The Swedish Schools Inspectorate greenlighted a request from the Al-Azhar school in Stockholm to run separate gym classes for boys and girls, but following criticism from the four Alliance parties, Sweden’s minister for education, Gustav Fridolin, said that the government will review the law. He told Swedish Television that segregating pupils according to their gender goes against the aims of the national curriculum and against efforts to achieve gender equality in Sweden.
"All schools have a responsibility to work with equality," Fridolin, who is a Green Party MP, told Swedish Television, adding that if girls feel unsafe at a school then the school should not “cave in” by separating pupils. He suggested all schools have a duty to do away with “outdated gender norms”.
Al-Azhar is a freeschool – that is, a publicly funded and privately managed school – with a Muslim profile. Classes run from preschool up to ninth grade, which is the final year of mandatory schooling in Sweden. The school has a prayer room and serves halal food. As for gym classes, male pupils are taught by male teachers while the schools’ roughly 350 female pupils have female gym teachers. When the boys have maths, the girls have gym and vice versa.
“Some of our girls want to be able to remove their headscarf and wear shorts and t-shirts. That would be hard if there were boys of the same age or a male teacher present,” Nina Da Mata, one of the female gym teachers, told the National Teachers’ Association’s magazine Mivida.
Da Mata also said that she would teach in the same way in a non-Muslim school because "girls feel safer when they can be in a group of their own".
However, the decision to separate boys and girls has proven controversial and one person reported Al-Azhar to the Swedish Schools Inspectorate with the motivation that the school is falling short on its mission to counter traditional gender roles and that the separation risks cementing women’s inferior position, Mivida reported.
The school’s principal retorted that many of the pupils at Al-Azhar have a “Muslim cultural background” and would simply not participate in common gym classes for boys and girls. He pointed out that other subjects are taught in mixed-gender classes.
The Swedish Schools Inspectorate accepted the principal’s reasoning, stating that there is no evidence that there is a difference in the quality of gym classes for boys and girls at Al-Azhar.
However, when the inspectorate’s decision to allow the school to continue with segregated gym classes became publicly known, there was harsh criticism from the four parties within the opposition Alliance coalition as well as from the government.
Minister for Education, Gustaf Fridolin, told Sweden’s TV4 News that "separating boys and girls in one subject all the way from preschool through ninth grade cannot be a good way forward for working with equality and safe work environments".
Fridolin said that, starting Monday, staff at the Department of Education will look into whether the curriculum and legislation can be altered.