Education authorities in Switzerland ruled on Thursday that students and families who refuse to shake hands with teachers will risk facing a fine of $5000.
The issue first came to light when a school in the northern town of Therwil, near Basel allowed two Muslim students an exemption from shaking their female teacher’s hands.
Two Muslim brothers aged 14 and 15 pleaded their cases saying that it is against their beliefs to shake hands with a female teacher and that physical contact with the opposite gender is only allowed with family members.
The school later decided that the two students would not shake hands with their male teachers either to avoid any discrimination.
The incident sparked debate as it is a Swiss tradition for students to shake their teachers’ hands at the beginning and end of the day.
The local Education department released a statement on Wednesday stating the exemption was lifted because “the public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.” They also added that a teacher has the right to demand a handshake.
The statement said if the students refuse to shake hands again, “the sanctions called for by law will be applied.”
The ruling received a lot of criticism from The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland the views expressed on their website called the ruling ‘totalitarian’ as its intent is to “forbid religious people from meeting their obligations to God.”
The council also said that it would take legal action if any fines were given out.
Around 400,000 Muslims reside in Switzerland and make up 5% of the country’s population of 8 million.
“Shaking hands when greeting one another is part of the culture in Switzerland and practiced as such at Therwil schools,” Therwil’s local council said in a statement last month. “The decision of the school therefore doesn’t reflect the position of the community council in this matter.”
The ordeal for the two boys did not end with the ruling. Once the issue came to light the family’s application for Swiss citizenship filed in January was also put on hold. Authorities have said that they will investigate into the circumstances which brought the boys’ father, an imam at a mosque to Switzerland from Syria over a decade ago.