The item of clothing that has been the centre of the controversy. Photo: Fred Ernst/Scanpix.
human rights

DO rules that ban on niqabs is "discrimination"

"It's important to stress that this is an educational situation."
6:26 min

Sweden's Discrimination Ombudsman has ruled that it is discrimination to ban female students from higher education because they choose to wear a face-covering veil, or niqab.

Looking at her picture in the paper, you can just see her brown eyes peeping through the slit of her niqab, or Muslim religious veil. This is the student who enrolled last year at Västerorts adult high school in Stockholm to train as a childcare assistant.

But the school threatened to kick her out if she continued to wear the niqab. It had instituted the ban after a 2003 decision by the National Agency for Education that gave schools the power to disallow face-covering veils. But she took the case to the DO, and while it was being investigated, she was allowed to keep studying.

Now, the Ombudsman, Katri Linna, has finally made its ruling – that a blanket regulation forbidding students from wearing face-covering veils equals discrimination. This is the first decision they have made concerning these veils since Sweden's new and more comprehensive anti-discrimination law went into effect last year.

The issue was highlighted by Education Minister Jan Björklund during the election campaign, when he said he wanted to ban teachers and childcarers from wearing the niqab in the classroom. However, he deflected the opportunity to comment on the ruling and referred press calls to Integration minister and fellow Liberal party member, Erik Ullenhag.

"Education is quite a lot about communication, and you communicate as well with your eyes and with your face" in order to express yourself," Ullenhag told Radio Sweden.

Ullenhag added, "We need to see if we should change the legislation to give a teacher or principle the possibility" to ban burkas and niqabs in the classrooms.

But the head of the DO's division for education matters, George Svéd, told Radio Sweden that changing the law "would be in contradiction with our constitution and also with the European convention of human rights. But this is, of course, a political question. And if the politicians want to open up such a way, they have the right. But we are against it."

The judgement from the DO only deals with whether a student can be banned from education for wearing the niqab, not whether teachers or childcare assistants can wear them, the DO points out. This means it could be quite difficult for the woman to eventually find a job.

Also, because the student at Västerorts was allowed to continue her studies despite wearing a niqab, the DO has decided not to take the matter to court. Now, the Stockholm discrimination office have announced they want to pick this up and take the matter to court, with the hope of setting a judicial precedent to forbid banning the veils.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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