven and nine from the school swimming lessons. They also lost their appeal at a cantonal administrative court a year later. 

The Basel court stated that it was greatly “in the public interest that all children, including girls of the Muslim faith, go to school swimming lessons”. This was not only so that they should learn to swim but also because such lessons encouraged socialisation and integration, it continued. 

Sound legal basis

The European Court of Human Rights' decision described the parents as “fervent practitioners of the Muslim religion”.

The parents had said it was against their religious convictions to send their children to mixed swimming classes and that it violated Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the freedom of religion. They argued the school had rejected their request for their daughters to attend single sex swimming classes in another school.

In their defence the parents said although the Koran does not call for the female body to be covered until puberty, their beliefs “required them to prepare their daughters for precepts that would be applicable from puberty”. The burkini would not help solve the problem because it would stigmatise their daughters, they said.

The court noted that while the decision “constituted an interference with the freedom of religion”, it nevertheless considered swimming lessons part of the compulsory school curriculum in the canton and this obligation “was based on a sufficiently sound legal basis”. 

It ruled that the “consequences of the measure were mitigated by the accompanying measures (changing rooms and separate showers, and the wearing of the burkini)”.

This was not the first time that Swiss courts had to intervene in such issues. In 2015, a district court in canton St Gallen had fined a Muslim man, a Bosnian national, for refusing to let his daughters attend school swimming lessons. He too lost his appeal in a cantonal court a year later.


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