Shaking hands: Did COVID-19 change public opinion?

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Shaking hands: Did COVID-19 change public opinion?

The shaking of hands is no longer the cultural norm within Western societies due to COVID-19. What does this mean for Muslim communities?

”From this moment on we will stop shaking hands,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on March 9th 2020, in a conference on the COVID-19 pandemic.[1] While this was a major change for many people in the Netherlands, the Muslim community felt relief as they have regularly been critiqued for not wanting to shake hands. Within Islam, it is forbidden to shake hands with the opposite sex unless it is a close family member.[2] However, in many European countries, this belief has not always been widely accepted.

For instance, in 2016, the Dutch House of Representatives disagreed with a judge’s ruling on the matter. In this case, a Muslim woman was rejected at a job interview for not wanting to shake hands. She went to court, and the judge agreed that one should not be discriminated against on religious grounds. However, the House of Representatives disagreed, stating that not shaking hands is at odds with Dutch values.[3] A similar case occured in Switzerland in 2018, when a Muslim couple refused to shake hands with people of the opposite sex during their citizenship interviews. For this reason, their applications were denied. Swiss authorities argued that the couple needed to integrate within the Swiss community and not shaking hands was a sign that they were not willing to do so.[4]

Stories like these can be found all over Europe. They all share a similar reasoning: in western, European societies, there is an expectation that everyone is willing to shake hands. Then, in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire world. Suddenly, the norm shifted from shaking hands to greeting each other without touching. What does this mean for the European norm? Is it only a temporary change, or is not shaking hands the new norm? And what does this mean for Muslim communities in Europe?

Who may decline the handshake?

Islam is not the only religion to not allow the shaking of hands with people of the opposite sex. In the Danish Lutheran Church, male clergy did not have to shake hands with newly ordained female pastors. They also had the right not to conduct services with female pastors. These practices were supported until as late as 2007.[5] In 2007, controversy arose when a female Muslim politician refused to shake hands with men. Suddenly, people saw this as being backward and discriminatory toward women. Why was it not a problem when the Lutheran clergy refused to shake hands? Journalists raised this question, which set in motion a debate on the matter. After the bishops held a meeting, they decided it was indeed an outdated practice. The bishops concluded that male clergy who refused to shake hands with their female colleagues could get fired.[6] However, what is interesting to observe is that the decision to shake hands was not a topic of public debate until a Muslim politician was the one refusing. Why is this the case?

Blend in or stand out

“It also means that in Sweden, we greet each other. One shakes hands with both men and women,” said Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in 2016.[7] Similarly, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated in 2017 that “shaking hands is one of the practices that are ‘normal’ in the Netherlands, and that any member of Dutch society should be expected to shake hands with both men and women.”[8]

What both statements show is that shaking hands is a cultural norm. There is a sense of nationalism to it: ‘to be an upright citizen of this country you must shake hands’. In many European countries, not shaking hands has negative connotations and is seen as an expression of disrespect or moral disapproval.[9] This belief, combined with the fact that Muslims only refuse to shake hands with people of the opposite sex, comes across as rejecting gender equality.[10]

While shaking hands is a cultural norm in most Western countries, there are no laws forcing people to shake hands. However, in 2018, Denmark decided it was time to change their stance and a new law required the shaking of hands as part of the citizenship naturalisation ceremony.[11] “A handshake is how we greet each other in Denmark,” argued Immigration Minister Inger Støjberg.[12] In 2020, a man was denied citizenship in light of this new law. He will only be able to receive Danish citizenship if he changes his mind within two years and agrees to shake hands with authorities at the ceremony.[13]

Did the pandemic kill the handshake?

While the cultural norm was to shake hands with other people as a sign of respect, the coronavirus pandemic changed the rules of the game. Some doctors even believe the handshake will not be making a comeback after the pandemic.[14] It is not easy to change existing gestures and practices, but it is also not impossible. In the past there have been various other forms of greeting, like bowing or taking off one’s hat.[15] Therefore, it is not unthinkable that a different way of greeting will become the new norm. For Muslims, this is likely to be a relief. Previously, they have been expected to adapt to the dominant norm in society even though it made them uncomfortable.[16] The abandonment of shaking hands could make society more inclusive to everyone, while also preventing the spread of germs. According to Gregory Poland, who works as an infectious disease expert, “when you extend your hand, you’re extending a bioweapon.” He says the custom is outdated and has no place in a culture that believes in germ theory.[17]

To conclude, the refusal to shake hands has caused plenty of public debates across Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the dominant norm of shaking hands. Some believe this change will be permanent, but changing existing customs is not easy.[18] Nevertheless, an adjustment might be beneficial for the entire society; who would not want an inclusive society with fewer germs flying around?

Laura Waardenburg

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[1] Not Shaking Hands: The New Normal? – Religious Matters

[2] Muslim Job Applicant Who Refused Handshake Wins Discrimination Case in Sweden (Published 2018)

[3] Tweede Kamer: Moslima moet gewoon handen schudden | Nieuws

[4] Muslim couple denied Swiss citizenship over no handshake

[5] Sjørup, L. (2009). Shaking Hands, Shaking Theologies. In Pieties and Gender (pp. 99-119). Brill.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Muslim Job Applicant Who Refused Handshake Wins Discrimination Case in Sweden (Published 2018)

[8] Baumgartner, C. (2019). (Not) Shaking Hands with People of the Opposite Sex. Civility, National Identity and Accommodation. In: Jonathan Seglow and Andrew Shorten (eds.), Religion and Political Theory: Secularism, Accommodation and the New Challenges of Religious Diversity. London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 119-136.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Denmark: Opposition Grows to ‘Anti-Muslim’ Handshake Plan

[12] Ibid.

[13] Man denied Danish citizenship over handshake

[14] Longarts Amphia over de erfenis van de coronacrisis: ‘Handen schudden? Gaan we nóóit meer doen’

[15] Not Shaking Hands: The New Normal? – Religious Matters

[16] Ibid.

[17] Will Covid-19 end the handshake?

[18] Baumgartner, C. (2019). (Not) Shaking Hands with People of the Opposite Sex. Civility, National Identity and Accommodation. In: Jonathan Seglow and Andrew Shorten (eds.), Religion and Political Theory: Secularism, Accommodation and the New Challenges of Religious Diversity. London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 119-136.