Swiss ruling on swimming segregation draws Australian parallels


Switzerland's legal win against Muslim parents who refused to let their daughters join mixed-sex swimming lessons has drawn Australian parallels.

A Swiss ruling that a Muslim family must allow their two daughters to attend mixed swimming lessons has harked back to a similar case from Australia.

In 2008, a Swiss school ordered an Islamic couple to enrol their daughters in a mandatory swimming class.

The parents refused, saying the seven and nine-year-olds were uncomfortable being in the water with boys. The family was fined 1400 francs, and responded with a lawsuit. 

On Wednesday, at the European Human Rights Court, judges acknowledged religious freedom was interfered with, but said it was not violated.

"Whichever side of the fence you come down on this topic, the structural core of this debate is a lost will to tolerance, when faced with Islam and its differing opinions on certain values," Janina Rashidi from Switzerland’s Islamic Central Council told Al Jazeera

The case is similar to one in Sydney 20 years ago, when Islamic School Noor Al-Houda came under fire for holding segregated swim lessons.

The principal at the time, Silma Ihram, has recalled the local outrage.

"They demonstrated in the streets. They forced the council to prevent us from booking the pool,” Ms Ihram detailed. 

“So for two years these children didn't get any swimming lessons. It was a storm in a teacup, really."

Auburn council relented in 1998, also initiating women's-only community swim days.

Swimming instructor Fadila Chafic, 26, first learned how to swim as a child with her mother’s encouragment.

"[I] always had a love for the water,” Ms Chafic said.

“We would do squad training as children. Mum would always send us to like three lessons a week, and that's where my love began."

At 16 Fadila Chafic became a swim teacher, and now, 10 years later, she teaches children of all ages, including her daughter Taaleena, 4, and son Ibrahim, 3.

"I love when you have a student that doesn't quite get something, and you work on that skill and they finally get it and it just lights up in their face,” Ms Chafic said.

“It just brings absolute joy that you’ve actually brought that to them.

Ms Chafic said all her lessons were for both boys and girls and Taaleena and Ibrahim also did mixed martial arts in a mixed-sex class.

She believes the question of sport segregation is one that many Muslims don’t even ask.

"I don't really think about it. It's just, they [her children] go to a mixed school at the moment,” Ms Chafic said.

“What's the difference?"

Ms Ihram believes the issue isn't about integration, but understanding.

"This is not a case of lack of integration," she said.

"It's actually a good thing because it provides more protection for young children."

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch