In 2008, the German Islam Conference published an insightful study: Some 3.5 percent of Muslim schoolgirls in Germany don't participate in co-ed swimming classes on religious grounds, provided it is offered at their school. The absolute numbers are tiny.
Nevertheless, the nationwide significance attached to the question of whether Muslims should be allowed to opt out of school swimming is large. Germany's federal administrative court in Leipzig was tasked with clarifying this on Wednesday. The Helene-Lange-Gymnasium, a high school in Frankfurt, required a Muslim girl to take part in swimming class. She had the option, according to the logic of the Culture Ministry, to wear a full-body bathing suit known as a "burqini." Her parents filed a complaint. It was a case in which the educational mission of the state had come into conflict with religious freedom.
The court in Leipzig has now passed judgement: It is reasonable to require Muslim schoolgirls to swim together with boys, assuming she has the option of wearing a burqini.
They were right to do so.
Conservative politicians and commentators warned ahead of the ruling that the emergence of parallel worlds must be prevented. Some even detected in the unwillingness of Muslims to participate in co-ed swimming courses a sign of the creeping "Islamization" of Germany. Today swim class, tomorrow Sharia. This attitude is based on a form of anti-Muslim racism that remains widespread in Germany, even three years after it was last prominently manifested in the Islamophobic-tirade-in-book-form published by former German Central Bank board member Thilo Sarrazin.
'Compromises Can Often Be Found'
The judgement of the federal administrative court is correct for other reasons: It takes the new German normality into account. In the schools of large German cities, it has long been a part of everyday life that Muslim girls wear burqinis during swim class. A teacher from Freiburg, for example, purchased full-body swimsuits for use by her students years ago. At the Helene-Lange-Gymnasium, eight out of 10 students come from families that have immigrated to Germany; many are Muslim. A number of them wear body coverings while taking part in physical education.
Muslim schoolgirls who refuse to swim argue that despite the burqini, the contours of their body are still visible. In addition, they say, they are uncomfortable seeing boys in swimming trunks. This line of argument also played a role in the Helene-Lange-Gymnasium case. But the federal administrative court rejected this logic, agreeing with a prior ruling by the high administrative court in Kassel. The religious sentiments of the Muslim student had been adequately addressed by the burqini. There was no reason for a complete exemption from swimming class.
It is reasonable that a student be required to view boys in swimming trunks, the court ruled. The right to freedom of religion, the court found, does not convey any "fundamental right" in the context of school, to be protected from the everyday habits and clothing of others -- particularly shorts, which are also common outside of school. It cannot be demanded that a school's curriculum "blocks out the social reality" just because some students find it offensive for religious reasons. The risk of accidental contact with male classmates could in turn be "reduced to acceptable levels" through "prudent implementation of the lessons," as well as through "the student's own actions."
"In practice, compromises can often be found," says Islamic law expert Mathias Rohe: For example, Muslim girls can wear bathrobe on their way to and from the pool, and teaching can be organized so that there's no bodily contact between boys and girls. Islam, adds Rohe, belongs to Germany, with all its rights. And obligations.