When a Muslim couple sat down for a meeting with a municipal commission in the Swiss city of Lausanne, their interviewers found that they “showed great difficulty in answering questions asked by people of the opposite sex,” the city’s mayor said.
Despite laws that ensure freedom of religion, “religious practice does not fall outside the law,” Junod told AFP.
Handshaking has ignited a debate over the role of religion in Switzerland before, as some Muslims, with the exception of certain relatives, do not physically touch members of the opposite sex.
Swiss teachers often expect their students to shake their hands in a move that is considered to signal respect for their authority. But in 2016, two male students from Syria refused to greet their female teacher in that way. The teenagers' parents then faced fines of about $5,000 after the region’s educational authorities said “a teacher has a right to demand a handshake.”
Their school initially tried to compromise by telling the two students they didn’t have to shake any teachers' hands. But authorities later ruled that “the public interest concerning gender equality as well as integration of foreigners far outweighs that concerning the freedom of belief of students."
The students' father was reportedly a Syrian imam who had won asylum in Switzerland after he moved there in 2001. But the family apparently feared the public dispute over the boys' refusal to shake hands with women could affect their attempts to naturalize as Swiss citizens.
This week, a Swedish woman won discrimination compensation after a company cut short her interview because she wouldn’t shake a man’s hand. The New York Times reported that the woman, Farah Alhajeh, instead put her hand over her heart and smiled when she was introduced to a man in the office. She explained that she couldn’t shake his hand for religious reasons, and the interview ended right then and there. A Swedish labor court ruled that she was owed about $4,350. Alhajeh told the Times that when she is in a mixed-gender setting, she greets both men and women by placing her hand on her heart as to not appear to be discriminate against one sex.
“We live in a society where you have to treat women and men the same,” she said.
The labor court that ruled in her favor said that “the woman’s refusal to shake hands with people of the opposite sex is a religious manifestation that is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” the Times reported. But the company saw it as a violation of gender equality.
The couple in Lausanne could appeal the decision denying them citizenship, but officials insist they are right.
“The constitution and equality between men and women prevails over bigotry,” Vice Mayor Pierre-Antoine Hildbrand told AFP. He was one of the commission members who interviewed the couple and said he was “very satisfied with the decision” that they would not become Swiss citizens.