A Swedish-born Muslim woman who was denied a job opportunity over her refusal to shake a male interviewer’s hand has been awarded compensation after a discrimination lawsuit was filed by the country’s equality ombudsman. Farah Alhajeh, 24, said she was applying for a job as an interpreter at language services company Semantix when her interviewer introduced her to a male executive at the company. Instead of shaking his hand, Alhajeh explained that her religion bars her from shaking the hands of men who weren’t family, and instead put her hand on her heart. But the boss, she said, was infuriated by the gesture and told her to leave the premises immediately.
“It was like a punch in the face,” Alhajeh told The New York Times. “It was the first time someone reacted, and it was a really harsh reaction.” Speaking with the BBC, she said, “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.” She added that gender equality is a concept she values. “In my country … you cannot treat women and men differently. I respect that.”
On Wednesday, a Swedish labor court awarded Alhajeh $4,350 in compensation, ruling that her “refusal to shake hands with people of the opposite sex is a religious manifestation that is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.” In the ruling, the court acknowledged that the company was right to argue that Alhajeh should not be allowed to treat men and women differently under the country’s gender equality laws, but that Alhajeh couldn’t specifically be barred from refusing handshakes based on gender so long as she treated men and women equally by greeting them using the same gesture — such as by placing her hand on her heart.
“The court struck a balance between the interest of gender equality and religious freedom in the workplace,” explained Martin Mork, the head of litigation for the ombudsman’s office.
The issue of the handshake has become a point of contention in Sweden and across Europe in recent years, as some conservative Muslim traditions ban handshakes between members of the opposite sex. In particular, the issue has become a flashpoint for anti-immigrant groups who argue that refusing to shake hands is a violation of gender equality. In 2016, two Muslim teenagers were refused citizenship in Switzerland for refusing to shake the hands of their female teachers, and a woman in France was also denied citizenship for declining to shake hands with male officials at a naturalization ceremony. Not all countries, however, are taking the same approach. In Australia, Muslim students at a Sydney school were allowed to eschew shaking hands with women so long as they greeted them by putting a hand across their heart instead.