While the bans introduced by two municipalities have sparked controversy and been called undemocratic, their supporters have argued that they uphold secular traditions and deal a blow to religious oppression of women, who they say do not did not belong to “feminist Sweden”.
A Swedish appeals court has declared illegal the ban on the Islamic headscarf in schools, introduced by the municipalities of Skurup and Staffanstorp.
The court hereby upheld an earlier administrative court decision, pointing out that the ban contradicts both Swedish and international law.
“Being allowed to practice or manifest one’s religion is something that is protected by both the Instrument of Government and the European Convention,” Court of Appeal President Dag Stegeland said in a press release.
The municipalities of Skurup and Staffanstorp had previously decided to ban the wearing of headscarves at school. At Skurup the decision applies to both students and staff and at Staffanstorp only to students.
By law, covering the head or hair may be motivated by religious beliefs and is considered part of an individual’s religious practice or an expression of freedom of expression.
According to House Speaker Dag Stegeland, the protection of religious freedom in the instrument of government is absolute.
“The fact that the Education Act says school education must be non-denominational is about teaching, not about the clothes you are allowed to wear. Restricting religious freedom as the municipalities have done therefore lacks constitutional support in Swedish law,” said Dag Stegeland.
In 2019, the moderately-governed municipality of Staffanstorp in Skåne County introduced “zero tolerance” for Islamic headgear for young children as part of its integration plan.
The ban was intended to ensure that only Swedish equality and values applied. Subsequently, the liberal-conservative Moderate Party, the national-conservative Sweden Democrats and the local Skurup Party teamed up to ban Islamic head coverings in the town of Skurup (also in Skåne County) and schools and schools kindergartens in the surrounding municipality. The ban applies to headscarves, burkas, niqabs and other clothing that is intended to conceal the face, and is valid for students and staff.
Both bans sparked heated debate in the media. While liberal and left-wing politicians and opinion makers harshly condemned the bans as oppressive and encroaching on religious freedom and women’s rights, supporters of the bans said they maintained secular traditions and dealt a blow to the religious oppression of women, which does not belong to feminist Sweden.
Furthermore, some have argued that allowing religious headdresses is a slippery slope, which could ultimately lead to the normalization of polygamy and child marriage, which are not uncommon in Islamic countries.
The number of Muslims in Sweden has soared in recent decades, from several hundred in the 1950s to more than 800,000 in a country of more than 10 million people today. The emerging conflict between Islamic teachings and the feminist and liberal philosophy of Sweden raised issues hitherto unheard of by the Scandinavian and predominantly Lutheran nation. Among other things, many Muslims may struggle to agree on issues such as women’s rights and acceptance of sexual minorities, which in Sweden are considered points of pride.