“She made it as though I was going to rape her.”
This was what one man said to me about the Muslim woman refusing to shake his hand. I’ll elaborate on this story, and then another remarkable story on the opposing side.
‘It really is the peak of chivalry isn’t it? When men can behave as such with each other.’
Some years ago, I was having supper with a group of people who were, like me somewhat, part-time activists doing what we can individually and sometimes collectively to change what we can. Half of them in this group were lawyers or legally trained, as was I. So whenever the topic of rights came about, it can get quite heated at times.
It is the custom that before a judge enters a courtroom, lawyers on both sides would introduce each other. This chap, a strong advocate for freedom of speech and expression, was telling me how offended he was when a female Muslim lawyer gestured uncourteously to not shaking his hand.
A rude greeting.
As he explained, I agreed with him that how she did it was rude especially considering how customary and common this shaking of hands take place particularly among non-Muslim and a significant portion of Muslim lawyers. Her facial and bodily gesture was not pleasant for someone offering a hand.
However, I disagreed with him strongly that it was her right to not shake his hand and to not accept this norm of shaking hands. There are many ways to acknowledge the presence and respect for another person, and one should not be forced to follow the norm, or ‘norm’, especially if it contradicts with their principles.
The position in New Zealand and Argentina.
So I asked him then. ‘If you were in New Zealand, and met a group of people in an area where it is the accepted norm for people to greet each other by having their foreheads and noses touch together at once, would you be okay? Or in Argentina where men kiss each other’s cheeks once on top of shaking hands, this okay for you? Despite you knowing all your life that your world and whatever worlds you see on tv do not do the same way.’
‘How would your immediate reaction be if another man approaches your face closely with his with no announcement? As you may be genuinely surprised, that reaction may insult him, even if you explain later the difference in your culture – as damage is done. You’re in his land and don’t follow the way of his people. So it’s not easy. What more if it is a matter of religious principles like that female Muslim lawyer and not mere cultural discomfort.’
The Islamic position.
In general, a man and woman that is not of close blood relations, to put it simply, cannot have skin on skin contact. Some scholars take the position that in some exceptional situations, it is allowed provided with a few conditions. And there are stories in recent times where this exception is applied by the legal scholars themselves and people of knowledge.
But here’s another exception, of exceptional respect. Once one of the scholars of Tareem went to study for his Masters Degree at a university in a foreign land where it was common for men and women to mix about and shake hands, quite unlike the environment he knows to be legal, or like that which he was raised in.
On top of that all of his, like the teachings in the Islamic tradition here, is to always try the best not to insult anyone. Multiple times I’ve seen students doing wrong things repeatedly and it’s remarkable how tactful the teachers here make attempts to correct him – often by addressing the whole class in general terms, not immediately when the wrong was committed.
So this scholar went around carrying a lot of books on both hands. That way anytime he encountered any woman (or man) in greeting, he didn’t have to shake her hand but still would greet her politely and make a subtle apology by gesturing how his hands are full.
Some people I know would insist this is not a good and practical way to go about it. But I do think that really sometimes we ought to cool it, not go until ends of the world debating something like this and understand that some people will apply what’s comfortable to them. What comes first: principle and respect.
*The picture is of two mid teenage boys walking home carrying groceries a few streets from where I live. Shortly before this photo was taken, they were holding hands. This is common here. One Westerner who respected this norm but still found himself unable to adapt, said ‘it really is the peak of chivalry isn’t it? When men can behave as such with each other.’