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I am a postgraduate student and will start my studies in Europe in the next two months. As you may know, it is prohibited in Islam to touch people of the opposite sex (regardless of their faith) except family members.

In case a girl/woman offers her hand, how can I refuse to shake her hand without offending her?

Note: This Islamic rule has nothing to do with underestimating women ( as some comments/answers mistakenly perceived). It is all about the opposite sex; men don't touch women, and women don't touch men (except their families).

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    Relevant background on Islam.SE: islam.stackexchange.com/questions/5487/…
    – henning
    Oct 3 at 8:18
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    Same question on workplace.SE from several years ago: workplace.stackexchange.com/q/46611/17890
    – shoover
    Oct 7 at 16:28
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    You should be aware that among younger people in the West, especially in academic circles, a significant and growing number decline to identify as either man or woman ("nonbinary", among many other descriptors; "they" as a singular pronoun, etc.). I wonder how your practice will interact with people who self-identify in this way? Oct 7 at 18:28
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    It likely will be helpful if you clarify how you are dealing with this situation outside of your academic environment. Oct 7 at 18:58
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    @Alish: I don't understand how that's relevant. Are you asserting that if someone says, "I am nonbinary", your policy is to ignore that and assign a man/woman label out of instinct? Oct 9 at 14:13
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I intended to stay out of this as such questions are off topic as well as fraught. But....

My suggestion is to just tell them, gently if possible that your religion, or tradition in your culture, forbids you to touch men/women not in your family. If you wear any distinctive clothing it will make some things more obvious to others, but that isn't needed.

I think most reasonable people will just accept it, even if they don't understand it. Those who are unreasonable can be ignored. There are a lot of chauvinists around, as come comments here demonstrate; people who think their standards simply must be adopted by others.

My opinion is that people who don't/can't accept other people as they are have no valid place in academia. There are proselytizers everywhere, of course, both for religion and, for example, western European values. But they have a mission that you don't need to buy in to.

Just say it. Anyone reasonable will accept it. The others won't be convinced but you probably don't want association with them in any case. Haters gonna' hate. Be true to yourself.

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    If the OP is to do this (which seems quite awkward), it's important to note that they must acknowledge women they are introduced to in some way, such as bowing their head or something else as described in the other answers. Are you a woman speaking from experience that this would not offend you? If not, calling women "unreasonable" for being upset over being skipped for a handshake is really pushing it given the historical context of the genders in the academy. Oct 5 at 19:42
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    I accepted this answer, because, first of all, it doesn't misunderstand my question, i.e. doesn't mix it up with sexist beliefs. Secondly, this answer (along with other comments/answers here and somewhere else) taught me that saying "sorry, I cannot shake hand with you due to religious reasons" is not offensive. Though this answer hasn't mentioned, making a respectful gesture when saying this is obvious to me, as I said under another answer.
    – Alish
    Oct 6 at 16:15
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    @Alish The issue here is that your actions are offensive, irrespective of what you believe, what your actions say is that: the discomfort of women for being treated differently because of their gender is less important than your (a male's) social advantage of being able to shake hands with men (who, in general, tend to hold higher positions of power, even in Europe). So you are engaging in a sexually discriminatory behavior because of non-sexist beliefs. The other issue is that I feel Buffy's answer may work better if you were going to the US, in Europe I suspect things are different. Oct 6 at 18:24
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    @Buffy I don't see how these are trivialities. The fact that women have been systemically excluded from academia, and in particular the sciences (which I am assuming is the OPs field based on their profile) means that such actions will uphold existing gender imbalances. Oct 7 at 1:35
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    To me, this answer lacks considering the not offending part of the question. "Defining away" people who do feel offended as unreasonable does not answer the question of how to not offend. (And "it won't offend" is plain wrong) Iow, the question is IMHO more respectful than this answer. Oct 9 at 11:37
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Shaking hands with male academics but not with female academics is something many in European academia (including myself) will find somewhat offensive. Explaining this to be inherently tied to you being a Muslim is also problematic, as this can be seen as implicitly questioning whether others not following this rule are "real Muslims". That said, the principle of "no touching without consent" is widely accepted - and requiring you to shake hands with women would go against that.

The usual recommendation for someone with your objectives would be to forgo handshaking altogether and not shake anyone's hand. In a greeting situation where hands might be shaken, put your hands behind your back (to minimize the risk of someone reaching for them and making things awkward), and bow (more than just a nod, but definitely not deeply) while smiling.

From my experience at conferences, etc, there is not that much handshaking happening anyway (even in pre-Covid times). Most people will be vaguely aware of the cultural and personal issues surrounding it, and vaguely accepting. Some Germans really like to shake hands though. Currently I'd expect that shaking hands would violate Covid safety rules at most European academic events anyway.

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    Regarding "Explaining this to be inherently tied to you being a Muslim is also problematic, as this can be seen as implicitly questioning whether others not following this rule are "real Muslims".": That seems like a general argument against anyone observing any practice associated with their identity, right? This is, presumably anyone practicing anything in observance of a belief-system couldn't explain themself as observing such a belief because it might delegitimize others' identity as believers of the same?
    – Nat
    Oct 3 at 13:14
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    @Nat It's not about observing the practise, it is about the details of how this is stated. "I don't do X for religious reasons." is completely unproblematic in this regard. Also, broader context is relevant: It may be rude to explain to someone how they are not a "real vegetarian" because they eat Parmesan, but to my knowledge no one was ever killed over being a vegetarian in the wrong way.
    – Arno
    Oct 3 at 13:20
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    "In a greeting situation where hands might be shaken, put your hands behind your back (to minimize the risk of someone reaching for them and making things awkward), and bow (more than just a nod, but definitely not deeply) while smiling." I think that in many Western countries, this would likely be interpreted as sort of weird and foreign, but it's probably better to be thought of as the weird foreign guy than the sexist Muslim guy.
    – nick012000
    Oct 3 at 16:07
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    "...as this can be seen as implicitly questioning whether..." those looking for a reason to take offense can usually find it. I don't think that is a good reason for not being truthful. Oct 5 at 15:20
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    @Arno There are, in fact, parts of the world where people can get killed over being a vegetarian in the wrong way, since vegetarianism has gotten tied up with religion there.
    – jakebeal
    Oct 6 at 10:34
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I live in a university community that has both a large number of muslims and a large number of non-muslims. In situations where a handshake might be expected but the Muslim person prefers not to, they put their right hand on their chest. I don't know how widespread this practice is, but in our community it is very well understood and accepted.

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    This is also consistent with highly upvoted and accepted advice at workplace.se workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/46611/… A pragmatic, useful answer.
    – henning
    Oct 4 at 15:00
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    This. You do not refuse the greeting (i.e. the handshake) entirely; you simply change the mode of the greeting (instead of shaking hands, putting your right hand on the chest and do a small bow). I guess this would be far better received than refusing the handshake regardless of explanation.
    – Dohn Joe
    Oct 6 at 14:00
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    @DohnJoe Sure, see my comment under Buffy's answer.
    – Alish
    Oct 6 at 16:28
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I'm answering mostly from German background, where (especially in the East) handshakes are culturally important. But they are not super-important, handshakes can be replaced by other gestures.

Summary

  • Try very hard to initiate your preferred greeting gesture before any hand is actually stretched out to you.

  • Refusing an actually offered hand is far more difficult to do without offending: within Western cultures, refusing to shake hands when offered is a way to intentionally insult.

  • Respectfully not shaking hands with anyone is acceptable, shaking hands with some but not with others is not.

  • Please make super clear that you are respectful: there are others who act out their sexism by shaking hands with men but not with women.
    By putting in extra the effort of being unambiguously respectful in a way that is easily understood also the in the culture you're moving to, you'll actively contribute to a more peaceful society.


More detailed thoughts

  • In academia (and many office-type workplaces) handshakes are not very frequent.

  • In most situations, you can avoid shaking hands in a face-saving (for everyone) and respectful manner. However, you need to be clear and consistent, and [non-verbally] communicate this early on.

    • A handshake signalling peaceful intentions as greeting or farewell can usually be substituted by other gestures.

      • Here in Germany, waving your hand would be a natural and acceptable, but somewhat less formal, substitute. But do get someone to explain and show you the local waving customs. You do not want to accidentally use a flirtatious handwave.
        Waving is done at longer distances. I.e., you initiate the waving greeting long before anyone stretches out their hand to you. This gives you a very nice opportunity to suggest a less formal and non-contact greeting mode.
      • I'd think hand behind your back unusual,
      • what I've seen more often is the hand on chest gesture @David Ketcheson describes.
      • The Japanese please gesture you refer to in one of the comments would also look well to me. Answering an offered hand by this gesture may be perceived as slightly awkward, but I think it is a graceful way to save the situation. The perfect timing would be to initiate it just those few milliseconds before the hand is extended towards you.
    • Hand shaking also serves a business purpose of closing a contract and in this function is a purely professional and formal act.

      You're unlikely to find yourself spontaneously in a situation where this formal handshake is required.
      If you end up getting some award, poster prize or the like, I'd recommend to tell the committee when they inform you that you don't shake hands for religious reasons and ask how to perform the prize ceremony under these circumstances.

  • Making a difference with whom you shake hands according to sex or gender is plain unacceptable (as is making a difference according to religion, skin color, ethnicity, disability, etc.).

    I think this is where lots of the emotions in other answers and comments are about: differentiating between women and men in shaking hands violates an important Western value (treating all sexes and genders equally) in a way that is perceived as unnecessary considering your need to not shake hands with women: both can be reconciled by not shaking hands with anyone.

    Re comment to one of the other answers: this applies also to Muslim women not shaking hands with men but with women. However, so far I've only seen men making such a difference, never women. (We do have a certain self-selection here: several [female] Muslim colleagues who live in Western countries have explicitly told me that they are here because of exactly these Western values.)

    Not shaking hands/touching without making a difference may be seen as reticent or shy - that's entirely acceptable.

In case a girl/woman offers her hand, how can I refuse to shake her hand without offending her?

In the Western cultures we're talking about, refusing an offered hand is an offensive gesture that can be used intentionally to insult. Specifically, if someone's offered hand is refused while others are shaken, this is an even stronger insult.

I do think this cultural/religious conflict can be solved gracefully and respectfully by you - but you need to be aware of this and you need to very clearly and unambiguously communicate that there is really nothing disrespectful in your behavior here. One straightforward way of doing this is is to show respect for the Western value of treating men and women equally.

Otherwise confusion and conflict will result: while your action may be with respectful intention, there are sexists who act in a way that observed from the outside is indistinguishable from you shaking hands with men but not with women.
(Among those, many are Muslim men. Sexists with Western cultural background certainly exist as well, but refusing to shake hands with women is not one of the typical ways how they act out their sexism.)

Your colleagues (of any sex or gender) have likely had encounters with Muslims who are sexist (or bigot) and have refused to shake hands (or worse). You'll likely also have colleagues who were hindered in their carreer and/or personal life by sexism.

As your colleagues should respect you and your reticence in shaking hands, you should respect them and their cultural background.

Depending on regional and situational subtleties, your question may be similar to saying "If someone greets me with a Salaam, how can I refuse this greeting [for religious reasons] without offending them?"

Hence my recommendation to try and make sure beforehand that no hands are extended.


As a side note, I'd recommend to also be very careful about spacing if you come from a culture/setting where you are used to crowds and not having much personal space.

Avoiding handshakes will likely be perceived as more acceptable if it comes together with also maintaining more distance in general. The other way round, if you are perceived as intruding too much into personal space and refusing to shake hands is a combination that is prone to be read as very disrespectful.

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I would like to and a bit of perspective as to why not shaking a woman's hand could easily be perceived as sexist.

As you assert, the rule of not touching anyone of the opposite sex is not necessarily sexist in a vacuum. However, the social context of academia and the world cannot be ignored. Women have systemically been excluded from academia, especially STEM (which I'm assuming is your background based on your profile). As such, the practice of not shaking the hand of anyone of the opposite sex necessarily negatively impacts women more than men.

For instance, imagine attending a conference in which there are 9 men and one woman (this is not at all uncommon in many fields). If you shake the men's hands but not the woman's you will also contribute directly to the isolation of that woman. Thus, in this broader sense, the act can be viewed as sexist. As such, it will likely be perceived poorly by others. The problem is not the act itself but rather the larger context.

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  • "the rule of not touching anyone of the opposite sex is not necessarily sexist in a vacuum" If we consider sexism at the level of indivuals: any given individual will very likely during their whole life apply the not-touching rule to the same sex [but not the other]. (Chances that OP ever becomes a women are very close to zero.) Such an individual doesn't have their skin in the game wrt. the question what the opinion of the opposite sex towards such a practice is. On a systematic level, the rule thus offers a hiding place to sexists, even without any sexist history in the West. Oct 9 at 10:41
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My pragmatic advice would be "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". Islam can't prohibit you anything, you have to decide your behavior yourself in the end.

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    Thereby proving that you have no real principles or beliefs.
    – Buffy
    Oct 6 at 13:40
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    Rigidly adhering to beliefs and pragmatism are antitheses. Pragmatism involves weighing the benefits of a decision case to case, principles dictate behavior in advance.
    – jiggy
    Oct 6 at 15:33
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    So, then, pragmatism trumps belief?
    – Buffy
    Oct 6 at 15:38
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    Regardless, this doesn't really answer the question which is about what the OP should do about not being able to touch women. Oct 7 at 1:57
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    @Buffy: doing in Rome as the Romans do IMHO should not be disregarded as lack of principles or belief. The underlying principle is striving for a peaceful society (i.e. OP's not causing offense). I'd say this may be better expressed as "do not cause conflict by offending/insulting". BUT: under the AFAIK basic Islamic principle of fostering a peaceful society, not offending needs to be weighed against the do-not-touch-rule (which I think is the Islamic answer to a problem that falls under the "peaceful society" principle as well, but for which the Western cultures found a different solution.) Oct 9 at 11:00
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I think I'll start this answer by addressing some of the hostility in the comments (and one of the answers) to your proposed conduct. As an opening observation it is worth noting that this religious practice potentially applies both ways to Muslim men and women, forbidding either of them to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex. There have been legal cases involving Muslim women who have eschewed shaking hands with male colleagues in the workplace for this same religious reason (see e.g., here). So even from a Western-egalitarian perspective, while the practice involves differential treatment of men and women in individual cases, it "balances out" in a holistic sense.

It is also worth pointing out that Western countries also have norms about what physical touching between members of the opposite sex is appropriate in professional settings, and these norms also distinguish between the sexes in some cases. If you doubt this, just think for a moment about what kind of touching of a man in his chest area would be considered innocuous (e.g., a friendly slap on the pectoral muscle), and now think about whether you could do the same with a woman. So really, while some specifics differ, I find it quite laughable that some consider the OP's proposed conduct to be offensive.


Getting to the substance of your matter, universities as institutions tend to be quite accommodating of religious differences in cultural practices. Some universities have even adopted an explicit "Muslim handshake rule" in their policies to explicitly state that this practice is allowed, and is not in breach of other policies (see e.g., here). So at an institutional level, you will probably find that there is general support for the fact that some religious people will not want to touch members of the opposite sex, including shaking hands with them. At an individual level, when dealing with other students, there is going to be a lot of variation, and some small minority of people might find this offensive. I doubt it will be many, but that will depend on the culture at your university. If you are looking for a way to "soften the blow" for people who find this practice strange or offensive, you could consider substituting an alternative method of greeting that does not involve touching (e.g., a nod of the head, a bow, etc.). I'll leave it to you to determine what alternative greeting is consistent with your religious practices and preference. As for dealing with other men, I disagree with the other answer that suggests that you should cease shaking hands with women and men altogether. I don't think that is necessary, so you should feel free to continue shaking hands with other men if that is your preference.

Although he didn't end up mentioning it in his answer, I quite like Buffy's original suggestion that you could print up small cards explaining this practice and hand them to people in the event that they show signs of offence to your practice. This is a practice that has been used successfully in other cases where a person has an individual practice or disability that they think might cause offence to others. (A recent example was shown in the movie The Joker, where he uses cards to explain a disability that causes him to laugh uncontrollably.) The other nice thing about the card idea is that it helps to teach other students explicitly about your cultural practices. Students are at university to learn, so if they learn a little bit of information about Islam at the same time, that is a little educational bonus.

Finally, you should be careful with citing Islam as a blanket reason for your practice, since there are evidently many Muslims who do not use this practice. Thus, if you decide to specify the religious basis for this practice then I think you should be a bit more specific, or just say that your particular type/sect/practice of Islam forbids it.

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    "So even from a Western-egalitarian perspective, while the practice involves differential treatment of men and women in individual cases, it "balances out" in a holistic sense." Thanks to the feminist double standards in Western society, this isn't true. A Muslim woman refusing to shake hands with men is seen as exercising her bodily autonomy as a woman. A Muslim man refusing to shake women's hands is seen as a sexist pig who refuses to accept women as his equals.
    – nick012000
    Oct 4 at 3:45
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    Feminist double standards are real and functionally omnipresent within Western institutions. Behaviour regarded as acceptable for women is unacceptable for men. The article you quoted where a Muslim woman won a court case on this matter also discussed instances where Muslim men lost similar court cases.
    – nick012000
    Oct 4 at 5:04
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    One of the reasons why it is much more acceptable for women* to refuse bodily contact is because many, many more women are on the receiving end of unwanted body contact from men. The overwhelming majority of women has been inappropriately touched, groped or faced even worse sexual misconduct during their life (and no, this doesn't mean that in cannot happen the other way around, it does, but much less often).
    – Sursula
    Oct 4 at 5:55
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    "a friendly slap on the pectoral muscle" is absolutely not ok behaviour in a university. No matter who is doing the touching. I'm maybe ok with someone I know well touching my shoulder or upper arm, but unless life or limb are at stake, no one should be touching anything else.
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 4 at 13:20
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    "Behaviour regarded as acceptable for women is unacceptable for men. " this is completely appropriate. @Sursula is spot on. I have a female colleague who occasionally gives me a hug, I stand there and allow myself to be hugged & take it as a high compliment that I am trusted not to take it the wrong way (especially as I am a foot taller). I wouldn't give a female colleague a hug in any circumstances, for precisely the reasons Sursula suggests. If I liked them enough to hug them, the last thing I would want to do is make them worry about their personal safety even for an instant Oct 5 at 15:38
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The very first time they ask you to shake your hand, you should simply tell them "Sorry, I'm a Muslim" and they will never ever try it again because they are nice enough to understand the religious aspects in my view.

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    – Community Bot
    Oct 4 at 16:40
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    @Tamjeeda Thanks, but this will cause them to think that the reason I don't shake hand with them is that they are not Muslim while this is not the case.
    – Alish
    Oct 4 at 20:06
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    @Tamjeeda In case you think that the accepted answer is similar to yours, I'd say that the main difference is the phrasing of what I'd say; instead of "sorry, I'm Muslim" I'd rather say "sorry, I can't shake hand with you due to religious reasons", and make a respectful gesture at the same time (My preferred one is Japanese Please gesture learnjapanese123.com/popular-japanese-gestures/#3_Please )
    – Alish
    Oct 5 at 19:04
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    @Alish good choice - most Europeans and Americans will understand this gesture and it gives you something to do with your hands.
    – henning
    Oct 6 at 7:40

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