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Europeans Are Now Fretting About Muslim Girls in Swimming Pools

By Ishaan Tharoor

July 1, 2016

 Swiss authorities recently denied citizenship to a pair of Muslim sisters, 12 and 14, who refused to take part in their school's swimming lessons alongside boys of their age group in the city of Basel. According to USA Today, the girls had applied for citizenship a few months ago, but their request was denied this week.

“Whoever doesn’t fulfill these conditions violates the law and therefore cannot be naturalized,” Stefan Wehrle, president of the naturalization committee, told TV station SRF on Tuesday.

Reports do not indicate the nationality of the Muslim family, but the episode is yet another reminder of both the country's tensions with its Muslim minority and the particularity of its laws regarding integration and citizenship. In a separate episode this week, a father of Bosnian origin was fined about $4,000 for having persuaded his daughters to boycott swimming lessons and camp trips.

Under Swiss convention, the capacity to integrate into Swiss society plays a key part in determining naturalization. Earlier this year, an immigrant family in Basel had their naturalization applications turned down reportedly because they walked about town in "sweatpants" and didn't greet local passersby.

Around the same time, the country was in an uproar over two Muslim boys who refused to shake the hands of their female schoolteacher, as is custom. The naturalization process of their father, an imam in a Saudi-funded Basel mosque, was suspended, according to reports.

This week's kerfuffle also highlights a broader European concern: What happens when Muslims go to swimming pools. On Thursday, the Austrian town of Hainfeld voted to ban "Burqinis" — Islamic swimwear that covers the body from head to toe — from being worn in local pools. The move was put forward by a councillor from the far-right Freedom Party, which has grandstanded over the threat posed by an influx of asylum seekers from Muslim-majority countries.

Similar bans have been enacted elsewhere in Europe, including towns in Germany. The longstanding contention of proponents of such bans has been that Burqinis are potentially unhygienic and do not conform to standard swimwear; critics argue that it's a not-so-veiled attempt at curbing Muslim religious expression. In Austria and other countries, asylum seekers have been subject to bans on access to pools over fears of sexual assault.

The politics work in the other direction as well. When a municipal swimming pool in the Swedish city of Malmo instituted female-only swimming hours, in part to make the site more attractive to Muslim swimmers, it sparked a national debate over the limits of multiculturalism. The move was seen by some as a regressive gesture.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.