It’s widespread practice for schoolchildren in Switzerland to shake the hands of their teacher at the beginning and end of each day. Now, one school’s decision to exempt two children from this tradition – because the children are Muslim and their teacher is a woman – has caused a storm of controversy across the European state.

The two pupils at the school in the town of Therwil, near Basel, had requested an exemption from shaking a female teacher’s hand, citing their belief that it would go against Islamic teachings. The local school district later came up with what they felt was an acceptable compromise that could avoid discrimination: The pupils, who are aged 14 and 15, would not be required to shake any teacher’s’ hands, whether they were male or female.

However, the plan hit a hitch when the Schweiz am Sonntag reported on it, sparking a public debate about the compromise. “We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom,” Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said in an interview with Swiss-German broadcaster SRF. “The handshake is part of our culture.”

Others agreed. “Today’s it’s the handshake and what will it be tomorrow?” Felix Mueri, a member of the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party and head of the Swiss parliament’s education commission, said in an interview with the 20 Minuten news site.

Both the Swiss Teacher’s Union and the local Therwil council have also come out against the plan. However, the school itself has defended the decision, despite the controversy. “They are no longer allowed to shake the hand of any teacher, male or female,” headmaster Jurg Lauener told SRF, “For us, that addresses the question of discrimination.”

So what should the Swiss school do?  Get rid of their custom?  Expel the students?  Provide home schooling?  Don’t allow the student to shake anyone’s hand?

How does the handshake differ from Jehovah’s Witness children not saying the Pledge?  That is part of our customs in most schools.  The difference is, it is possible to exempt Jehovah’s Witnesses without allowing discrimination.  The Muslim refusal to shake hands with a woman faculty member is discrimination by Swiss standards.

I think I would call those parents in and explain that not accepting discrimination trumps their religious freedom.  Are other Muslim boys complaining about this practice?  It sounds like these two are outliers and that their protest is a bid for attention.

If the parents don’t like it, expel the kids.


Further reading BBC.com

Addendum:  I can’t think of a custom I would hate more.  Can you imagine the germs?  Yuck!!!!!


8 Thoughts to “What’s in a Swiss handshake?”

  1. Pat.Herve

    Some could argue that the contact with a female (outside of marriage and family) is prohibited by Islam. They should be required to perform some form of respect and acknowledgement – like bow or genuflect to her. The tradition might have to change, but no reason to get rid of the tradition. If they allow individual students to choose, it will go away.

    1. Good idea to have some other show of respect. I bet they wouldn’t like bowing at all!!

      I always found that kids that age like to make issues out of things and when they are pretty much ignored, the protest gets old.

  2. Ed Myers

    Classic authoritarianism. Same as the pledge, there is no learning involved in rote repetition except to bolster the egos of those in power by forcing others that they don’t like to do their bidding.

    1. When you go to a school, you are expected to abide by its rules. Are you an anarchist? Should a country abandon its customs because 2 people don’t want to participate?

      Just for the record, I would not have daily recitation of the Pledge, if it were left up to me.

  3. Watching

    I don’t believe customs are the underpinning of our society or civilization. Laws are supposed to do that and even those need to be adjusted with the times. While customs are nice, if they are disruptive I do not believe they must be enforced. Many customs from 100 years ago have fallen by the wayside and we are not worse off. Sometimes I think we just need progress to a new era.

    1. I don’t know how I feel about that. I think Americans are less tied to customs than Europeans and Asians.

      I probably wouldn’t walk away with strong convictions on the issue because I think I would rather have my hand cut off than to have to exchange germs with 32 kids, 5 times a day, in PWC schools. I would have probably died the first year.

      Invest in hand sanitizer!!!

  4. middleman

    I love it! This is what you get when you open the door to religious demands. Whether it’s not serving gays, not covering contraception or this it’s all the same. You either keep religion out of the public sphere or acquiesce to all these quirks.

    1. Excellent point, middleman. How, how do you handle the kids?

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