A Swiss secondary school was in the news earlier this week for allowing two Muslim boys not to shake hands with female teachers - a common greeting in Swiss schools. The boys had told the school, in the small northern town of Therwil, it was against their faith to touch a woman outside their family. This has caused a fair deal of outrage as it threatens the very heart and soul of this country’s culture. I will explain.
When we arrived at my 6-year-old daughter's first school in Switzerland (at the ungodly hour of 8.15am) on a sunny morning in October 2013 we were amazed to enter a classroom full of 22 children with each and every one of them seated at their desks quietly reading, without any sign of a teacher present. How is this possible? I questioned myself walking home. And, in the two-and a half years since we have been living here, I have tried to answer that question. A question that is significant in the story that broke this week about two Muslim teenagers being allowed not to shake the hands of their female teachers.
You see, hand shaking is a huge part of Swiss culture - whenever people meet, a handshake is expected, along with good eye contact. And this is taught from a very early age. So it is well established by the time a child starts school, when it becomes a daily ritual. At the beginning of class, the teacher stands at the door and shakes the hand of each and every child as they enter. Again, eye contact is expected (I have seen a teacher hold onto a pupil’s hand and give it a friendly squeeze if their gaze wanders) And at the end of the day, the ritual is repeated.
It is not hard to see how much this teaches and builds mutual respect between teacher and pupil. And this leads on to life after school when the handshake becomes a natural part of meeting and greeting each other, creating a healthy respect for everyone you meet.
So when the secondary school agreed to allow the two Muslim boys, aged 14 and 15, to refrain from shaking hands with their female teachers, the case quickly became the centre of a national debate about Swiss identity.
"In our culture and in our way of communication a handshake is normal and sends out respect for the other person, and this has to be brought [home] to the children in school," Therwil Mayor Reto Wolf told the BBC.
Since living in Switzerland I have travelled from handshaking around twice a year - most likely at an inanely boring work conference, with potential ‘networking contacts’ - to shaking hands most days with everyone I meet. I shake hands at my local choir, which involves doing the rounds of 16 people before I sit down. When I arrive at the school’s parent meetings, I will go around everyone in the room with a handshake and a friendly hello. At all school events my children’s teacher makes a point of shaking the hand of every parent present (which can take a while..)
The handshake is a very normal part of conversation and contact with people – it also means I have a little contact with every single person present - and it does indeed teach respect. It makes you closer to people somehow. And along with the handshake, comes eye contact, which is something, embarrassingly, I found incredibly hard at the beginning. I now realise that when living in the UK I would often say hello to people in passing without even looking at them. How rude. But I have definitely improved since living in Switzerland. Because eye contact and hand-shaking go hand in hand here – and this leads to a very healthy and natural respect for your fellow human being.
And the proof is in the pudding as they say – respect between teachers and pupils has become rather a fragile affair in the modern day classroom – but not here. I will never forget my first day in the most respectful classroom I have ever experienced.