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Muslim pupils must shake hands – ‘no ifs and buts'

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Muslim pupils must shake hands – ‘no ifs and buts'
File photo: Broad Bean Media
10:22 CEST+02:00
A school in the canton of Basel-Country has rejected the appeal of a Muslim schoolboy who refused to shake hands with his female teachers for religious reasons.

The boy was one of two teenage brothers at a high school in Therwil who caused a nationwide furore earlier this year when they said shaking hands with female teachers went against their religion, which forbids physical contact with a member of the opposite sex who isn't family.

In an attempt to find a compromise but avoid discrimination against women, the school initially agreed to exempt the boys from shaking hands with all teachers, regardless of gender.

However the situation subsequently triggered outrage across Switzerland because it was seen as an affront to an intrinsic part of Swiss culture – shaking hands with teachers is a common custom in Swiss schools.

The canton's education authorities then intervened and ruled that the boys must shake their teachers' hands or face disciplinary measures, as well as a fine (issued to their parents) of up to 5,000 francs.

The disciplinary measures could take the form of an oral warning or debate with parents, and would aim to educate pupils on the subject, they said.

At the time the canton's education department said: “The public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of conscience (freedom of religion) of the students.”

Refusing to shake hands on religious grounds would be to involve others in a “religious act” and is therefore different from the wearing of a headscarf or refusing to take part in swimming lessons, it said.

According to Blick the older brother left the school at the end of the last academic year in June, however the younger boy, now 15, started this school year once more refusing to shake his female teachers' hands.

Last week the school board rejected a complaint lodged by his parents over the disciplinary measures taken against their son, saying it was the teachers' right to demand a handshake, cantonal authorities said on Monday.

The school's decision was welcomed by Monica Gschwind, head of Basel-Country's education department, who said in a statement that shaking hands with teachers is “deeply rooted in our society and culture”.

The parents can now lodge a further appeal to the canton's education authorities, but Gschwind said she would lobby the cantonal government to support the school board's decision.

In November the canton will consider a bill to amend Basel's education laws to “provide future clarity” on the issue, she added. The proposed law would make it obligatory for schools to report any pupils who refuse to shake hands to the Swiss migration office (SEM).

All local customs should be respected in schools, regardless of religion, said Gschwind.

“For me it is clear: the handshake is enforced – no ifs and buts,” she said.

Since the case erupted, the family involved have had their application for Swiss citizenship suspended, pending further discussion.

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