In Sweden, the school system contains many independant schools run with a specific focus such as music, sport, art or specific religions. They should all follow the national curriculum and, in the case of religious schools, they should teach but not preach.
Yesterday, it was revealed that a Stockholm junior school with an islamic orientation has been segregating children on the school bus – boys go through the front entrance and sit at the front, girls go in the rear entrance and sit at the back of the bus. The headmaster of the school has claimed to be unaware of this. This act of segregation has caused a hot debate in Sweden about the ‘islamifying of Sweden’, ‘gender apartheid’ and comments such as it being ‘unSwedish’.
The Swedish Schools Inspectorate are planning on investigating the school further to see if any other ‘undemocratic activities’ are taking place. The Inspectorate has previously allowed segregated classrooms and gender-separated sport lessons.
What can we learn from this?
When this kind of occurance happens in society, it is a great opportunity to reflect on what we learn from it. What is our immediate reaction when we hear examples like this?
- Do we run straight to the barracades and start defending our cultural heritage?
- Do we condemn the occurance as, for example, undemocratic or unacceptable?
- Do we weigh up the pros and cons and try to arrive at a balanced conclusion?
- Do we think people are allowed to do whatever they want, so anything goes?
All of these are perfectly normal reactions, and one is not better than the other. Obviously, we react in different ways.
I think that these occurances in society provide us with a great opportunity to discuss intercultural competence. Being interculturally competent is generally defined as having an open mindset and the cultural sensitivity to see different perspectives so that one is able to flexibly adapt ones behaviours accordingly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about accepting that anything is ok. Intercultural competence can also mean balancing up the various perspectives and standing up for what one thinks is acceptable.
Intercultural competence differs significantly from racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism focus on others being of lower value than myself or the place I come from. Intercultural competence is about accepting everybody’s perspectives are equally as valid – no matter how tough they are and even if I personally don’t agree with some of them.
So how do we arrive at this place of understanding that all perspectives are equally as valid? We can ask ourselves a simple, but complex, question:
‘What do they think is good about segregating boys and girls on a school bus?’
If we can arrive at the answer(s) to that question, we are becoming more interculturally aware and more interculturally competent. We are seeing the situation from their perspective and not only our own. We are presuming they have a good reason, from their perspective, for their behaviour, rather than immediately judging or condemning it.
Once we have reflected over that, we can decide what we personally think. Does it change our point of view? Can we accept their behaviour more easily? Or does it make me hold my view even more stongly? In that situation, we can say something like:
‘I understand why you think it’s good to segregate boys and girls. I understand your perspective. However, I disagree with it. And here in Sweden, we believe in equal treatment of all regardless of their gender, which is why that behaviour is not something we as a society can accept.’
Compared this to the more reactionary ‘the Islamists are trying to take over Sweden!’ and ‘this country is going down the drain’, you see how the ability to perspectives-take creates a more open, less fearful debate.
It is my belief that if we approach occurances like this in a more interculturally competent way, and try to perspectives-take, we can create a society built on mutual understanding and respect for prevailing values rather than a society built on fear and suspicion.
And that has to be a good thing moving forward, doesn’t it?