Probe into school’s alleged Islamic veil discrimination

The Swedish Equality Ombudsman (Diskrimineringsombudsmannen - DO) has launched a probe into a case of alleged discrimination at an adult education centre in Stockholm. Two women claim they were not allowed to attend school because they wear veils that only show the area around the eyes.

The Ombudsman has now put forth several questions to the City of Stockholm regarding alleged discrimination at Västerort adult education centre (Västerorts vuxengymnasium) regarding the motivation behind the institution’s policy prohibiting burqas and other veils.

The women both submitted complaints in January 2009 to DO about Västerorts Vuxengymnasium for ethnic and religious discrimination.

The Ombudsman’s letter to the City of Stockholm in August states that, “according to the law on discrimination, an educational provider may not discrimnate against a student on the basis of the student’s ethnic background or religion.”

The statement continues that discrimination includes direct actions, indirect actions and harassment. Furthermore, an educational provider that becomes aware of a student who has experienced harassment is obliged to investigate the circumstances and take appropriate action to prevent additional harassment in the future.

One of the women described ongoing harassment from school staff members regarding her niqab.

“Today the school made the decision that I could no longer attend if I don’t take off my niqab in the classroom or while in contact with school staff. They referred to the decision made by Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket) regarding this matter. This is only a decision, not a law and the decision concerns those who wear a burqa, which covers entirely. I wear a niqab, which shows the eye area,” one of the women wrote in her petition to DO.

She continued that the decision was confusing because it was not applied across all instititutions. In addition, she found it extremely insulting to be “expelled for her personal style.”

The woman also wrote that she had offered to sit at the back of the classroom and leave her veil up, except when the class was sitting around the room facing each other.

“Even then, I can take it up to identify myself, but they didn’t think that was enough. I have even spoken to the men in the class about this matter and how they feel about it. They have said it doesn’t bother them at all. I therefore feel discrimated against by the school. There is religious freedom in Sweden and many schools permit the niqab,” she said.

The woman concluded that she felt the staff’s reticence regarding her veil was not that it made it difficult to do their jobs, but “that they don’t want me there”.

She claimed that the actions of the staff have effectively forced her to choose between quiting a course she wants to take or compromising in her desire to dress according to the requirements of her personal beliefs.

The woman’s petition also mentioned that she had been told by educational staff that the niqab would make it extremely difficult for her to find a placement for the practical component of the course, although she had already found a position on her own.

DO has given the City of Stockholm until the end of August to respond to the inquiry.

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