There’s a delightful tradition in Switzerland in which students shake hands with their teachers before and after class — it’s a sign of respect, not to mention a way to calm everyone down before the lessons start. But a school in the Basel-Country canton is now at the center of controversy because of how administrators dealt with two Muslim students who didn’t want to participate in the tradition.
The reason? Their religion prevents them from touching women who aren’t in their family.
The problem is that school officials seemed to be okay with this, making an accommodation for the boys:
On Monday, school officials spoke out for the first time, defending their decision. School rector Jürg Lauener said a compromise had been reached with the students involved, in that they also do not shake the hands of male teachers.
“They are no longer allowed to shake the hand of any teacher, male or female. For us, that addresses the question of discrimination,” Lauener told Swiss public television, SRF.
Well, if the tradition was a sign of respect, it’s not exactly a compromise to say, “You don’t have to respect anyone.” In a nutshell, though, the compromise is that students who don’t want to participate in the tradition don’t have to.
In that sense, it’s not all that different from U.S. law that says students who don’t want to say the Pledge of Allegiance don’t have to. When atheists sit out, there are always critics who say they’re being disrespectful or unpatriotic. Neither of those are accurate.
Critics in the Swiss case are saying the accommodation sends the message that faith-based sexism is okay. But that seems like an overreaction. No students should be forced to participate in a tradition that goes against their beliefs, regardless of how shitty their reasons are.
But even government officials are denouncing the decision to let the students get out of this:
Christian Amsler, head of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, suggested that the school may have tried to get an “unpleasant problem out of the way” but had simply made a mistake.
Therwil Mayor Reto Wolf said the community was unhappy with the decision taken by the school, which is run by the local canton.
“In our culture and in our way of communication a handshake is normal and sends out respect for the other person, and this has to be brought [home] to the children in school,” he told the BBC.
In other words, Amsler and Wolf are saying Muslim students should be forced to assimilate into Swiss culture, because giving them an exemption would somehow destroy it.
I’m not buying it.
These religious rules are no doubt sexist — and, according to some Muslim groups, not even proper theology — but if the fear is that they’re de-homogenizing the country or leading everyone down a slippery slope to Islamic theocracy, I have to ask what the hell they do the rest of the school day. These students are constantly exposed to Swiss culture, female teachers, and the material in their classes. I would think being in that environment would help expose them to why shaking hands with women isn’t a big deal at all.
If you want them to shed their rotten beliefs, then don’t alienate them. The last thing we want is for them to feel even more isolated.
On top of that, there’s no evidence the boys disrespect the teachers in any other way. For them, this isn’t sexism; it’s just a “rule” they have to follow. And for all we know, this is just something their parents told them not to do, not a decision they made on their own.
The administrators did the right thing by making an exemption. I understand why people are upset, but I fail to see how forcing them to shake hands against their will (or kicking them out of school for not doing it) would make things any better.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Tom for the link)