Germany

When Faith is More Important than School

German schools are increasingly grappling with cases of Muslim girls pushing for exemption from co-ed swimming and sports on religious grounds, sorely testing the country's ability to integrate its Muslim population.

With her flawless German, good grades and ambition to study towards a career, Ayse Yilmaz seems a model of Muslim integration at her Berlin high school.

She considers herself part of a growing group of young, educated Muslims who have "a modern understanding of Islam," as the 18-year-old student of Turkish-Kurdish origin puts it. But Yilmaz – whose name has been changed here to protect her anonymit – has angered school authorities by refusing to take off her headscarf during sports class and going on school trips with her classmates.

"I felt uncomfortable about the alcohol, partying and fooling around that takes place there," said Yilmaz of the trips. As for her headscarf, Yilmaz says, "There is no question of me taking it off just for sports or something. It's just part of me."

Yilmaz's arguments are becoming familiar ones to school authorities across Germany, as Muslim students and their parents clash with schools over whether the tenants of their faith should be allowed to bend the rules of Germany's secular school system. Though no reliable statistics are available, school authorities across the country say that an increasing number of Muslim parents are demanding exemptions for their daughters on religious grounds from co-ed swimming, sports and biology classes.
Thwarting integration efforts?

The issue has turned into a potent flashpoint in German schools struggling with Muslim integration.

"It's a difficult situation," said Marion Berning, director of the Rixdorfer primary school, one of the largest in Berlin's Neukölln district, where girls with headscarves are a common sight. "We have Muslim girls who say they don't want to swim with the boys. It's obvious the parents exert pressure on them, but they (the parents) have to accept that co-education is part of German schools."

At another school in Berlin's Turkish-dominated Kreuzberg district, principal Annette Spieler worries Muslim girls exempted from biology class are missing out on lessons vital to teenagers.

"When it comes to sex education, it's shocking how little the Muslim students know about the topic. It's absolutely taboo in their homes," she said.

Resurgent Muslim identity

In the absence of a common law governing the issue, some schools have attempted to appease Muslim parents by offering gender-segregated biology and swimming classes, discussing the issue with them in parent-teacher meetings or allowing Muslim girls to wear loose-fitting clothing during sports.

But that hasn't stopped some Muslim parents from appealing to the courts to enforce their religious rights.

In 1993, a landmark ruling by Germany's Federal Administrative Court allowed a 13-year-old Turkish girl to be exempted from co-ed sport lessons if the school failed to proved gender-segregated sports class. The girl's father argued that his daughter would face a moral conflict if she was forced to do sports with boys in tight-fitting clothes.

In another instance, a court in Münster in 2002 exempted a Muslim girl in the 10th grade from a class trip after her parents argued their faith forbade their daughter to stay overnight outside of the house without the company of a male relative.

The court cases point to what Islam experts say is the growing need within the Muslim community to assert themselves in Western society.
"The message is ‘we're here, we're proud, we're going to live our religion and not going to hide ourselves anymore'," said Riem Spielhaus, an Islamic studies lecturer at Berlin's Humboldt University.

A slippery slope to fundamentalism?

But teachers and experts say such court rulings run the risk of subverting German school law, which clearly states that sports and swimming is mandatory for all children. In addition, making exceptions for Muslim students amounts to giving preferential treatment to one religion and could lead to their isolation, said Turgut Hüner.

The chairman of the Turkish Parents Organization in Berlin-Brandenburg believes the trend among Muslim parents to exempt their children from class has been fuelled by the introduction of Islamic religious classes in German schools.

While learning their own language and religion is vital to second-generation Muslims living in the country, Hüner warned that it's important to know just what is being taught under the guise of religious instruction.
He criticized Berlin school authorities for allowing organizations such as the strongly-conservative Islamic Federation, which is on German law enforcement's watch list, to impart Islamic instruction in 28 schools in the German capital.

"It's a slippery slope," said Hüner. "That's when some parents get old-fashioned ideas into their hands and decide not to send their daughters to biology or swimming class."

Living in a Muslim virtual world

Indeed, the Islamic Federation ran into trouble recently with the Berlin education ministry for allegedly handing out application forms printed from the Internet to Muslim parents to get their daughters exempted from co-educative classes.

A look at the virtual world shows just how easy that is. A Web site called Muslim-Markt.de run by two Muslim brothers offers Muslims links and information to Muslim doctors, lawyers, hairdressers, companies and so on.
The site "Muslimrecht," based in Hamburg, offers detailed moral and legal guidelines to Muslim parents wanting to free their daughters from co-ed sports and swimming lessons. "If you don't stand up for your rights, it won't just become a disadvantage to you, but will also lead to a restriction of rights for the coming generation of students," it warns its readers.

Headscarf equals "problem child"?

While the debate simmers, some experts say it also reflects German teachers' poor understanding of the delicate integration process underway.

"Many have no idea how difficult it can be for a Muslim girl caught between her traditional parents and a more permissive western society where she's growing up," said Spielhaus.

Yilmaz knows that only too well.

"As a Muslim girl with a headscarf you're immediately labelled 'dumb'," she said. "I have to work extra hard at school to earn the recognition of my teachers so that they don't think I'm a problem child."

Sonia Phalnikar

DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE © 2004

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