Muslim schoolboys' handshake refusal causes stir in Switzerland


(RNS) A decision allowing two Muslim schoolboys to refuse to take part in the tradition of shaking hands with their (female) teacher has triggered a national controversy in Switzerland.

The two teenage boys were allowed to avoid greeting the teacher with a handshake at the school in Therwil, northern Switzerland, after saying it was against their Muslim faith to touch a woman outside their family.

The boys are brothers, ages 14 and 15, and one of them posted material on his Facebook page in support of the group that calls itself the Islamic State, the Basler Zeitung online newspaper reported.

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The school’s decision has been met with criticism, with a teachers’ union calling it discrimination, the BBC reported. The school has since adjusted its rule to state the two children should not shake hands with men or women.

The local mayor, Reto Wolf, said townspeople were also upset.

"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," he told the BBC.

Switzerland’s justice minister, Simonetta Sommaruga, said handshakes are part of national culture and the school’s decision did not fit her view of integration.

Some Muslim organizations supported her. The Swiss Federation of Islamic Organisations said there is no reference in the Quran that justifies refusing to shake a female teacher’s hand, the BBC reported. But the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland argued that handshakes between men and women are not allowed.

Muslims make up about 5 percent of the population of the Alpine country, which banned the building of minarets in a 2009 referendum.

(Rosie Scammell is an RNS correspondent based in Rome)


  1. Ah yes, another intersection of religious rights and a society with reasonable norms and expectations. But I’ll bet they can enter the bathroom of their choice, depending on their gender fluidity that day.

  2. Such fascination with bathrooms – wonder what lies underneath that obsession?

  3. Closely held beliefs used to snub people! Oh my!

    I guess it only counts when you are Christian.

  4. Interesting in light of the case where a group of Muslim refugee adolescents set upon and beat a European lad who refused to shake their hands.

  5. I think it is seen as an issue because it’s a boy refusing to shake hands with a woman. I witnessed an incident where a strict Muslim girl told the school that she could not shake hands with a man when she received her School Certificate. It was therefore arranged for her to receive her certificate from a female member of staff.

    Problem solved in this instance.

    I believe that in the case of the boy refusing to shake hands with a woman, the boy’s refusal was seen as an affront to women. If it was a girl who refused to shake hands with a man, this would not have been seen as so confronting.

    Thus, shaking hands can carry a lot of social meaning, depending on the gender of the people shaking hands, and their respective social positions.

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