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Gender Equality Meets Muslim Handshake Morality Issue in Sensitive Sweden

Sweden's perennial drive for multiculturalism and equality sometimes yields awkward situations. A Muslim woman has recently been forced to quit her job as a teacher after a handshake row. The 20-year-old woman resigned after being told that shaking hands was obligatory, if she wanted to keep her job.

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Fardous el-Sakka had been doing shift work at a school in Helsingborg in southern Sweden, since August after graduating there. In accordance with her beliefs, the Muslim woman chose specifically not to shake hands with her male colleagues, preferring a modest bow instead.
Some of the male staff members took offence over her overt refusal to shake hands and took the matter to the school principal, who subsequently explained to el-Sakka that all staff members were required to respect the institution's values, including gender equality, if they wanted to keep their job.

"The man felt tremendously discriminated against by her," Helsingborg school principal Lidija Münchmeyer told the Swedish tabloid newspaper Expressen. "If there is anyone who has been discriminated against and mistreated here, it is the male employee," she insisted. "The school doesn't differentiate between people or treat them differently. That's what we anticipate from our students, which is why the staff is expected to do likewise," she added.

El-Sakka quit her school job in protest and proceeded to report the matter to Sweden's Equality Ombudsman.

There have been a number of similar rows over handshaking in Sweden recently, owing to the growing number of Muslims in the wake of the migrant crisis. Most of the cases, however, involve men who refuse to shake hands with their female colleagues for religious reasons.

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In July, a Muslim man was fired from Helsingborg Council over a handshake dispute. Council bosses said his stance was incompatible with their equality policy, and that he could no longer work there. In June, a Muslim border inspector stirred a debate in a similar case. Instead of shaking hands with his female colleagues, he was said to have placed his hand over his heart as a greeting, Swedish national broadcaster SVT reported.

However, the most high-profile case involving handshakes was that of Yasri Khan, a former Green Party member, who resigned in April after a controversy he had stirred by refusing to shake a reporter's hand during an interview.

Shaking hands (and touching) members of the opposite sex when not related, is not permissible for Muslims according to the teachings of Islam. According to various assessments, the number of practicing Muslims in Sweden, a nation of roughly 10 million, varies between 100,000 and 500,000.

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