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No handshake exemption for Muslim students, Swiss canton rules

A teacher has the right to demand a handshake from Muslim pupils, Swiss education authorities have ruled
The Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga had said that allowing the boys not to shake a teacher's hand was not her idea of integration. (AFP)

Religious belief is no excuse for refusing to shake a teacher's hand, Swiss regional authorities ruled on Wednesday, reversing one school's controversial decision to grant exemptions for Muslim students wary of touching the opposite sex.

Parents or guardians of students who refuse to shake a teacher's hand in the northern Swiss canton of Basel-Country could now face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,000), regional education authorities ruled.

"A teacher has the right to demand a handshake," they said in a statement.

The decision comes after a national uproar over revelations that a school allowed two brothers, aged 14 and 15, not to shake their teachers' hands after they complained that doing so was counter to their religious beliefs if the teacher was a woman.

They argued that Islam does not permit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex, with the exception of certain immediate family members.

To avoid effectively permitting discrimination against female teachers, the school decided to exempt the boys from shaking hands with any of their teachers, regardless of sex.

That decision - made independently by the school in the northwest Therwil municipality without involvement of the canton's authorities or local officials - triggered an outcry across Switzerland, where the tradition of students shaking their teachers' hands as a sign of respect is deeply entrenched.

"The public interest concerning gender equality as well as integration of foreigners is far greater than that concerning the freedom of belief of students," authorities said.

Wednesday's ruling means that the school's temporary rule, in place since the academic year started last autumn, will be lifted, the statement said.

If the two students at the heart of the controversy once again refuse to shake hands, "the sanctions called for by law will be applied," it said.

Switzerland's population of eight million people includes an estimated 350,000 Muslims.

Previous similar disputes have centred on Muslim parents who demanded that their daughters be exempt from swimming lessons, a case that led to the parents being fined.

Muslim families have however secured victories in court against schools which sought to ban the full face veil.

The Swiss row comes after a Swedish Green Party politician was forced to resign in the wake of a dispute over a handshake.

Yasri Khan resigned last month after he ignited a storm of controversy when he refused to shake hands with a female reporter on grounds that it violated his Muslim faith.

During an interview with a female reporter from the TV4 broadcaster, Khan placed his hand over his heart instead of shaking her hand in greeting.

“People can greet each other in different ways. The most important thing is to show respect by seeing each other, to meet each other… to respect each other,” Khan said during an interview with state broadcaster Swedish Radio.

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