Nyamko Sabuni also told Reuters in an interview she was closely watching the outcome of a dispute over a school that barred a nine-year-old from wearing a headscarf.
“Where in the Muslim scripture does it say that children shall wear a headscarf? Nowhere. The purpose of a headscarf is for a woman to hide her charms from men whom she could marry,” said Sabuni, who fled to Sweden from Burundi when she was 12.
“The headscarf is a means of isolating the girl from her surroundings,” she said.
Sabuni, 37, became Sweden’s first black cabinet minister following September elections that brought a centre-right government to power after 12 years of Social Democratic rule.
Sabuni, who is not herself a Muslim but comes from a Muslim family, must reconcile integration ideas she has proposed in the past to parliament with the new government’s milder policies.
Sabuni has shelved proposals that caused Swedish Muslim groups to protest her elevation to cabinet, but she holds fast to a personal view that headscarves should be prohibited in school for those under 15, Sweden’s age of consent.
Schools in Sweden, with an estimated Muslim population of up to 400,000, have since 2003 had the right to ban full-face veils, although the country has been largely inured to a growing debate about religious headgear in other European nations.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the Muslim veil “A mark of separation,” While Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has said it should not be used to hide behind. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has said veils are obstacles to communication.
In a case now under appeal, Swedish authorities in May ruled a ban by a school in the northern city of Umea on all headgear, including headscarves, broke Swedish inclusion laws.
'I am not intolerant of immigrants'
The school is appealing the decision, citing France’s ruling that public school prohibition of religious clothes does not conflict with European law. A result is expected in a few weeks.
Sabuni said many immigrants in Sweden feel excluded, a country of 9 million where 15 percent of the population were born abroad or have parents who were.
The new government has suggested solutions including job creation, reform of Swedish language instruction for immigrants and centralization of anti-discrimination authorities.
“I am convinced that with better proficiency in Swedish language and more jobs, the feelings of being discriminated against will diminish,” Sabuni said.
Sabuni backs compulsory genital exams for high-school girls - as boys now undergo—to prevent or find genital mutilation. She also supports a required level of Swedish before citizenship and a ban on religious schools.
Her views have caused a stir in the Muslim community. Groups including Sweden’s Muslim Association protested against her appointment, saying her past proposals smacked of Islamophobia.
Sabuni contends she does not single out Islam.
“I level criticism against all religions and the patriarchal tendency religions sometimes have,” she said.
“I am not intolerant of immigrants. I am intolerant of oppression such as genital mutilation, arranged marriages and virginity checks,” she said.