A decision by a Swiss high school to allow two Muslim boys to skip handshakes with their female teachers over religious concerns has triggered a debate in a country where handshake greetings have long been a gender-neutral tradition.
The school in Therwil, near Basel, recently accepted the teens’ belief that they should only willingly touch women they eventually marry. Regional spokeswoman Deborah Murith said that the school’s decision centered on the balance between constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and gender equality,
Murith 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 only temporary pending the legal advice the school has sought from the Basel-Landschaft regional government on the matter.
Some political and religious leaders criticized the school’s decision to allow the boys – ages 14 and 15 – to forgo shaking hands with their female teachers.
"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 boys have lived in the country for several years, BBC reported.
Mayor Reto Wolf said in an email to the Associated Press the city’s council hopes the regional government will give “a clear signal within days” about how to handle such issues.
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.
According to BBC, the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland has said that a handshake between men and women was prohibited.
"After the sex attacks in Cologne, they asked Muslims to keep their distance from women; now they demand they get closer to them," spokesman Qaasim Illi told Swiss media.
This recent issue is another episode showing how European officials are struggling to balance civil and religious rights on a continent that has long been dominated by Christianity, but has faced an influx of Muslims in recent decades.
Local education officials said the school took a practical approach to the situation, but agreed that it wasn’t a permanent one.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.