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18 Aug, 2018 15:27

Europe’s handshake rows: Sweden says Muslims have a right to refuse, Switzerland says they don’t

Europe’s handshake rows: Sweden says Muslims have a right to refuse, Switzerland says they don’t

Two cases with very different outcomes involving the right of a Muslim person to refuse to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex were in the spotlight in Europe this week.

A Muslim couple in Switzerland lost their bid for citizenship after a municipal commission ruled that their refusal to shake hands with people of the opposite sex showed a disrespect for gender equality.

In Sweden, however, a Muslim woman was awarded 40,000 kronor ($4,350) in compensation after the labour court ruled that a company’s decision to end her job interview after she refused to shake hands with a male interviewer amounted to discrimination.

Many Muslims avoid physical contact with members of the opposite sex, except for those in their immediate family, for religious reasons. The practice has caused contention in Europe, however, where it is custom to shake hands in certain circumstances. In many instances Muslims recognise the greeting by putting their hand to their heart.

In Switzerland, the city of Lausanne determined that the Muslim couple did not meet the criteria for citizenship as their refusal to shake hands demonstrated their failure to integrate.

Lausanne Mayor Grégoire Junod argued that freedom of belief and religion is enshrined in local laws but insisted "religious practice does not fall outside the law."

Vice Mayor Pierre-Antoine Hildbrand, who was on the three-member commission that questioned the couple told AFP that “the constitution and equality between men and women prevails over bigotry.”

READ MORE: ‘What, no handshake?’ Swedish company sued over job interview turned sour

The couple, whose nationality has not been revealed, has 30 days to appeal the decision.

 Sweden’s labour court took an opposing view, however, ruling that in the case of Farah Alhajeh, her refusal to shake hands on religious grounds was protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

It accepted the company’s argument that its employees were required to treat men and women equally but said it was not fair to expect this in the form of a handshake only, noting  that Alhajeh placed her hand on her heart when greeted with the handshake. It branded the company's policy of demanding a specific greeting as detrimental to Muslims.

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