Muslim boys can't refuse handshakes with teachers

GENEVA • Religious belief is no excuse for refusing to shake a teacher's hand, the Swiss regional authorities have ruled, reversing one school's controversial decision to grant exemptions for Muslim students wary of touching the opposite sex.

Parents or guardians of students who refuse to shake a teacher's hand in the northern Swiss canton of Basel-Country could now face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs (S$7,000), regional education authorities ruled yesterday. "A teacher has the right to demand a handshake," they said in a statement.

The decision comes after an outcry was triggered across Switzerland, where the tradition of students shaking their teachers' hands as a sign of respect is deeply entrenched, over revelations that a school allowed two brothers not to do so after they complained that it was counter to their religious beliefs if the teacher was a woman.

They argued that Islam does not permit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex, with the exception of certain immediate family members. To avoid effectively permitting discrimination against female teachers, the school decided to exempt the boys, aged 14 and 15, from shaking hands with any of their teachers, regardless of sex.

"The public interest concerning gender equality as well as integration of foreigners is far greater than that concerning the freedom of belief of students," the authorities said.

The ruling means that the school's temporary rule, in place since the academic year started last autumn, will be lifted, the statement said. If the two students at the heart of the controversy once again refuse to shake hands, "the sanctions called for by law will be applied", it added.

Previous similar disputes have centred on Muslim parents who demanded that their daughters be exempt from swimming lessons, a case that led to the parents being fined.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'Muslim boys can't refuse handshakes with teachers'. Print Edition | Subscribe