In Switzerland, it’s customary for students to shake their teachers’ hands before and after classes. Now two Muslim students have been exempted from this tradition on religious grounds because of the Islamic law that forbids men and women from shaking hands. This clash of cultures has inspired heated controversy across Switzerland, with many officials weighing in on the school’s decision.
The two male students, ages 14 and 15, attend school in Therwil, a canton of the city of Basel. Because of their objection, Muslim students in Therwil are no longer required to shake hands with either their male or female teachers, reports Jessica Hartogs of CNBC. The Therwil council did not support the school’s decision, but decided not to overturn it, though they had the power to do so. Council spokeswoman Monika Wyss said that they “will not intervene as [it] is the responsibility of the school to set the rules.”
Many Muslims follow the custom of not touching members of the opposite sex, with the exception of family members, according to Corey Charlton of the Daily Mail. It is intended as a sign of respect to refrain from this type of casual touching.
However, many people view this decision as an attack on Switzerland’s customs, and others consider it a sexist anachronism.
Christoph Eymann, the president of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, said:
We cannot tolerate different behavior towards women. We can’t allow exceptions for religious reasons. It doesn’t help the Muslim community.
Carly Hoilman of The Blaze quoted Felix Mueri, who is in charge of the Swiss parliamentary commission on science, education, and culture, who said:
Shaking hands is part of our culture. This is a gesture of respect and good manners.
Not even all Muslim organizations are agreeing on what should be done to handle these situations.
The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland (FIOS) said that handshakes between men and women are “permissible theologically,” therefore encouraging Swiss Muslims to continue to shake hands with teachers of any gender if they want to. It also noted that Islamic tradition values politeness, and supports the handshakes simply because they’re customary and to do otherwise may offend others.
Others support the Muslim students’ belief that casual contact with women is against their religion. According to ABC, the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland said in a statement on their website:
Classical [Islamic] jurisprudence and the vast majority of contemporary legal scholars… assume a clear prohibition of this contact form between the sexes.
But the Council also reminded readers that the case concerns only two high school boys, and seems to them to be blown out of proportion.
One would think that the continued existence of Switzerland’s core values was at stake, when this particular case in fact involves just two high school students who have said they wish to greet their teacher in a different way than with a handshake.
In a similar case, an 81-year-old Jewish lawyer is suing Israel’s El Al airline after she was asked to move when an orthodox Jewish man objected to being sat next to her.