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.
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