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Handshake. (Photo: picture alliance/chromorange/M. Memminger)
Image: picture alliance/chromorange/M. Memminger

The case of the contentious handshake

Carla Bleiker
July 14, 2016

An imam in Berlin refused to shake a female schoolteacher's hand. She called him misogynistic and ill-adapted to German life. The school has since apologized for her remarks, but the story is far from over.


In Germany and Europe, shaking hands is perhaps the most common way to greet colleagues and acquaintances. But the greeting has recently led to awkward moments and accusations of cultural insensitivity on one hand and gender bias on the other. Most recently, a Shiite Muslim man did not accept a letter of apology that his children's former school had sent after "misunderstandings that led to you ... feeling hurt in your religious freedom, personality or any other way" after he had refused to shake hands with a teacher.

On May 30, the principal of Berlin's private Platanus school had a meeting with the father of one the elementary students she was teaching. The man, an imam from eastern Turkey, refused to shake her hand, at which point, he has claimed, she ended the meeting with him and his son, called him misogynistic and said he should adapt to German culture.

Saziye Salaz. (Photo: Rechtsanwälte Salaz und Kollegen)
Salaz says Platanus officials failed to take the student's emotions into accountImage: Rechtsanwälte Salaz und Kollegen

"He put his hand on his heart and said, 'Please forgive me, but I cannot shake your hand because of religious reasons,'" Saziye Salaz, head of Salaz and Colleagues, the firm representing the man, told DW, adding that her client hadn't intended to come off as rude.

'The handshake debate'

Aside from offering the formal apology, representativees of the Platanus school have not commented publicly on the issue. Thursday's "Closing Letter" is available to the press via a media agency the school has hired. It confirms that the imam's children will no longer attend Platanus after summer break and ends with an invitation to approach the school, should Salaz's client still feel the need to talk. It is signed by a representative of the school's executive board.

Salaz said she "can't take that apology seriously" because it doesn't come from the teacher who spoke with her client and because she does not feel that the letter took into account the needs of the imam's son.

"We're not critical toward the apology out of spite, but we want them to consider him, as well," Salaz said. "Before the report cards are handed out next week, we want the school to tell the child in person that how they acted - how they demeaned his father - was wrong."

Though Salaz called the letter insufficient, the apology proved to be way too much for social media users who felt that the school had backed down rather than taking a stand for gender equality.

"Platanus school apologizes to Imam," the Twitter user Dzjankoj wrote. "The state surrenders!" Others called the school's behavior moral cowardice, and one user commented: "Goodbye equal rights."

Philipp Lengsfeld, a Christian Democrat in the Bundestag, wrote on Twitter: "At the core of the handshake debate, it's not about religion or an individual's statement, it's about the state's authority and equality."

Salaz, however, said protections against unwanted touching should be universal and referred to a recently modified law on sexual assault. "Everyone should be allowed to decide whether they want physical contact or not," she said. "'No means no' - we just discussed this in Germany."

Controversial within Islam

Abdel-Hakim Ourghi, who directs an institute for Islamic theology and religious education in Freiburg, told DW that there is no religious justification for men to refuse to shake hands with women.

"In the entire Koran, there is no line that prohibits a man from greeting a woman he doesn't know," Ourghi said. "Greeting each other by shaking hands is a sign of respect. Refusing it is a sign of contempt."

Ourghi believes that any bans on shaking women's hands have been invented to preserve male dominance.

"If we accept such behavior, it would be a sign that conservative Islam was on the rise," Ourghi said. "And that would be grave in a Western civilization where we have rules that count for everybody."

Abdel-Hakim Ourghi. (Photo: private)
Ourghi says the Koran has no prohibition on mixed-gender handshakesImage: privat

Handshake issues abound

German media have covered two similar cases this year. In spring, two students at a school in the Swiss town of Therwil refused to shake their female teacher's hand on religious grounds. The 14- and 15-year-old said their faith did not allow physical contact with women outside their family.

State school officials decided that handshakes could not be refused, saying that gender equality and the integration of foreigners outweigh religious freedom. Parents of students who don't follow the rules face a fine of up to 4,500 euros ($5,000).

In Hamburg, a student about to graduate from high school refused to shake the hand of a female official who wanted to congratulate him on passing his oral exams earlier this month. When the school's administration didn't exclude him from the official graduation ceremony, several teachers boycotted the event.

The school's principal, Andrea Lüdtke, said she wanted to take her student seriously - and her inclusive approach seems to have worked out. She told the "Hamburger Morgenpost" that the student did in fact shake her hand at the graduation ceremony.

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