GENEVA — A Swiss high school’s decision to accept two Muslim boys’ refusal for religious reasons to shake hands with their female teachers has triggered a debate in the small Alpine country, where handshake greetings have long been a gender-neutral tradition.
The public school in the northern town of Therwil, near Basel, recently accepted the teens’ belief that they should only willingly touch the women they eventually marry.
Regional spokeswoman Deborah Murith said Wednesday that the school’s decision centred on the balance between constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and gender equality. She said the school had ruled that if the boys won’t shake hands with female teachers they should also be banned from shaking hands with male teachers.
However, she added the decision is temporary, pending legal advice that the school has sought from the Basel-Landschaft regional government on the matter.
The issue is but another episode showing how European officials have been grappling with ways to balance civil and religious rights on a continent that was long dominated by Christianity but has faced an influx of Muslims in recent decades. Switzerland drew headlines in 2009 with a controversial ban on the construction of minarets.
Some political and religious leaders criticized the school’s decision.
“Shaking hands when greeting one another is part of the culture in Switzerland and practiced as such at Therwil schools,” Therwil’s local council said in a statement. “The decision of the school therefore doesn’t reflect the position of the community council in this matter.”
The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland noted that politeness is a key aspect of Islamic tradition, and the practice of women and men shaking hands across gender lines varies from one predominantly Muslim country to another. The federation said refraining from handshakes is “inappropriate” in Switzerland.
“I would urge students and parents to consider the following: Can refusing a handshake be more important than the Islamic commandment of mutual respect?” federation president Montassar BenMrad said.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, a former Swiss president, said on Swiss TV: “There are always new issues when it comes to coexisting, but in this case it seems absolutely clear to me that it’s totally wrong for a child to refuse to shake their teacher’s hand. That doesn’t fall under the headline freedom of religion. On the contrary, I think it’s part our culture to shake hands.”