BBC

Just A Handshake? Touchy Subject For Pious Muslims In The West

A series of recent legal cases across Europe have questioned whether those who refuse to shake hands with people of the opposite sex for religious reasons are guilty of discrimination.

In France, from Niqab bans to handshake holdouts.
In France, from Niqab bans to handshake holdouts.
Martin Greenacre

PARIS — The traditional Muslim veil has long been a source of conflict in the West over integration and gender equality. Now, another familiar practice is prompting debate: the handshake.

Last week, it was reported that a Muslim couple had been denied Swiss citizenship after refusing — for religious reasons — to shake hands with people of the opposite sex during their interview. Officials cited a lack of respect for gender equality as the reason for their decision.

It is not the first time the topic of handshakes has caused a stir in the country. In 2016, two Syrian immigrant brothers refused to shake their female teacher's hand, arguing that Islam did not permit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex who is not a family member. Shaking the teacher's hand before and after class is a long-standing tradition in Switzerland, and the regional educational authority ruled that parents of children who refuse would face a fine. Swiss Muslim groups disagreed over whether the brothers were justified in refusing.

The Swiss Federal Court has previously rejected a local ban on wearing hijabs in schools. The board of education, however, ruled that forcing the students to shake the teacher's hand was a reasonable intrusion on their religious beliefs, since "it did not involve the central tenets of Islam," The New York Times reports.

Hafid Ouardiri, a Swiss mediator who is active in the fight against radicalization, told Geneva-based newspaper Le Temps: "We need to take this case very seriously. It is unacceptable that these students refuse to shake their teacher's hand in the name of Islam Above all, our religion teaches respect." The newspaper asked whether the refusal could be the sign of a "slide" towards radicalism, after one of the boys posted videos of soldiers on Facebook in which there was "no explicit violence, but a black flag, identical to those used by the Islamic State group, was visible."

She puts her hand to her heart.

Also last week, a Swedish Muslim woman won compensation after her job interview was cut short when she refused to shake the male interviewer's hand. Sweden's Labor Court ruled that she had been discriminated against, since there was no evidence her refusal would cause difficulties in her work as an interpreter, The Local reports. The woman had argued that when both men and women are present, she greets them the same way, by putting her hand to her heart.

France, where the battle over the Muslim veil has been a major issue for years, has also found itself at the center of the handshake debate. In 2017, an Algerian women was denied citizenship after she refused to shake the hand of a senior official during her naturalization ceremony. Le Figaro reports that the ruling was recently upheld by the Council of State, France's highest administrative jurisdiction. The government claimed that the actions of the woman, who has been married to a French man since 2010, "reveal a lack of assimilation."

The question of gender boundaries is not limited to Islam. When Mike Pence became Vice President of the United States, an interview from 2002 resurfaced in which the evangelical Christian revealed that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. A 2015 survey by National Journal found that several female aides in Washington reported being barred from "driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression," reports The Atlantic. The magazine argues that similar policies harm women's progress by cutting them off from powerful people for long parts of the day.

Also Orthodox Judaism has rules forbidding a man from touching a woman who isn't his wife. Earlier this year, a Jewish candidate in a local election in Antwerp, Belgium, caused controversy by initially refusing to shake hands with women, the Flanders news site VRT NWS reports. He planned to run representing the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (CD&V). One of the party's leaders, Hendrik Bogaert, wrote on Twitter that a man who refuses to shake a women's hand "doesn't belong on a CD&V list."

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LE TEMPS
Based in Lausanne, Le Temps ("The Times") is one of Switzerland's top French-language dailies. It was founded in 1998 as a merger among various newspapers: Journal de Geneve, Gazette de Lausanne and Le Nouveau Quotidien.
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VRT NWS is a Brussels-based website delivering news focusing on the Flanders region of Belgium. It has websites in Dutch, French, German and English.
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The BBC is the British public service broadcaster, and the world's oldest national broadcasting organization. It broadcasts in up to 28 different languages.
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LE FIGARO
Le Figaro is a French daily founded in 1826 and published in Paris. The oldest national daily in France, Le Figaro is the second-largest national newspaper in the country after Le Parisien and before Le Monde, with an average circulation of about 331,000 copies Its editorial line is considered center-right. The newspaper is now owned by Dassault Media.
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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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