The other day I wrote about a young Muslim woman in Norway who wears a niqab – a veil that covers everything except the eyes – and who's busy these days giving talks at Norwegian schools about her religion and her choice of outerwear.
Now, just across the border in Sweden, that country's version of the Department of Education, which is called Skolverket (and which in English labels itself the Swedish National Agency for Education), has sent down a ruling about the role of niqab in Swedish schools. This ruling is a response to new legislation as well as to a decision by Sweden's Discrimination Ombudsman, which in turn came in response to a complaint by an adult student in Stockholm who cried prejudice a couple of years back when she was told to take off her niqab in class.
Skolverket's decision, interestingly, has been represented by the Swedish media in different ways – indeed, in two more or less antithetical ways. On the one hand, Dagbladet begins its report as follows: “Students' right to wear veils in schools has long been a hot question. Now Skolverket has ruled that full-covering veils may be forbidden in certain situations.” Dagbladet goes on to quote Skolverket's guidelines to the effect that niqab can be banned in lab or shop classes, in which there may be safety issues, or when the niqab “significantly impedes the interaction between teachers and students.” Skolverket leaves it up to teachers to decide when there's a problem.
But the Swedish edition of Metro is (characteristically) more straightforward about what Skolverket's ruling really amounts to. “Skolverket approves full-covering veil,” reads the Metro headline. “Only in exceptional cases can principals and teachers say no.” Metro notes that “the authorities cite religious freedom and believe it is up to the schools and teachers to adapt education to the students' needs.” The newspaper quotes from Skolverket's guidelines: “The full-covering veil can impede contact and interaction between teachers and students, but Skolverket feels that these difficulties can be overcome in the great majority of cases.”
In short, the Swedish educational authorities have caved in. Henceforth, niqab is permitted in Swedish schools. If any teacher thinks it's getting in the way of normal classroom interaction (and how could it not?) or that it represents a potential safety problem – well, it's up to that teacher to say so and take the consequences.
Which, of course, is a full-scale cop-out on the part of the Swedish authorities. What teacher in his or her right mind would dare to say “take off that niqab” in the wake of this ruling? Skolverket has effectively left such teachers high and dry. The minute any teacher dares to step into that minefield, Swedish Muslim “spokespeople” will come crashing down on them. There's no limit to how widespread the protests might be and how much mayhem they might lead to – just look, after all, at what happened after a Danish newspaper ran a few cartoons of Muhammed. Can one imagine the Swedish educational bureaucrats – not to mention the politicians and national media – doing anything other than folding at once? When Skolverket says it is leaving decisions to teachers, it is being cynical and cowardly, washing its hands of a difficult matter and passing it on to already put-upon people in essentially powerless, thankless positions.
The Swedish establishment has responded to Skolverket's ruling with a predictable thumbs-up. The Swedish People's Party, for example, has greeted its “welcome decision” with open arms. So has one Daniel Nordström, who in an opinion piece in Folkbladet expresses sympathy for teachers who will now be put in the position of deciding when and when not to allow niqab – but who argues that a general ban is not the way to go either.
“Just as students must show respect for the school and its staff,” he writes, “the school must also show respect for each individual.” Never mind that the whole idea of the niqab is to rob Muslim women and girls of individuality in the eyes of everyone other than their families. The veiling issue is highly sensitive, Nordström writes, because it's “about religion and culture” and also “about clothes that may be impractical in different contexts and that can also make it harder for the teacher to communicate with the student.” Nordström either is unaware, or unwilling to address the fact, that the niqab is also – is, indeed, primarily – about the subordinate position of females in Islam.
The editors of the Swedish newspaper Dagen are also pleased by Skolverket's ruling. They congratulate Skolverket for finding “the golden mean,” and describe its guidelines as “balanced and considered.” They feel that it's “right to let the practical aspects determine whether the veil should be taken off,” and insist that it would have been “absurd” to impose a total niqab ban in the schools.
Indeed, Dagen's editors wax poetic about the importance of religious freedom – which, they maintain, takes on meaning “only when it can be put into practice,” even if it's practiced in ways that may “seem arcane or unsuitable to the situation.” That freedom, they insist, “must apply to all, including those whose beliefs differ from the majority.” There seems no awareness on their part – or, at least, no willingness to acknowledge – that every time a Muslim girl appears in public in niqab, it is an affront to the very idea of individual freedom.
To be sure, there are some people in Sweden who see through all this madness – though, alas, few if any of them are in a position to do anything about it. For instance, a blogger for Norrköpings Tidningar asks why Swedish schools should adapt themselves to “extreme manifestations of religion” and notes that while some people in the Middle East are fighting the niqab, Sweden is embracing it.
In an opinion piece for Skånsa Dagbladet entitled “Indulgence of the Cultural Oppression of Women,” Lars J. Eriksson cuts to the chase: “Most Muslim women do not cover their faces. Many do not even cover their hair. It is even doubtful whether the niqab and the burqa can be seen as required by religious edict. Instead it is about a cultural tradition in societies where the woman's value is lower than the man's.” Erikssen laments that while women are fleeing male oppression in Muslim lands, Sweden is giving a friendly nod to primitive Islamic patriarchy.
Skolverket has, then, made crystal clear its determination to pretend that niqab is simply a matter of religious freedom and that it should be prohibited only in “special” circumstances for purely “practical” reasons. And the powerful Swedes who have embraced Skolverket's ruling have done so with a palpable relief at having managed to avoid confronting the incompatibility of yet another aspect of Islamic culture and belief with day-to-day life in a Western country founded on freedom and equality.
The editors of Dagen, in their self-righteous editorial, puff on about how the freedom of religion is rooted in the Swedish constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But virtually nobody with authority in Sweden, it would appear, is prepared to publicly address the very real issue that niqab raises, and that speaks to the very essence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I am referring, of course, to the right of a young girl living in Western Europe in 2012 not to be forced to attend school in a dehumanizing garment that could hardly be improved upon as a symbol of a belief system that mocks every value the post-Enlightenment West stands for.
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