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Between Gender Equality and Religious Freedom

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To shake or not?Shaking hands has become a social conflict of sorts for many of certain religious beliefs. Much ado about nothing, some would say. Others see it as a matter of maintaining religious values, while some might cry foul and point to a lurking conflict between gender equality and religious freedom.

Most Muslim scholars prescribe that it is not permissible for unrelated men and women to exchange physical contact, among other things. While adhering to this ruling generally does not cause much social discomfort in mostly Muslim societies, it has become something of a brewing social conflict for Muslims who live in non-Muslim societies, specifically North America and Europe.

Actually, many Muslims would be surprised to find out that Orthodox Jews have been experiencing similar discomfort when faced with the extended hand of an unrelated individual of the opposite sex. Termed Negiah, Jewish law, like Islamic jurisprudence, forbids physical touch between members of the opposite sex who are unrelated (related persons include spouse, parent, grandparent, child, etc.). This means no handshaking – even if it is just business.

A common handshake situation goes a little something like this: Male shows up to job interview. Interviewer is a female. Interviewer extends hand to greet interviewee. Interviewee rejects handshake, saying something like, "Sorry, I can't shake hands for religious reasons." Interviewer is thrown off guard and begins to ponder, "But why?"

There are two sides to this story – the extender's and the rejecter's. To be fair, most people walk away from this situation only feeling a bit embarrassed and confused. But more often than not, the extender feels very offended and punishes the rejecter by refusing them a job offer. Or, in the case of a 2002 letter addressed to the "Ethicist" of The New York Times, Randy Cohen, it costs a handshake rejecter a business contract. The letter goes as follows:

"The courteous and competent real estate agent I'd just hired to rent my house shocked and offended me when, after we signed our contract, he refused to shake my hand, saying that as an Orthodox Jew, he did not touch women. As a feminist, I oppose sex discrimination of all sorts. However, I also support freedom of religious expression. How do I balance these conflicting values? Should I tear up our contract?"

Any practicing Muslim or Jew who has been in a similar situation probably cringes to some degree upon hearing of this situation, having experienced it many a time. But they may also find it shocking that someone might misinterpret the situation as "sex discrimination". To them, I say: prepare to cringe much more upon hearing the Ethicist's response:

"This culture clash may not allow you to reconcile the values you esteem. Though the agent dealt you only a petty slight, without ill intent, you're entitled to work with someone who will treat you with the dignity and respect he shows his male clients. If this involved only his own person – adherence to laws concerning diet or dress, for example – you should of course be tolerant. But his actions directly affect you. And sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions. I believe you should tear up your contract.

"Had he declined to shake hands with everyone, there would be no problem. What he may not do, however, is render a class of people untouchable. Were he, say, an airline ticket clerk who refused to touch Asian-Americans, he would find himself in hot water and rightly so. Bias on the basis of sex is equally discreditable.

"Some religions (and some civil societies) that assign men and women distinct spheres argue that while those two spheres are different, neither is inferior to the other. This sort of reasoning was rejected in 1954 in the great school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court declared that separate by its very nature is unequal. That's a pretty good ethical guideline for ordinary life."

Is this really about sexism? The Ethicist acknowledges that there was no "ill intent" on the part of the real estate agent for refusing to shake hands, yet accuses him of being a sexist – even if his religion prescribed such a refusal. The parallel the Ethicist draws is by comparing the situation to the segregation of blacks and whites in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement. That is, not shaking hands with the opposite gender is some sort of separation, and that separation is unequal.

Does Brown v. Board of Education really have anything to say about men and women shaking hands? Frankly, it does not, and the parallel drawn does not seem to go very far either. Brown v. Board of Education was about hundreds of years of segregation of blacks in America and their inferior status in society – where black kids were not allowed to attend the same schools as white kids, hence separation. Refusing to exchange physical contact based on gender differences is not separation. It is a matter of privacy; that is, the privacy of an individual, family privacy, and gender privacy. Maintaining one's privacy does not cause inequality.

Does Brown v. Board of Education say that separate male and female restrooms imply inequality? No, it does not, because most societies generally recognize some level of gender privacy. Or, if we live in separate houses, is that unequal or is that privacy? It is part of what we cherish as family and individual privacy. And in the case of Islamic and Jewish law, privacy also includes abstaining from physical touch of any kind with the opposite sex.

But the Ethicist fails to realize that this is not just about men rejecting the handshake of women. Women of the said faith traditions must also reject the handshake of unrelated men.

What if a male client extended his hand to his female real-estate agent and she refused to shake his hand, citing her religious beliefs? What would the Ethicist say to that? Still sexism, or does she have a right to not be touched by a man? In fact, when the issue of handshaking between genders is addressed in the religious realm, it clearly refers to both sexes, so it is not an issue of gender discrimination. She has a right to not be discriminated against for following her religious belief, whether that means wearing a headscarf or not shaking hands with men. Men have the same rights and responsibility as well to observe their prescribed Hijab and similarly to not shake hands with women, keep their persons to themselves, and maintain privacy.

Men and women have been created with an inherent attraction to one another that many religious traditions attempt to tame. Had the religious tradition said that Americans and Asian-Americans should not shake hands, then that would have been racist, because there is no biological reason that these two should not have contact. In fact, this is not about gender at all; it is mostly about the sacred status of the family. The relationship between a husband and wife and close family members is held in high esteem and closely protected with privacy laws in the Islamic and Jewish traditions alike.

When a Muslim refuses a handshake, (s)he is respecting four groups: 1) his/her (future) spouse, by granting him/her exclusivity of physical touch among all the unrelated members of the opposite gender in the world; 2) the extender of the handshake, by respecting the privacy around the perimeter of his/her body; 3) the handshake extender's spouse and family, for respecting their exclusivity of physical touch; and 4) God and Divine laws. This action, in fact, strengthens the family ties of both sides of the rejected handshake incident.

The Ethicist should have advised the client that one must not take the rejection of a handshake personally and instead be tolerant of the wishes of others to sanctify their sacred family union and privacy. The rejection of a handshake was more of a show of respect than any sort of gender discrimination. After all, it is not as if the real estate agent refused to take on her contract because she was a woman; on the contrary, he worked with her and for her all along.

The practical question herein lies in how to communicate in a sudden situation where one must reject a handshake gesture so as to not cause offense or give the impression of gender discrimination. Perhaps the real estate agent should not have said that he does not "touch women". A more genteel and elegant statement would have been in order, such as, "in my religion, members of the opposite sex do not exchange contact out of respect for each other." Surely such a statement could not be mistaken for sexism, as it does not draw attention to one particular gender refusing to touch another, but that both equally do not touch. Hence it would be perceived rightfully as a matter of religious tradition and not a violation of gender equality.


Sayedeh Kasmai-Nazeran received her Master of Science degree at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Her focus is on conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and human rights in Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. Her most recent paper is entitled "Islamic Feminism: Women's Rights in the Shi'a School of Thought".

Author of this article: Sayedeh Kasmai-Nazeran
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