The Swiss handshake controversy

A mountain out of a molehill

We live in an era when minor issues can apparently become major scandals overnight. Two Syrian pupils refuse to shake hands with a female teacher in Switzerland and the whole of Europe takes offence. By Charlotte Wiedemann

In the contemporary cultural war, anything that is connected (or appears to be connected) with the status of women and Islam is regarded as ammunition. And increasingly, out of concern for their self-esteem, women are being drawn to a side of the battlefront that I regard as the wrong one.

It would be better, in the face of such symbolic conflicts, to develop a feminism that liberates itself from the anti-Islamic mindset. The example of the declined handshake is especially interesting in this regard: because consideration is only being given to the conduct of Muslim men, although some Muslim women also decline the gesture. And because it is presented as a problem pertaining exclusively to Islam, although Islam and Judaism have a similar approach to the issue.

For the sake of clarity, here is a reference recently published in the Jewish weekly newspaper German-language Judische Allgemeine: "Many religious Jews adhere to the concept of 'shomer negiah' ('observance of laws restricting physical contact') and categorically avoid all possible contact with a member of the opposite sex." There is some controversy among scholars over whether this should also apply to the handshake.

A vast behavioural spectrum

It is not so very different within the Muslim faith. A general ban on contact between unmarried individuals can be normatively derived from several of Muhammad′s pronouncements, but millions of Muslim men and women around the world still shake hands with members of the opposite sex. As is so often the case with Islam, the behavioural spectrum is vast.

Here are a number of examples of situations I have experienced in Muslim majority societies. Some clerics shake my hand; but this is not something a devout farmer would necessarily do. A religious entrepreneur who showed me around his company shook my hand outside and said: inside, don't shake anyone's hand. He knew that his staff were less flexible than he was. On the other hand, in an Iranian government office, the only official who didn't shake my hand was collectively derided by his colleagues.

Swiss Minister for Justice Simonetta Sommaruga (photo: Reuters)
Outrage over the handshake exemption: Simonetta Sommaruga, Switzerland′s minister for justice, commented, ″This is not how I see integration. We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom. The handshake is part of our culture″

It is not the manner of a greeting, but an underlying idea that may be viewed as typically Islamic: to desist from anything that might give any impression of impropriety. In Muslim countries the door of my hotel room always stays open if a man is repairing something while I'm there. And if a lift is crowded, then a man or a woman might prefer to wait a while longer for the next lift, rather than have to stand so close to a member of the opposite sex. It is easy for a Westerner to perceive this as excessive prudery. But it can also be called consideration for others.

Where two parties come together with a cultural experience that is restricted to their own milieu, the potential for conflict is omnipresent. For example, a Syrian boy who only knows the customs of his own conservative family and a European female teacher who is not aware that in the world's Eastern regions, people greet each other by placing their right hand on their heart – and that this gesture is no less respectful.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

There is plenty of evidence of the appropriation and assimilation of the customs of others; just think how acceptable and even cool it has become to use Buddhist gestures of greeting! But on the other hand, non-Muslim women here in Germany experience a knee-jerk sense of being attacked by Muslim men, because there is only one interpretational framework to explain their conduct: Islam is anti-women. This image is now so entrenched that it is constantly being reinforced as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a result, refusing to shake hands can also be regarded as typically male, even though some Muslim women will also not shake hands. This is because the Muslim woman does not count. She is viewed as a conservative, passive being, a creature that acquiesces and presumably suffers – in any case, she doesn't make any rules. If she refuses to shake the hand of a non-Muslim man, he explains this by referring to her shyness and her repression. The poor thing! Otherwise she'll probably get a beating from her husband/brother/father! The Muslim woman is thus forgiven for her conduct, because she lives at the intersection between hostility to both Islam and women: she is just an object. She does not decide. She will not bring dishonour on any man.

Once again, contempt for the Muslim woman turns out to be a fundamental problem of our dealings with Islam. If we were to pay more attention to the conduct of Muslim women, then this would be beneficial to us all – and some non-Muslim women could react with greater composure to unfamiliar phenomena.

Charlotte Wiedemann (photo: DW)
Charlotte Wiedemann: "let's not overload the handshake with too much ideological ballast. To talk about declining the gesture in the same breath as contempt of the constitution is absolute nonsense. Yet neither would I like to see it degraded to become an "optional and dispensable practice", as a self-appointed "Central Council" of Swiss Muslims is doing″

Let's not overload the handshake with too much ideological ballast. To talk about declining the gesture in the same breath as contempt of the constitution is absolute nonsense. Yet neither would I like to see it degraded to become an "optional and dispensable practice", as a self-appointed "Central Council" of Swiss Muslims is doing. You only need to look at the metaphors of our language to realise: the handshake is a wonderful gesture that should be preserved, actually rather rare as an expression of peace and reconciliation. To be able to practice this gesture has nothing to do with good conduct, with "integration" in the official sense, but with interpersonal relations.

No theological justification for insult

To decline an outstretched hand is an affront and Islam offers no theological justification for insult. Of course, a woman could avoid such a situation by not offering her hand at all; but I think this is only to be recommended in Muslim societies.

If a pupil declines to shake the hand of his female teacher, he reduces a person of authority to her gender. That is unacceptable. Generally speaking, I believe it would be a sensible educational target to ensure that young Muslims of both genders are able to shake hands with others when the situation and courtesy requires it. Those who wish to do so can always make their particular greeting preferences clear in the case of repeated contact.

From a feminist point of view, the key issue here is not to tolerate a sexualised perception of women in the workplace, in this case a school. This topic is also one that is regularly referred to within Islam. And incidentally, the male student with the female teacher is a classic pornography storyline. One that wasn't dreamed up by Muslim immigrants.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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Comments for this article: A mountain out of a molehill

Muslim schoolboys who refused to shake hands with their female teacher will face a steep fine. This is the latest turn in a controversial matter that started last April in a Swiss school, when two Muslim boys refused to shake hands with their (female) teacher, because that would go against the Koran’s teachings. The boys argued that Islam forbids men to have physical contact with a woman outside of the family unit. But this explanation did not convince the authorities in the canton of Basel, who interpreted the boys’ actions as a severe form of contempt and discrimination against women. They will face a fine of up to 5,000 Swiss francs (€4,500) if they violate what is a traditional gesture of politeness in the Swiss classroom.

Had it been Japanese boys who did not want to shake their Swiss teacher's hand, I doubt anyone ever would have heard about it, to say nothing of it culminating in a new fine for not shaking one's teacher's hand. It is because they were Muslim boys that it became an issue, which means that it is precisely an example of xenophobia and anti-Muslim hostility. These are minors, for goodness sake. Individual children may be comfortable with one teacher and not another. Teachers are supposed to be trained not to take that personally. It is appalling that this ever became an issue. The parents should sue the school in the ECJ. I certainly agree that if Swiss teachers cannot be culturally sensitive enough to allow basic bodily boundary issues (which can vary dramatically by culture) to be respected and non-confrontational in a school setting, then there should be other publicly funded schooling options for Muslim children. Not all parents can afford parochial schools, which can be expensive. For a female teacher to demand from male students (children or teens) that they shake her hand against their will is an act of domination. It is beyond inappropriate in any school, anywhere.

It seems that the boys did exactly the right thing in submitting a request to the school to be exempted from this nationalist ritual on religious grounds. And it appears that the school did exactly the right thing in allowing it, initially. If the wider Swiss community sees Muslim boys requesting not to handshake differently from other boys requesting not to handshake, as suggested below, that indicates a broad anti-Muslim hostility among the Swiss people, who are the ones who made this an issue after the school officials had already solved the problem appropriately by accepting the boys' request. Again, I think the Imam and his family should take the case to the ECJ. It is appalling. Switzerland has been homogeneous for a long time. If it wants to be heterogeneous, it has to be heterogeneous. It is not going to forcibly "convert" Muslims to its homogeneous preferred ontology or culture. If it doesn't want to be heterogeneous, then don't make the lie by taking in refugees in pretence of offering them a safe (read that, open and not hostile) home.

I agree that the question of reciprocity is sometimes important to address. But the individual case is also important. In this case a school pupil's conscience and loyalties are treated as a case of "disloyalty with the nation", instead of as a case of a vulnerable child. Why the teacher could not solve this issue at the individual basis but had to punish a child in this way? This is where the secularisation situation does play in and distort what must be, for a school teacher, just a routine matter of a child not being able to do exactly what is expected of him/her, something for which one tries to find solutions. To penalise this particular behaviour in this extraordinarily disproportionate and public way appears like advanced child abuse.

The study suggests that multicultural rights 'to be different' and to have your religion and culture recognised as a resource are very important for (these) individuals' well-being.

But if you do that in a society where the expected norm is to shake hands, a refusal to do so without explanation is understood as rudeness, insubordination, etc (depending on situation). That is not the answer. All kinds of religious groups ask for and get special religious accommodations in Europe and North America. It only seems to be Muslims that receive this kind of deeply illiberal response.

A matter of personal liberty is just that.

If we asked "does a person have the right to decide who and who not to shake hands with?" Our answer would have been unanimously yes.

If you don't want to shake hands with someone, just don't do it. There's no need for an explanation in terms of "I am Muslim and..." or any other explanation. You are not asking for an exemption to an obligation. You are exercising a personal right.

Any society wherein this is not the case cannot call itself a liberal society.
Nor can anyone who advocates such a society rightly call themselves liberal.

Iftikhar Ahmad24.06.2016 | 17:32 Uhr