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Switzerland: What's in a Handshake?
by Hugh Fitzgerald
Sometimes it's the little things that are most telling. In Switzerland it has long been customary for students to shake the hands of their teachers at the beginning and end of the school day. It's a sign of solidarity and mutual respect between teacher and pupil, one that is thought to encourage the right classroom atmosphere. Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga recently felt compelled to further explain that shaking hands was part of Swiss culture and daily life.
And the reason she felt compelled to speak out about the handshake is that two Muslim brothers, aged 14 and 15, who have lived in Switzerland for several years (and thus are familiar with its mores), in the town of Therwil, near Basel, refused to shake the hands of their teacher, a woman, because, they claimed, this would violate Muslim teachings that contact with the opposite sex is allowed only with family members. At first the school authorities decided to avoid trouble, and initially granted the boys an exemption from having to shake the hand of any female teacher. But an uproar followed, as Mayor Reto Wolf explained to the BBC: "the community was unhappy with the decision taken by the school. 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."
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