Swedish Muslim school slammed for segregation by sex

A private Muslim school in Sweden has introduced separate gym classes for boys and girls, saying that the girls were not able to take off veils or wear T-shirt if boys were present. The move was slammed by Swedish officials who call it unacceptable for an “open and tolerant country”.

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The controversial gym lessons are being held in the Al-Azhar school in Swedish capital of Stockholm.
According to the gym teacher Nina Da Mata, “the girls feel more secure when they are in a group of their own.”

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“Some of our girls want to be able to take off their veils and wear shorts and T-shirts in their classes. It would be difficult if there were boys of the same age or a male teacher,” Da Mata told Mivida, the Swedish Teachers Union newspaper, as cited by The Local.

On its website the school describes itself as “Northern Europe's largest independent school with a Muslim profile.” It was some 120 employees and 660 students. The school, founded in 1995, says that Islam is a taught as a separate subject. Children are allowed to pray during school hours.

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The information about sex segregation for the students appeared in Swedish media on Sunday. An unidentified person who leaked the information to the inspectorate worried that school violates human rights.

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However, the school’s headmaster explained to the inspectorate that students had a “Muslim cultural background.”

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In an interview to Sveriges Television, headmaster Hussein Ibrahim said he doesn’t see anything wrong in segregating boys from girls. 

“The division was demanded by students, who otherwise had to skip PE classes,” he said, “If you look at any sport in the world, on the women's and men's national teams, you see that they play in different teams,” he said, adding that Al-Azhar is an “ordinary Swedish school with trained personnel.”

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However, Swedish authorities were “not amused” by the sex segregation practice in the school. According to Swedish Education Minister, Gustav Fridolin, it was “surprising” that the Inspectorate gave green light to such a move. 

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“We are very clear in our curriculum and policy documents about work on gender equality. …We shall have responsibility to work against outdated gender norms and to build secure environments between girls and boys, where girls and boys meet,” he told Swedish Aftonbladet newspaper.

Fridolin also said the Al-Azhar school arrangement was unacceptable.

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“All schools have responsibility to build security between girls and boys, one can’t separate students… it's not a good way to work.”

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He added that he is preparing to make “the necessary adjustments” and to analyze laws.

The minister’s criticism of school policy was supported by all four center-right parties in the opposition Alliance.

“It [sex segregation in schools] is not what we should have in an open and tolerant country such as Sweden,” said Camilla Waltersson Grönvall, from the Moderate Party.

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According to Håkan Larsson from the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, "most of people would argue that this [sex segregation in schools] is a step backwards.”

“We had this system until early 1980-s. Boys and girls were separated in Physical Education,” he said, adding that the decision to divide boys and girls might have been not because of gender, but because of “religious freedom.”

He added that he doesn’t think that if it was another school without any religious connotation, “they [the Inspectorate] would have allowed dividing boys and girls.”