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Religious exception


School defends exempting Muslim students from handshake


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A school district in canton Basel Country stands behind its decision to allow some Muslim students to not participate in a ritual of shaking their female teacher’s hand before and after class, despite the controversy the move has unleashed across Switzerland.

Last week it was reported that two Muslim students in a school in Therwil, a town outside Basel, did not wish to shake their female teacher’s hand along with the rest of the class because it went against their religious principles.

In Swiss schools, teachers often greet students with a handshake before and after a class. The school exempted the two students from the ritual, resulting in a nationwide debate over whether the exception should have been made.

On Monday, school officials spoke out for the first time, defending their decision. School rector Jürg Lauener said a compromise had been reached with the students involved, in that they also do not shake the hands of male teachers.

“They are no longer allowed to shake the hand of any teacher, male or female. For us, that addresses the question of discrimination,” Lauener told Swiss public television, SRF. 

Teachers’ union protests

However, the Swiss teachers’ union did not agree with the Therwil school district’s decision. 

“The same rules should apply to all students,” argued union president Beat Zemp. He added that the wrong signal was being sent to the students involved since they would need to shake hands with many peers and colleagues in their future lives, both male and female. 

Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga also did not agree with the school district's decision, telling SRF that shaking hands with the teacher "belongs to our culture".

Grey area

Certain groups of conservative Muslims argue that refusing to touch a woman is a sign of respect. However, Elham Manea, a Swiss-Yemeni professor of political science at the University of Zurich, told Swiss public television SRF that this represents a fundamentalist viewpoint. 

“It has nothing to do with respect,” she said. “It has to do with a worldview that sees women as sexual objects.”

The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland (FIOS) said on Monday that a handshake between a man and woman “is permissible theologically”. It added that politeness is important in Islamic tradition and that a handshake between teachers and students is “not problematic”. 

The Swiss Central Islamic Council also agreed with FIOS. However, it warned that a majority of scholars of classical Islamic jurisprudence were against this form of physical contact. It advised school teachers and authorities to be tolerant of practicing Muslims, especially in cases where their beliefs do not affect the lessons.

swissinfo.ch and agencies

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