A mountain out of a molehill
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.
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.
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.
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.
© Qantara.de 2016
Translated from the German by Nina Coon