A secondary school in Therwil, not far from Basel, recently exempted two school pupils from the customary Swiss handshake between teachers and pupils. Their teacher is a woman and the pupils requested an exemption on religious grounds. The decision has triggered a wave of indignation.
Two pupils of 14 and 15 requested they be exempted from the handshakes for religious reasons and the school’s administration granted it. According to the newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag, which broke the story, this has happened before in the canton of Basel Landschaft.
The affair has provoked a strong reaction. On Swiss-German television, Simonetta Sommaruga, a Swiss cabinet member said “This is not how I see integration. We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom. The handshake is part of our culture.”
Christoph Eymann (PLR), president of the canton’s education ministry, spoke in the same vein: “We cannot tolerate different behaviour towards women. We can’t allow exceptions for religious reasons. It doesn’t help the Muslim community.”
An ardent supporter of secularism (laïcité), deputy Geneva grand council member Magali Orsini was less restrained: “It’s madness, a provocation that could take us back in time.” National councillor Jean-Luc Addor (UDC), co-president of the initiative against the veil in the canton of Valais sees the decision as “a symptom of a culture of submission that leads to the antithesis of integration and towards communitarianism.” His party colleague and president of the commission for science, education and national culture, Felix Müri warned against the creation of a parallel society governed by different rules and obligations, when talking to 20 Minuten.
President of the forum for progressive Islam, Saïda Keller-Messahli didn’t hold back either: “We are not in Saudi Arabia! There is a real risk that other so-called religious demands, that are essentially political, follow.”
According to the federation of Swiss islamic organisations (FOIS), a handshake between a man and a woman is theologically permitted. Should a school tolerate pupils refusing to shake hands? The president of FOIS Montassar Benmrad says “Yes and no. I think pupils should shake their teacher’s hand to show their respect, but patience is required towards those who think otherwise. Speaking with the student or their parents will help to gain an understanding of their motivation, to explain the importance of such a greeting in Swiss culture, and to justify if necessary the reasons why it should be done.” He disagrees that such exemptions will lead to communitarianism. “Such cases are very rare.”
It appears the days are numbered for school handshake exemptions. Faced with such a reaction, Basel Landschaft’s director of public education Monica Gschwind (PLR), who was not involved in the school’s decision, stated that it wasn’t a “long-lasting solution.”