The Educational authorities in Switzerland recently decided to fine parents of students up to $5,000 for refusing to shake the hands of their teachers. The students, who are Muslim, have refused to shake hands with the opposite gender on religious grounds.
The Swiss have a tradition of students shaking hands with their teachers before each school day. I am not Swiss. I have no feeling one way or another about the tradition. We do not have this particular tradition in the United States, so I can neither relate to it nor explain it.
I am sure they had perfectly valid reasons for having started the tradition–though, like many traditions, I often wonder if people even remember the original reasons.
Many people see this as yet another conflict between east and west. Some equate the refusal to shake hands with the opposite gender as a form of disrespect, indicating the refuser is following a sexist tradition of males being superior to females because, in this case, the students are male, and the affected teachers are female.
Like much of Europe, the Swiss have a culture where the majority of citizens are similar, and many traditions are enacted without any pushback. As societies become more diverse–even without immigration–some traditions will survive, and some will not. It will largely depend on the reasons behind the traditions, and how well those ideas are articulated as valuable in an ever-evolving world.
Many people do not shake hands. For example, my niece and nephew, who are not Muslim, have germ phobias, and try very hard not to shake hands with anyone. My niece has an autoimmune disease, resulting in a lowered immune system, and has very real concerns about becoming sick from touching others.
I am not sure how common this is in Europe, but it is a growing attitude in the United States. Dealing with these issues comes with the territory of living in a diverse society, and Europe is becoming more diverse.
In the Middle East, for example, shaking hands among opposite genders is very common, particularly in business situations, but even in social interactions. I just returned from speaking in Bahrain at the Social Media Masters Forum. Both the mayor and governor shook hands with the women speakers, including me.
Being Muslim myself–a convert to Islam–I analyzed deeply about this before deciding I would continue to shake hands with the opposite gender.
I chose to shake hands, but I fully support the right of others to make a different decision for themselves. All of my decisions about my religious practice, from my dress to how I conduct myself, have been my decision. I would reject any legislative attempt to force dress codes or social interaction with others, even if those rules did not affect me.
I converted to Islam in 1998. I met and married my husband, who is from Iraq, in 1999. Even though I had made the decision to shake hands with the opposite gender, I had decided not to hug them. That decision was based more on the reality that I am not a touchy-feeling person than anything else.
But my husband’s family is touchy-feely. Each time we see each other, the hugging and cheek kissing begins. I made it clear from the beginning that I would only hug and kiss the women in the family.
After several years of marriage, I read a book. I do not even remember the name or what it was about, but it told the story of a man who traveled to Germany to close an already completed deal. German men give ‘bear hug’ to each other. The businessman, who was American, was not used to that and refused. He lost the contract by offending the Germans. They interpreted his refusal as him being untrustworthy.
As I reflected on that story, I started thinking about my husband’s family. Was I subconsciously keeping them at arms length by refusing to do the huggy-kissy thing?
I discussed it with my husband, and the next time we greeted I surprised them. It was a transformation. I could almost tangibly see their comfort level with me increase. My choice to do the huggy-kissy thing with my husband’s family had rewards that were well worth the small sacrifice I made by letting them into my space.
I still do not hug and kiss when greeting other men. My desire for cohesion within my family is different than with others, and I honestly cannot imagine non-family member men having that expectation.
It is a Southern tradition that dates back to European times. Even Dear Abby addressed it in one of her columns.
Child molestation prevention advocates now state that we should not force children to hug and kiss adults because it teaches them they do not have rights over their body and makes them potential targets for molesters. Definitely something to consider.
It is only because the two students are male that this is even an issue. It is assumed that the male students will not shake the hands of the female teachers because they consider the females to be inferior.
It is much more common for Muslim women to not shake hands than Muslim men. If the students were girls refusing to shake hands with their male teachers, I doubt it would even be a story.
But let’s look at the real consequences of the legislation forcing hand-shaking between genders.
Since girls are the largest group affected, girls subjected to the law are more likely to discontinue going to school or participating in society in order to avoid the physical touch requirement. Girls will be robbed of their own opportunities to learn, grow, and experience life to its fullest.
Once we start legislating personal conduct and personal interactions, we totally lose control of ourselves. We each have our comfort zones, and those comfort zones are completely individual. We have enough social pressure, and do not need the government enforcing how we interact on a social level.
And contrary to what politicians and pundits are peddling, we all–even us Muslims–want and love freedom.
Written by Deedra Abboud.
Deedra Abboud is the founder of the Global Institute of Solution Oriented Leadership, a “rising tide raising all boats” resource on the art and science of finding solutions, not fault – at work, at home, and in the community. She is an author, keynote speaker, lawyer, and frequent media resource. When she’s not helping clients or speaking at organization events, she’s traveling the world. At last count, she’s been to more than 15 countries including Bahrain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.