Coming home from school with strawberry condoms

STOCKHOLM — Proper condom use, sex positions and same-sex relationships are all part of the curriculum for 14-year-old students in Swedish high schools.

But many Muslim immigrants, who require their daughters and wives to wear head scarves to ensure modesty, have prevented their children from attending the classes.

A new law proposes to change that by abolishing a provision that was initially created for Catholic and Jewish students looking to get out of religious education classes. All students were allowed to opt out of subjects if they wanted.

Without that provision, Muslim parents would no longer be able to stop their teenage children from participating in the mandatory sex education, or in sports lessons.

"All students have the right to take part in the compulsory school education, regardless of whether their parents approve or disapprove," said Sweden's education secretary, Jan Bjorklund.

Muslim parents who grew up in conservative Middle East countries have reacted with shock when their daughters and sons come home from school with condoms handed out by their biology teachers.

Teenage girls said their parents prohibit them from participating in school lessons because they contradict the family's religion or culture, according to a new survey from Stockholm University. Twenty-seven percent of immigrants’ daughters are kept from participating in some school subjects.

“My parents do not think that the school should run any sex education at all. They say it is not the school’s business. But I think it is exciting. I do not show the condoms for Mum or Dad,” said Fatima Omed, 14. Her parents moved to Sweden from Turkey, but she has lived in Sweden her entire life. “I do not plan to use the condoms anytime soon,” she added, laughing.

The number of students prevented by their parents from attending sex education classes increased during the Iraq war, when many Muslim families immigrated to Sweden. The Scandinavian country, with 10 million inhabitants, granted full refugee status to 24,799 Iraqis between 2003 and 2007, compared with 260 by Britain. Sweden's right-wing government said the increase in students opting out called for action.

Muslim parents who were born in Sweden have not used the exemption nearly as much as parents who are immigrants. Families where both the parents and children are immigrants have expressed the most anger.

“It is a problem and usually it is the father who is protesting the most, especially when it regards a daughter,” said Magnus Ericsson, a teacher at one of Stockholm’s largest high schools.

Although paternal protectiveness can be viewed as noble and admirable, Swedish medical experts think it's counterproductive and potentially harmful for young women.

The classes are designed to educate students about sex before they reach 15, the age of consent in Sweden.

“The purpose of the sex education is to provide good information about how the body works, to make the students feel secure in their sexuality and to prevent sexual diseases and unwanted pregnancies," said Ann-Cristine Jonsson of the Swedish National Institute of Public Health.

Students learn about HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, herpes and hepatitis, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms with different flavors, such as strawberry and orange, are handed out to the students. “We want to prevent both diseases and unwanted pregnancies,” Jonsson said.

The students are also taught that it is normal to have intercourse with people of the same sex and that it is unacceptable to tease or bully classmates who are gay.

Sweden has required sex education be taught in its schools since 1955 and has earned a reputation as a sexually liberal country. The 1967 landmark movie "I Am Curious (Yellow)," which American author Norman Mailer called "one of the most important movies I have seen in my entire life," helped solidify that reputation.

Last year, Sweden’s state-run pharmaceuticals retailing stores launched a line of sex toys aimed at women. The initiative was financed by taxes and within a few days the products became the chain’s bestsellers.

Some members of the left-wing opposition expressed concern that some Muslim families would be so upset by the proposed change that they would pull their children out of public schools, thus increasing segregation in Sweden. But for the most part, support for the law exists throughout the political spectrum.

The paragraph in question was designed decades ago to allow students to opt out of Christian education, which was erased in Swedish schools in 1969 and replaced by the broader subject of religious education.

Forty years later, amid an influx of Muslim immigrants, it is that paragraph that is set to be abolished.

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