Handshake exception for Muslim students sparks debate in Switzerland

(Photo: © Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)Switzerland's federal Justice Minister, Simonetta Sommaruga, addresses journalists in Geneva on Oct. 12, 2015.

Switzerland's government and its main teacher's union has criticized a decision by a school in the north of the country to exempt male Muslim students from shaking hands with their female teachers.

In Swiss schools, teachers often greet students with a handshake before and after a class.

But two male students at a school in Therwil in the canton of Basel, argued that Islam did not permit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex.

The school exempted the two students from the ritual, triggering a nationwide debate among non-Muslims and followers of Islam over whether the exception should have been made.

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The school principal, Jürg Lauener, defended his school's decision saying a compromise had been reached with the students involved, in that they also do not shake the hands of male teachers, Swissinfo reported.

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

Switzerland's federal Justice Minister, Simonetta Sommaruga, however criticized the move, saying handshakes are part of Swiss culture.

TEACHERS' UNION

The Swiss teachers' union also disagreed with the Therwil school district's decision.

"The same rules should apply to all students," argued union president Beat Zemp.

He noted that the wrong signal is being sent to the students involved since they will need to shake hands with many peers and colleagues in their future lives, both male and female.

The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland said that a handshake between a man and woman "is permissible theologically."

It observed that politeness is important in Islamic tradition and that a handshake between teachers and students is "not problematic" and that handshakes between men and women are theologically permissible and common in some Muslim countries.

Some conservative Muslims argue that refusing to touch a woman is a sign of respect.

Muslims account for some five percent of Swizterland's eight million population, with Christians making up 71 percent and those with no belief 21 percent.

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