Authorities in Switzerland Rule Muslim Students Must Shake Hands with Teachers

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Regional authorities in Switzerland have ruled that religious belief is not a reason to refuse to shake a teacher's hand in their decision to overturn a previous move by a school that offers exemptions for Muslim students who say it is against their faith to touch members of the opposite sex.

Parents of any students who refuse to shake the hand of a teacher in the canton of Basel-Country will now be facing fines of up to $5,000. "A teacher has the right to demand a handshake," they said in a statement.

Switzerland has a longstanding tradition of students shaking the hands of their teachers as a sign of respect.

"We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom," Swiss justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga told a Swiss-German broadcaster. "The handshake is part of our culture."

The decision is the result of a national controversy that occurred last month. In that instance, a middle school allowed two male Syrian students, aged 14 and 15, to refuse to shake hands with a female teacher, citing religious reasons. The boys argued that Islam does not allow contact between members of the opposite sex with the exception of immediate family members.

The school, located in Therwil, agreed to allow the boys to refuse to shake hands with any of their teachers, regardless of their sex, out of fear of breaking any sexual discrimination laws. However, the decision resulted in an outpouring of emotions over the issue across the country.

The Basel-Country authorities issued a statement saying "the public interest concerning gender equality as well as integration of foreigners far outweighs that concerning the freedom of belief of students."

In response, the school noted a sense of "relief" over the ruling, adding that "now there is clarity on how to proceed." The boys' parents have been notified of the ruling, reports Chris Summers for The Daily Mail.

According to the cantonal authorities, if the two boys at the Therwil school continue to refuse to shake the hands of their teachers, "the sanctions called for by law will be applied."

The authorities added that the naturalization proceedings for the family has been put on hold as a result of the controversy. The father of the boys moved to Switzerland in 2001. He was granted asylum upon his arrival in the country.

The migration office in Basel said it needed additional information pertaining to the reasons behind the father being given asylum.

Authorities added that a member of the same family had recently been handed a warning concerning "incitement to violence," which could have consequences for the naturalization process, writes Adam Taylor for The Washington Post.

In all, there are close to 350,000 Muslims in Switzerland, which has a total population of eight million people.

Elsewhere in the country, Muslim parents have received fines over their insistence that their daughters be allowed to skip out on swimming lessons.

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