Muslim woman in Sweden wins case for refusing to shake hands

The Swedish Labour Court ordered a company to pay compensation to a Muslim woman who refused to shake hands at an interview. The job interview was abruptly ended when Farah Alhajeh, aged 24 declined to shake the hand of the male interviewer. She did this for religious reasons.

Instead of shaking hands, Ms Alhajeh simply placed her hand over her heart, as is her customary way to greet people.

Ms Alhajeh had applied for the job of interpreter. She stated that some Muslims avoid physical contact with any member of the opposite sex, apart from with their immediate families.

Although handshakes are a traditional way of greeting in many European countries, there are some Muslims who do not shake hands. The anti-discrimination laws and legislation in some countries make it forbidden for companies to treat people differently because of their gender.

The Ombudsman’s Office, who represented Ms Alhajeh stated that the ruling had considered the employees’ rights, as well as the individual’s rights to body integrity. They also considered the importance of the state in protecting religious freedom.

The company who carried out the interview in Ms Alhajeh’s home town argued that their staff were required to treat all employees equally, and thus they could not permit a staff member to refuse to shake hands because of her gender.

The discrimination ombudsman countered by saying that Ms Alhajeh had done her best to avoid upsetting anyone by placing her hand over her heart as a greeting to both men and women.

The court ruled that while the company was justified in their demand for equal treatment in other aspects, this was not the case when it came to a handshake. Her refusal to shake hands on religious grounds is protected and backed up by the European Convention on Human Rights. Demanding a specific greeting from every employee was detrimental to some people, namely Muslims.

The second reason for the interview to be terminated was because the company felt that Ms Alhajeh’s method of greeting could cause a problem when it came to effectively communicating as an interpreter. The judges were divided on this point, with three supporting the claimant, and two voting against her.

When talking to the BBC after the case Ms Alhajeh stated that she believed that it was important to ‘never give in’, especially when it came to believing that she was right and even though she was in the minority.

Ms Alhajeh said that she had complained to the discrimination ombudsman because this was a difficult issue which she felt important enough to take to a court for a ruling. In her country she lived by the rules of her religion and avoided any form of physical contact with other people. She felt that she could still do this and at the same time abide by the rules of the country she lives in.

She went on to say that she ‘believes in God, something that is rare in Sweden, and should be able to hold her belief and be accepted, as long as she did not harm other people’.

The Swedish Labour Court ruled that the interview company had indeed discriminated against Ms Alhajeh. The company was ordered to pay 40,000 kroner (£3,420) as compensation.

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