As a rule, German schools offer three hours of sports instruction each week. In Berlin, many students are refusing to partake -- especially Muslim girls.
This doesn't appeal to most Muslim girls in Berlin schools
Berlin Senator for Youth, Education and Sports Klaus Böger is back in the hot seat, this time for implying that Muslim society is behind the steady decrease in girls taking part in physical education classes.
Böger recently ruffled feathers by proposing to substitute school religion classes with ethics -- without offering an alternative religious option for Muslims or any other group.
Now, he has vowed to fight the trend that has increasing numbers of Turkish and Arab girls sitting out gym class on the sidelines.
'They miss class constantly'
Antje Henze is a sports teacher at a trade school in Berlin's heavily Muslim Neukölln district. Many of the girls in the school, which has an 80 percent Muslim population, wear head scarves, long skirts and body-covering long coats. Henze acknowledged her students are increasingly finding reasons to skip gym.
They say they forgot their sports clothes, are sick, or have other complaints that keep them from taking part, she said.
"There are girls that miss sports class constantly," Henze said.
According to Henze, another problem is that the kids who do not participate bother those who do. "They sit on the benches, talk loudly, and don't have anything to do for one and a half hours. … Even the children who are active will go over and start talking to them."
Detlef Pawollek, also a gym teacher at a Neukölln school, said he's familiar with the problem, too.
"There are some classes where more children are sitting on the benches than participating -- in the end sometimes only two or three students are participating."
More than just a teenage problem
Yet the problem is not simply a teenage girl's lack of desire to take part in sports, Böger said. Muslim parents and culture are to blame for the girls' lack of participation.
"It may be true that girls are frequently excused from gym class, especially in puberty, because of some Islamic beliefs. These excuses are even written by doctors, who hold the same set of beliefs. It makes it very hard to enforce the class," Böger said.
"This is different from the typical, well-known problem (of wanting to skip gym) in puberty. It is a systematic cutting-off of sports classes," he added.
More physical complaints
While cutting gym class may sound unimportant, Böger noted it can have dramatic results. More and more, Muslim girls are reporting physical complaints like headaches and back or joint pain.
In some mosques, pre-printed materials circulate on how to officially excuse girls from physical education, along with addresses of sympathetic doctors who are prepared to write official excuses, Böger said.
Now the senator said he no longer wants to play that game. He has sent a letter to all schools indicating that religion and ideology aren't acceptable reasons for missing physical education. Education in public schools is geared toward developing individuals, he said, people who should be able to shape their own, independent lives. And that goes for Muslim girls, too.
PE is 'elementary part of child rearing'
"Sports classes are not just about physical conditioning. Fitness is certainly important, but PE is an elementary part of education and child rearing," Böger said. "In physical education classes, they can learn very important attitudes and virtues. Developing self worth, a sense of fair play … and now we know that sports help develop the ability to concentrate."
Teachers have already seen change as a result of Böger's push for sports as a means of integration.
According to Henze, the gym teacher in Neukölln, she recently had a "super class" of gym students. Only half the class showed up, but "all the girls who were there had their gym clothes, and took part."