Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Swiss Boys' Refusals to Shake Female Teacher's Hand Prompt $5,000 Fine

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Swiss Boys' Refusals to Shake Female Teacher's Hand Prompt $5,000 Fine

Article excerpt

After two Syrian boys in Switzerland asked to be excused from shaking a female teacher's hand because they said it violated their faith, their canton announced Wednesday that families of children who refuse to participate in the tradition that starts and ends the school day will be fined.

The fine will be up to $5,000, the Swiss canton said in a statement Wednesday.

"The public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweigh the freedom of conscience (freedom of religion) of the students," reads a translation of the statement, according to The Washington Post. "This differs from the wearing of a headscarf or absence of swimming lessons.... [T]he social gesture of the handshake is important for the employability of students later in their professional lives."

Initially, school officials struck a compromise with the teens, saying they should not shake any teachers' hands to avoid discrimination. The canton's reversal, however, reignites an ongoing debate over how much European countries ought to accommodate immigrants' traditions and beliefs that conflict with their own, as the continent becomes home to unprecedented numbers of mostly Muslim asylum seekers.

The controversy started with a request from two teenage brothers in the town of Therwil, near the French border, that they be excused from shaking their teacher's hand. In much of Switzerland, the school day starts and ends with a handshake between student and teacher. But the 14- and 15-year-old brothers said shaking their female teacher's hand was against their faith, because they were prohibited from physical contact with the opposite sex, except for immediate family members.

The school district first tried to arrive at a solution by balancing freedom of religion with gender equality: The brothers would not shake any female or male teacher's hand.

But local reports of the case garnered national attention, according to The Washington Post, and "the agreement with the school district began to come undone."

The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland refused to support the brothers' view, saying it is outside the mainstream. …

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