A Swedish labor court has ruled that a translation company must pay a Muslim woman 40,000 kronor, or around $4,500, in discrimination compensation, after she said her job interview was shut down upon her explaining she would not shake a male worker’s hand for religious reasons.
Farah Alhajeh said she placed her hand over her heart instead of extending it to a male boss at the Semantix offices in her hometown of Uppsala. The 24-year-old told the New York Times that she explained to him she avoided physical contact because of her Muslim faith.
Alhajeh had been hoping to land a job as an interpreter with the company after the May 2016 interview. Instead, she said she was escorted to the elevator, the interview abruptly over.
“As soon as I got to the elevator, I cried,” she told Swedish news channel SVT. “It had never happened to me before.”
For its part, Semantix argued that it is a defender of gender equality and could not hire somebody who would themselves discriminate based on the gender of the person seeking a handshake.
But Alhajeh told the BBC she respects Sweden’s gender equality and thus does not shake anybody’s hand.
“I don’t have any physical contact with men or with women,” she said. “I can live by the rules of my religion and also at the same time follow the rules of the country that I live in.”
Ultimately the court agreed, ruling that while the company was right in its insistence upon gender equality, it could not enforce it by imposing handshakes. Alhajeh’s right to refuse the form of greeting on religious grounds, the court said, is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The labor court said in a statement, as published by the Times, that Alhajeh “adheres to an interpretation of Islam that prohibits handshaking with the opposite sex unless it is a close member of the family.”
Sweden’s Equality Ombudsman had taken up her case. The office told the BBC that the ruling had properly weighed “the employer’s interests, the individual’s right to bodily integrity, and the importance of the state to maintain protection for religious freedom.”
After the decision, Alhajeh told the broadcaster that it was important to “never give in” when defending one’s beliefs.
“I believe in God, which is very rare in Sweden … and I should be able to do that and be accepted as long as I’m not hurting anyone.”
It is not the first time religious and cultural norms in Europe have clashed around the issue of handshakes.
In 2016, two Muslim schoolboys in Switzerland found themselves the subject of international headlines for refusing to shake hands with their teachers as is customary there.
In that case, however, education officials ruled that the significance of the Swiss custom outweighed the boys’ religious objections, and the boys were required to shake their teachers’ hands.
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