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In Uppsala, No Handshake

by Hugh Fitzgerald

Here’s the story, from last summer, but with enduring implications:

A Muslim woman in Sweden who said she was discriminated against in a job interview for refusing to shake hands on religious grounds has been awarded financial compensation by a labor court.

The woman, Farah Alhajeh, 24, was interviewing for a job as an interpreter at Semantix, a language services company, in the city of Uppsala, north of Stockholm, in May 2016, when the person conducting the interview offered to introduce her to a male boss. Ms. Alhajeh said she placed her hand on her heart as a greeting, smiled, and explained that she avoided physical contact because she was Muslim.

Not because she “was Muslim” but because she was a certain kind of Muslim, for many others do not share her view.

She was shown to the elevator.

“It was like a punch in the face,” Ms. Alhajeh, who was born in Sweden, said by telephone from her home in Uppsala on Thursday, a day after the ruling. “It was the first time someone reacted, and it was a really harsh reaction.”

A Swedish labor court agreed, ruling on Wednesday that the company had discriminated against Ms. Alhajeh, and ordering it to pay 40,000 kronor, or about $4,350, in compensation.

The case, brought by Sweden’s equality ombudsman, raised numerous thorny issues in a country already wrestling with questions of immigration and integration. Among them: whether a female Muslim employee could refuse to shake hands as a greeting in the workplace, said Martin Mork, who leads litigation at the ombudsman’s office.

Ms. Alhajeh, the labor court said in a statement, “adheres to an interpretation of Islam that prohibits handshaking with the opposite sex unless it is a close member of the family.” The court concluded 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.”

But the company with which Ms. Alhajeh had interviewed argued that its staff members were required to treat men and women equally, and that it could not allow a staff member to refuse handshakes based on gender.

The labor court ruled 3 to 2 on Wednesday that while the company was right to require that employees treat men and women equally, including in how they greet others, it could not require that the greeting in question involve shaking hands. What matters, they said, was consistency in how men and women were greeted.

But Ms. Alhajeh herself has admitted that there is no “consistency” in how men and women were greeted by her. She has said that in mixed company she will put her hand over her heart, but that she will shake hands with women when only women are present, while she refuses to shake hands with a man, any man, no matter what. This does not constitute “consistency.” or rather, she is consistent in her unequal treatment of men and women.

“The court struck a balance between the interest of gender equality and religious freedom in the workplace,” Mr. Mork said.

But Lars Backstrom, who represented the company in the case, said the labor court’s ruling had gone against Swedish laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace because of gender.

“The Muslim woman did not take the boss’s hand because he is a man,” Mr. Backstrom wrote in an email. “When it comes to employees who meet clients and other external people, it’s up to the employers to decide whether employees can manifest their religious or political affiliations.”

Ms. Alhajeh said that she was pleased with the decision. She said that she greeted men and women the same way in mixed company, by bringing her hand to her chest. But if she is meeting only with women, she might shake hands, she said.

“Might shake hands”? Ms. Alhajeh knows perfectly well that of course she would shake the hand of any woman when in the company only of women.

We live in a society where you have to treat women and men the same,” she said. “I know that because I am Swedish.”

But Ms. Alhajeh, that’s exactly what you don’t do. You don’t treat women and men the same. The court tied itself in knots in order to conclude that your differing treatment of men and women  should trump gender equality, despite the high value Sweden places on such equality. The court decided that in Sweden Islamic customs, as observed by you, were more important than Swedish values and customs. Three judges on the labor court were also apparently unaware that a great many Muslim women, unlike Farah Alhajeh, are perfectly willing to shake hands with men.

I have to practice my religion in a Swedish way that’s acceptable,” she added.

But she doesn’t do that.  She practices her faith exactly as she wishes, with no concessions made to Swedish customs.

This is not the first time that the issue of handshakes has drawn attention and controversy in Sweden. In 2016, a Muslim member of the Green Party withdrew his candidacy for a seat in the party’s leadership after he was publicly criticized for refusing to shake hands with women, including a television journalist who was going to interview him.

That was the only acceptable decision. if he wouldn’t shake hands with a woman, he had no business being a candidate for a leadership position in the Green Party, and no business being in Swedish politics at all, given that gender equality is one of the most important principles of Swedish society..

“I stand for equality among people,” Stefan Lofven, the prime minister, told Parliament in April 2016, according to the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. “For me, it’s the same as women and men having the same opportunities. It also means that in Sweden, we greet each other. One shakes hands with both men and women.”

What does Stefan Lofven think of the  3-2 decision that says he is flatly wrong, and that in Sweden one no longer need shake hands with both men and women? What does he think of Sweden’s future as an advanced Western society? Anything? Nothing?

Mr. Mork of the ombudsman’s office acknowledged the importance of such greetings in his country. “In Sweden, one shakes hands,” he said.

But, he said, “This is very much viewed under the lens of integration and gender equality.”

“It has become a little bit of a symbol question for how Sweden deals with its religious minorities,” he added.

“A little bit of a symbol question”? The tortuous phrasing reflects a certain confused embarrassment over the outcome. It’s not a question of symbols. It’s a question of who is to be master, that’s all. The Swedish people in Sweden or others, who may be citizens but have shown themselves  unwilling to accept Swedish ways, such as shaking hands with people of both sexes. That practice is not just a symbol, but a long-established custom that reinforces the notion of gender equality. It is reasonable to ask all those who benefit from the laws of the well-ordered Swedish state and the customs of an advanced Swedish society, to observe those laws and customs.

“The question of balancing local custom with religious freedom has also been playing out in other countries recently. In 2016, the authorities in the Swiss canton of Basel-Landschaft ruled that two Syrian boys who studied at a public school in the town of Therwil could not refuse to shake their teacher’s hand on religious grounds. Shaking a teacher’s hand before and after class is part of Switzerland’s social fabric, and the canton authorities said that parents whose children refused to obey the tradition could be fined up to 5,000 Swiss francs, or about $5,020.

The Swiss, more hard-headed than the Swedes and more attached to their folkways, were not about to allow  those who had been given generous refuge in their country to refuse to honor a Swiss custom, one that was always deemed to be an important part of the teacher-pupil relationship. For the Swiss, the handshake between teacher and pupil both before and after class was a sign  both of solidarity and respect. If two Muslim boys refused to shake a female teacher’s hand, that reflected the lower standing of women in Islam, and was not to be tolerated.

“On the other hand, a school in Sydney, Australia, caused an uproar last year by adopting a policy allowing Muslim schoolboys to refuse to shake hands with women, as long as they instead placed a hand across their chest.

This places rules of some — not all — Muslims above those of Australian society. This clearly endorses a view of women as inferior, instead of requiring that everyone in Australia observe the rules of gender equality. If Muslims enjoy the great privilege of being allowed into Australia in the first place, especially considering the kind of places they likely came from, they  ought to be willing to observe those rules of gender equality.  This is the unwritten bargain immigrants have struck with their host country. Apparently the school authorities, in their diseased sympathy for The Other, and hellbent for “diversity,” did not agree. A nation-wide policy on the shaking of hands needs to be put in place, with the force of law. Australia ought to emulate steadfast Switzerland or, even better, France:

And this year, France’s top administrative court ruled that an Algerian woman’s refusal to shake hands with male officials at a French naturalization ceremony was sufficient grounds for denying her citizenship.

To that decision, which shows the French in their take-no-prisoners mode, one can only say “Attaboy.”

Meanwhile, I’d like to end on a lighter, less Islamic note. A Sicilian fisherman of my acquaintance, now living in America, told me once that in 45 years as a fisherman, he never had to sign a contract. All of his agreements were based, he said, only on a “shakanza.” I looked puzzled. He took my hand and shook it. “Shakanza,” he said. “Una shakanza.”

First published in Jihad Watch here and here.


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