Swiss boys' refuse to shake female teacher's hand, face $5,000 fines

The canton reversed the school's earlier compromise with the boys, who are Muslim Syrian immigrants. Switzerland, like much of Europe, faces cultural challenges amid an influx of asylum-seekers.

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters
Switzerland's flag. A canton warned it will fine any student who refuses to shake their teacher's hand.

After two Syrian boys in Switzerland asked to be excused from shaking a female teacher's hand because they said it violated their faith, their canton announced Wednesday that families of children who refuse to participate in the tradition that starts and ends the school day will be fined.

The fine will be up to $5,000, the Swiss canton said in a statement Wednesday.  

"The public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweigh the freedom of conscience (freedom of religion) of the students," reads a translation of the statement, according to The Washington Post. "This differs from the wearing of a headscarf or absence of swimming lessons…. [T]he social gesture of the handshake is important for the employability of students later in their professional lives."

Initially, school officials struck a compromise with the teens, saying they should not shake any teachers' hands to avoid discrimination. The canton's reversal, however, reignites an ongoing debate over how much European countries ought to accommodate immigrants' traditions and beliefs that conflict with their own, as the continent becomes home to unprecedented numbers of mostly Muslim asylum seekers.  

The controversy started with a request from two teenage brothers in the town of Therwil, near the French border, that they be excused from shaking their teacher's hand. In much of Switzerland, the school day starts and ends with a handshake between student and teacher. But the 14- and 15-year-old brothers said shaking their female teacher's hand was against their faith, because they were prohibited from physical contact with the opposite sex, except for immediate family members.

The school district first tried to arrive at a solution by balancing freedom of religion with gender equality: The brothers would not shake any female or male teacher's hand.  

But local reports of the case garnered national attention, according to The Washington Post, and "the agreement with the school district began to come undone." 

The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland refused to support the brothers' view, saying it is outside the mainstream. 

"Can the denial of shaking hands be more important than the Islamic commandment of mutual respect?" Montassar Ben Mrad, president of the organization, said in a statement. "The good relationship between teachers and students is a prerequisite for a good education and an effective integration," the group notes. 

Switzerland, though, has a history of clashing with the cultural traditions of its Islamic citizens – about 5 percent of its population. In 2009, for instance, voters approved a referendum that banned the construction of minarets. 

The debate extends beyond national borders into a growing movement, as The Christian Science Monitor's Robert Marquand wrote when France adopted an anti-burqa law

“The law is part of a new right-leaning symbolic political language in France and elsewhere in Europe that appeals to mainstream voters – telling them a traditional sense of European identity and culture applies to all members of society, including larger numbers of Muslims.”

The debate isn't exclusive to Muslims, or immigrants, although the influx of refugees from the Middle East has largely shaped public debate. Shneur Odze, for example, a conservative British candidate for the European Parliament who is an Orthodox Jew, refused to shake women's hands because he said it violated his religious beliefs.

An opinion article Talia Lavin wrote in 2014 for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Mr. Odze's actions offers a moment of levity or comedic relief, depending on how you look at it.

"A handshake is one of the most prominent gestures in Western civilization," she writes, but "Maybe it’s time to avoid these difficulties by doing away with the handshake altogether. After all, all of us have experienced sweaty-palmed, limp or finger-crushing handshakes."

How about switching to bows, she suggests?

"But then again, maybe it would just spark another argument: Does bowing to your realtor or MP constitute idol worship?"

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