Two Muslim boys in Switzerland have declined, on religious grounds, to shake hands with their female teachers. The school district says Swiss custom should override religion and is now threatening to fine the parents of the boys $5,000 if the boys continue to refuse to comply.
Some years ago, I worked with a male Muslim intern who refused to shake my hand for religious reasons. The experience challenged me to think more deeply about tolerance and diversity, and I think the lessons I learned are worth sharing.
In the summer of 2010, as Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, I hired my first Muslim intern, a young man named Muhammad. I was eager to move beyond studying Islam from a distance and to develop the Project into an opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim Americans to collaborate together as partners on issues of shared concern.
I was impressed by Muhammad’s resume, which included a rigorous education at an excellent college that left him just as prepared to attend graduate school in Islamic studies or medical school (he has since done both). We had never met in person, as the internship had been arranged via e-mail. But on paper he sure seemed like a rising star.
The first thing that happened when he arrived in Princeton to start his internship was that he refused to shake my hand. Shock. Shock was my initial response. I tried to hide how stunned I was, but it was difficult. He was absolutely gracious in declining. I felt angry when he refused to shake my hand just because I am female, but it was hard to be angry at someone who was so kind. It wasn’t even clear to me what or who the object of my confused anger was. He explained that it was due to his religious beliefs that he does not shake women’s hands. Was I, who had hired this intern to help with religious freedom work, going to reject his freedom to follow his religious beliefs?
I suppressed how baffled and worried I felt. I moved right along as if nothing had happened. I welcomed him to the Witherspoon Institute and began introducing him to the work we would be doing that summer. But inside, my head and heart were spinning.
I have zero patience—I mean zero—for misogyny. I’ve had boys in Yemen throw stones at me and another woman. I’ve been treated like a dangerous toxic substance by a Catholic priest who seemed to wish desperately that women just didn’t exist. “Misogyny” is a word I don’t use lightly, but there are times when it is the appropriate descriptor of some men’s attitudes. I could not help but wonder: was misogyny what I was experiencing? What I would be in for all summer long?
Yet, because I recognized that I did not understand why this young man refused to shake my hand, I did not jump to conclusions. Instead, I took a “wait-and-see” approach. He was an American. A kid from the Jersey shore. His refusal was religious, not cultural. I realized that I knew almost nothing about this young man. Who was I to judge him? Moreover, I badly needed an assistant at work and had prepared a mighty long to-do list for him. I knew we needed to work together in a spirit of collaboration to get through the busy summer ahead. An antagonistic relationship seemed like it would only get in the way. I swallowed my fears and acted like nothing had happened.
But something had happened: my assumptions about my own tolerance had been jolted with a radical challenge. Was I tolerant enough and sufficiently appreciative of diversity—particularly of religious diversity—to live and let live, even if it made me feel slighted?
That summer with Muhammed, along with subsequent collaboration at the Witherspoon Institute with Orthodox Jewish men who did not shake women’s hands, taught me many lessons.
Lesson one: I was reminded concretely of something I knew abstractly: namely, that Muslims are diverse. This young man was from a particular interpretive school of Shia Islam with which I was not very familiar. In over twenty years of academic studies and professional work related to Islam, I had never met a Muslim who, for religious reasons, would not shake a woman’s hand. Well, here was one. And then I met Orthodox Jewish men who would not shake my hand. And here too I was reminded: Jews are diverse. Moreover, for religious reasons, some Muslim women and some Orthodox Jewish women do not shake men’s hands. Issues of modesty, chastity, and ritual purity can involve both men and women; this is not just an issue of male attitudes toward women.
Lesson two: the reasons some religious men do not have social physical contact with women outside of their direct families should not always be reduced to misogyny. Where there is actual misogyny, it is something to be taken seriously. But painting all males with a broad brush is neither fair nor accurate. Men should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves, to explain their own thoughts, intentions, and consciences.
Lesson three: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to refusal to recognize that women have professional abilities. This intern had absolutely no problem having a woman as his boss that summer. He was eager to assist me, and he always listened attentively to directions I gave him. He consistently did an excellent job carrying out the tasks I assigned to him.
Lesson four: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to refusal to recognize that women have intellectual abilities. That summer, starting from that very first day, this intern and I had fantastic discussions about some of the greatest minds in Muslim intellectual history. He asked me lots of questions about my dissertation and treated me as a person from whom he thought he might learn something. He gave me brilliant reading recommendations in modern Islamic theology, all of them profound and challenging sources. He never treated me as if he thought I was stupid. Never.
Muhammad was a fantastic intern. We were lucky to have him work with us that summer at the Witherspoon Institute. He was a delightful colleague for all of us at the Institute and, significantly, he treated all the women with respect.
While I do not know the particular reasons for the refusal of the two Syrian boys in Switzerland to shake women’s hands, I can’t help but think of my intern Muhammad. After his internship, he went on to do a Master’s Degree at Harvard in Islamic theology, and now he is in medical school preparing to serve others in society as a doctor. As an American, I feel my country is lucky to have such a talented man, who values public service, as a citizen. If these two boys are even half as talented and kind as Muhammad, the loss will be Switzerland’s if this family cannot stay there.
I can’t say that I genuinely understand why Muhammad won’t shake women’s hands, but having to live without fully understanding is something that I think comes with the territory of genuine diversity. Muhammad allows me the freedom to shake the hands of men who choose to partake of this cultural practice, and I allow him the freedom not to.
The principle of religious freedom demands that we allow space in our society for difference. Genuine tolerance allows for difference. Of course, this is something quite different from trying to pass off imposition of the cultural norms of those who are in power as “tolerance” simply by labeling it so. I hope that the Swiss government is able to tell the difference between the two—not only for the sake of those boys and their families, but for the sake of their own society.
Jennifer S. Bryson, PhD, is Director of Operations and Development at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.