Two male Muslim high school students in Switzerland refused to take part in the traditional handshake lineup with female teachers, so the school board ruled they will no longer have to.

A long-standing tradition in Switzerland is that male students shake hands with their female teachers. Two students in the canton of Basel-Country, the Swiss equivalent of a state, complained that shaking a woman’s hand was against their religious beliefs as Muslims.

The students argued Islam forbids them from having any sort of physical contact with women who aren’t immediate family members.

The education board decided to exempt the students — aged 14 and 15 — from the hand shaking ritual, to avoid an uncomfortable situation.

“It is difficult when someone refuses to adopt our way of life,” Christine Akeret, who is in charge of the local school board, told the media.

The decision immediately caused an outcry around the country. The teachers’ union called it discriminatory against women. The Swiss Federation of Islamic Organizations said there is no reference in the Quran justifying a refusal to shake a woman’s hand.

Reto Wolf, mayor of the local community where the boys go to school, called for the decision to be reversed.

“In our culture and in our way of communication a handshake is normal and sends out respect for the other person,” Wolf told BBC. “This has to be brought [home] to the children in school.”


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