In a school near Basel in Switzerland there has been some controversy recently over the refusal of some Muslim students to follow the local custom by shaking hands with their teachers at the end of a class.
This situation represents a very interesting case study in intercultural relations which I’d like to explore in this reflection.
For me, the first thing to ask is ‘What is the meaning of the action for both groups of people?”
In the West, hand shaking developed among men. As one unknown man approached another it was always going to be the case that the one might want to kill the other by drawing his sword and killing the other who was in a vulnerable position. Shaking hands became a sign that two strangers, who were not sure of one another’s intentions, could offer to say “I am unarmed. I intend to do you no physical harm.” In this context, hand shaking represents a gesture of mutual openness and respect, and the desire that two parties get closer than a sword-length to one another !
The process of hand shaking has since been extended to women as patriarchy has decreased, and women come to adopt the same roles as men in business and in social interaction.
From a brief look at the accounts that Muslims give of not shaking hands, there are other factors at play. First of all, there is a desire that the male person not be led into the possibility of sexual immorality by touching a woman’s hand.
This is strange, and perhaps offensive to us in the West. We are used to a much more sexualised and less patriarchal culture than many from the Middle East are.
This is not without its problems, on both sides. On the one hand, the West sees the treatment of women by some forms of Islam as oppressive. Islam itself is not univocal on this matter. Indonesian and Asian Islam in general is a different kettle of fish from some of the forms of Islam in the Arab world, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the other hand, some forms of Islam see the West as ‘over sexualising’ everything, and are genuinely shocked by what they see us doing.
It is also the case that many things can be seen as ‘normal’ as fashions change over time. What might at one time be seen as extremely provocative (like the sight of an ankle) is now not worth a second look. What ‘sexualises’ a part of the body is not the actual fact of its being covered or not, but the process of revealing and covering (hence the allure of ‘strip tease’). Again, the West is not univocal in its attitudes to sexuality, and some Muslims might get on better in some places than others. (Where the Amish live, for example?)
The other thing that is going on in Islam is the process of the firming up of Islamic identity. Some of the people whom I read making comments on-line said that since they had done the pilgrimage to Mecca, they had become more firm in their Muslim identity, and so stopped shaking hands as a sign that they wanted to be more devout.
The other meaning of hand shaking in Islam, as in the West is that it represents a form of ‘bond’ between those making agreements. If people ‘shake hands’ on an agreement, then that is seen in some circles as good as a written document. It is cited that the Prophet himself respected women in business affairs that the shaking of hands was not necessary. Instead he offered his respect by trusting their word alone.
In the debate about shaking hands at the school in Basel, the argument about the students’ not shaking hands with their teachers was framed in terms of seeing women as sexual objects. The claim was made* that it is the treating of women as sexual objects that prevented the male students from shaking hands. It was not a mark of respect, they claimed.
So the issues that need to be negotiated here are (1) Cultural differences with regard to sexuality, and whether one view of how to interact among the genders can be enforced without doing violence to another person. (2) The question of how mutual respect and openness, and a desire to approach another can be shown by people with differing cultural norms (3) The question of how we can allow people to express their identity, including their religious identity, while still living together socially, with some agreed norms of behaviour.
The solution that the school in Basel came up with was that the students who objected were permitted to shake hands neither with male or female teachers. This means that the school believes that not shaking hands with women teachers is in fact seeing them as sex objects, and that if the male students are not going to change, then their behaviour should apply to make teachers as well. This is a compromise, but I think it would be meaningless to the students involved.
There are a couple of other ways that I think could have been followed. First, there is a ruling from The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland (FIOS) which said that a handshake between a man and woman *“is permissible theologically”. It added that politeness is important in Islamic tradition and that a handshake between teachers and students is “not problematic”.
Here is a ruling from a Swiss body that permits the practice. In the light of this ruling, the students could have been asked to join in a discussion with these authorities, in order to hear their objections and work out an authoritative curse of action for them, from within Islam.
But I think it might have also been useful to say to the students something like “As you know and share from your Islamic beliefs, respect for women and being polite are two very significant values in Islam. Can you come up with a form of leaving the classroom which to your mind carries the same message that ‘shaking hands’ does? Ths is a value for as that we are asking you to respect. We are talking here about the values that shaking hands implies: respect, openness and a willingness to recognise the other as a person.”
There are lots of different actions that do this. In the East, the action of bowing, or bowing one to the other with hands together as in a prayer is common. In Japan, the exchange of business cards sometimes does the same job. In my own life, sometimes I shake hands, sometimes, depending upon the initiative of the person I’m meeting, the ‘three kisses’ of Switzerland are exchanged. I wonder what the students would have come up with had they been asked?
The Christian Church had to negotiate the most difficult of cross cultural practices in its early life. Here is one. Christians were some times invited to pagans’ homes for meals. Sometimes meat that had come from pagan markets where the meat was dedicated to pagan gods. Christians believed that these gods had no reality, so that whether or not they ate was of no consequence. But this knowledge, and its resultant freedom to eat could be a cause of offence to others who did not have this knowledge or freedom. So here the law of love prevails. If the law of love invites us to be open with one another, to be gentle, respectful and honest, then it is these values that should govern the conversation between ‘those who eat’ and ‘those who don’t.’
I think the same approach could be offered to the students in Basel.