Shaking a teacher’s hand before and after lessons is a Swiss tradition—one, however, that some Muslim students rejected because it meant touching someone of the opposite sex. On Wednesday, a regional authority said all students, regardless of religion, must follow the tradition or face a fine of up to $5,000.
Two Syrian students, whose family is seeking asylum and who followed a strict interpretation of the Quran, were previously exempted by their school from shaking their teacher’s hands. The exemption made national news, however, prompting Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga to say, “The handshake is part of our culture.” The pushback continued, as the BBC reports:
The school, in the small northern town of Therwil, had tried to find a compromise in the matter by deciding the boys should not shake hands with male or female teachers.
Later, after considerable media attention, the school turned to regional authorities to settle the matter.
The authorities said in a statement on Wednesday that “the public interest concerning gender equality as well as integration of foreigners far outweighs that concerning the freedom of belief of students.”
Around 350,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, making up 5 percent of the country’s population. Switzerland’s efforts to integrate Muslims into society have made international headlines in recent years. Swiss voters in 2009 banned the construction of minarets at mosques, while one region banned burqas. Women who wore them could face a $10,000 fine. During this debate over handshakes, the family’s asylum application has been on hold.