“According to the DO’s assessment, kicking a student out of class simply because she was wearing a niqab, without taking into account the specific circumstances of her participation, violates the law against discrimination,” Equality Ombudsman Katri Linna wrote in an opinion article in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper.
Linna’s decision stems from a January 2009 incident in which a Muslim woman was was told she would no longer be welcome at an adult education college in Spånga, west of Stockholm, if she continued to wear her niqab.
The niqab is part of a hijab headress and covers the entire face except for the eyes.
The student reported the matter to the ombudsman, claiming it amounted to religious discrimination, as the school’s decision prevented her from continuing her training to be a pediatric nurse if she continued to wear the niqab.
Sweden’s Parliamentary Ombudsman (Justitieombudsmännen – JO) recently criticised the Equality Ombudsman for taking nearly two years to rule on the case.
Linna said her office has no plans to take the woman’s case to court because the she had been able to complete her studies in spite of the ban, as the school eventually decided to let her continue attending classes until the Equality Ombudsman had decided on the case.
Because the woman finished her studies with solid marks, she has proven that her headscarf didn’t present an obstacle to attending lectures, according to the ombudsman. Nor were there any problems related to her interactions with teachers or other students.
During class, she sat in a way that prevented male students from seeing her face, meaning she didn’t have to keep it covered.
The woman had also said she was willing to show her face if and when the school’s personnel needed to identify her, wrote Linna, who concluded there was “no overriding reason to prohibit” the student from attending class.
Linna also expressed her concern about the “rancor and simplifications” which infected the ensuing debate about wearing a niqab, rejecting justifications based on the assumption that headscarves are an “expression of the oppression of women” and therefore must be fought.
“To remove women who wear niqabs from an education programme benefits neither theirs nor other women’s equality,” writes the ombudsman.
“I believe instead that education can be a platform for women to continue to develop and shape their own choices. Education is the basis for entering the job market and thus access to a social context outside the home and the possibility to support oneself.”
The Equality Ombudsman’s decision means that a school must make an individual assessment in every case involving a student wearing a niqab and that schools cannot decide on a general ban against women bearing headscarves, according to Linna.
“You have to look at each situation: what sort of educational programme it is,” she told the TT news agency, what’s included, what sort of problems occurred and whether they can be avoided by other means. It’s essential to do so before kicking a student out,” she told the TT news agency.