Muslims and Swimming Lessons

Separating the Boys from the Girls

Many Muslim parents work themselves into a sweat on account of their children's swimming lessons. They regard the swimming of boys together with girls, designated as part of the regular school sports program, as incompatible with Islam. Petra Tabeling reports

child in pool (photo: AP)
Muslims and their children often face a grave moral conflict - torn between the obligation to go to school and Islamic rules and prohibitions

​​The Genoveva pool in the Mühlheim district of Cologne is well attended on Fridays. On that day, the pool schedules swimming for Islamic women. Infants, young girls, and women come here to swim without being disturbed by the gaze of men. The windows are draped and a warm light shines through the bright yellow curtains. Only women personnel are in charge at the pool Friday afternoons.

Conflict cases brought to court

The Muslim parents of a nine-year-old girl in Hamburg would perhaps be grateful for a similar option. The parents from Pakistan have prevented their daughter from taking part in regular school swimming lessons on the grounds that it would be a sin according to their religious beliefs. They didn't want their daughter in the water together with boys.

Yet, the court decided that the child had to participate, and thereby placed the school's responsibility to educate above freedom of religion. The decisive factor here was also the age of the girl – Koranic precepts concerning apparel do not apply to pre-pubescent girls.

In another case, the Düsseldorf Administrative Court delivered a very similar judgment. The parents of an eleven-year-old boy also wanted to have their son excused from swimming lessons. They believed that swimming with girls was not in accordance with the Koran.

Here, the judge also ruled against the plaintiffs, as the court was unable to comprehend the religious regulations. In addition, it was pointed out that boys are constantly exposed to "skimpily clad" women, both in public places and in advertising.

A matter of consideration

Courts do not always rule against Muslim plaintiffs. Yet, according to the latest report by the Federal Commissioner for Migration, Refugees, and Integration, the mere claim of a conflict with religious duties is not enough to waive the obligation to attend school.

"Rather, it has to be shown that by obliging with the law, the pupil is prevented from fulfilling the rules and prohibitions of his or her religion, thereby facing a grave moral conflict."

Such cases may occur, especially with the onset of puberty. As a result of a leading decision reached by the German Federal Administrative Court in 1993, schools are obliged to exhaust all organizational possibilities in order to offer separate sports lessons for boys and girls in this age group. Courts and school authorities must, above all, strictly abstain from passing judgment on religious beliefs, as it is the state's responsibility to remain neutral on such matters.

The report by the Federal Commissioner for Integration also noted "a certain feeling of unease about the ways in which exceptional cases" are decided "according to the rules established by the court."

It was therefore recommended to develop practical decision-making guidelines, so that schools can competently deal with such requests for exemption from lessons "in a way that remains firm in the face of Islamic demands, yet is still sensitive to religious concerns."

The main thing is to learn how to swim

According to one Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), swimming is not forbidden on principle. On the contrary, "it is the child's right to be taught to swim (…) by his or her father."

Herein lies a far more fundamental problem, shared by Muslim and other children, regardless of nationality or religious belief, namely, that swimming lessons are no longer regularly offered at all schools. Pool attendants complain that many school-age children are unable to swim. Government education authorities counter that it is not the sole responsibility of schools to teach children how to swim.

To draw the conclusion, however, that children excused from swimming lessons for religious reasons contribute to a higher rate of drowning is extremely speculative, to say the least. According to the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of Education, the number of such children is quite small.

Dialogue and guidance

The Hesse Islamic Forum recently published recommendations with respect to "Muslim schoolchildren." These also include suggestions on sports and swimming lessons, which will be passed on to school authorities, Islamic organizations, and ministries of education.

The Forum advocates reaching a considerate balance between the interests of schools and matters of Muslim belief. "We don't want to encourage Muslim parents to have their children exempt from swimming lessons, but rather guide them, preferably together with schools, in seeking alternate solutions," says Ramazan Kuruyüz from the Islamic religious community in Giessen.

School authorities and indoor swimming facilities should attempt to set up more separate swimming times. Kuruyüz, himself a teacher, knows that this isn't always easy to organize, but a need exists. He sees programs such as "swimming for Islamic women" as important, but it makes even more sense to also offer special swimming lessons during these times.

Kuruyüz is also in favor of applying standard rules for separate swimming lessons. Up until now, the reservations of Muslims have been almost exclusively directed towards young girls. "Young men should also observe strict dress regulations," says Kuruyüz.

Rules governing swimming apparel are no longer a problem for the Islamic women at the Genoveva pool in Cologne. Women are allowed into the water wearing long swimming trunks.

Petra Tabeling

© 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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