Muslim Boys Denied Citizenship For Refusing Handshake?

| by Michael Allen

Two teenage Muslim boys and their family may lose their bid for Swiss citizenship because they refused to shake hands with female teachers at a school in Therwil, Switzerland.

The 14 and 16-year-old brothers said their handshake refusal was based on religious beliefs not to touch a woman outside their family, but now Swiss officials have suspended the family's application for citizenship, reports

Students often shake hands with their teachers in Switzerland, so their refusal was seen as a great offense by many of the Swiss people.

A government spokesperson said the family members would be interviewed individually by immigration officials, and that the family's status would be determined only by their answers.

Jurg Lauener, the head of the school, gave the boys a handshake exemption that included all teachers and not just women, noted

"They are no longer allowed to shake the hand of any teacher, male or female," Lauener said on Swiss public television. "For us, that addresses the question of discrimination."

"The same rules should apply to all students," Beat Zemp, the teachers' union president, countered.

While some conservative Muslims say not touching women is respectful, Elham Manea, a professor at the University of Zurich, told Swiss public television that "it has nothing to do with respect." 

"It has to do with a worldview that sees women as sexual objects," Manea added.

Local education officials want a legal opinion on the handshakes, and local politicians are trying to pass a law that would ban special accommodations based on religious beliefs.

The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland said a handshake between a man and woman "is permissible theologically," and handshaking between a student and teacher is "not problematic."

The Swiss Central Islamic Council agreed theologically with the FIOS, but added that schools need to practice tolerance with Muslims.

"In our culture and in our way of communication a handshake is normal and sends out respect for the other person, and this has to be brought [home] to the children in school," Therwil Mayor Reto Wolf told BBC News.

Sources: (2) BBC News / Photo credit: Harland Quarrington/Wikimedia

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