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  • To Shake Or Not To Shake

       September 18, 2006

    Last night on the Amazing Race, two Muslim contestants refused to shake hands with some female fellow Racers. As a woman, this really ticked me off. But, as an American who has been taught to be "tolerant" I felt guilty for feeling that way. So the question is, should I be tolerant of sexist behavior done in the name of religion?

    The men in question were perfectly polite, but this isn't about them. It's about whether I should be tolerant of a religious practice that I think is intolerant. I was reading about exactly why Muslims don't shake hands with women. I found a few things like this article on Muslims in the workplace and these opinions of four imans on the subject. Apologists of this custom insist that it's a sign of respect for women. To that I say "bull". It's not about respecting women, it's about treating women as vessels of temptation. As one of the imans says:

    For one of you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle is better for him than that he should touch a woman who is not permissible for him." Narrated by al-Tabaraani in al-Kabeer, 486. Shaykh al-Albaani said in Saheeh al-Jaami', 5045, that this hadeeth is saheeh. This hadeeth alone is sufficient to deter and to instill the obedience required of us by Allaah, because it implies that touching women may lead to temptation and immorality.

    You don't show respect for women by treating them as purely objects of potential sexual desire that must be repressed. You show respect for women by treating us as individuals.

    Not surprisingly, Television Without Pity has an interesting discussion on the topic. One poster compared Muslims refusing to shake hands with women to Jews refusing to eat pork. And that right there illustrates why I'm apparently so intolerant of this religious belief. It's one thing to discriminate against pork. I'm sure the pigs don't mind. It's another to treat one half of humanity like second class citizens. That, I mind.

    Posted by at September 18, 2006 10:02 PM

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    #  September 19th, 2006 7:40 AM      Laura
    I think tolerating it depends on what the results are.

    Stranger/acquaintance refuses to shake hands, result is that you've learned you don't like that guy but nothing really changed in your life, move on.

    Coworker refuses to shake hands, but otherwise treats you courteously, your job is not affected. Document anything significant so if he gets promoted over you, you have a case to show *his* boss if needed.

    Coworker refuses to shake hands AND is an asshat in other ways, sounds like a hostile work environment to me.

    I've had jobs where I've really been snubbed once it's known that I'm a Christian. (And I don't advertise, but these things do trickle out, i.e. Did you watch that show last night? No, we have bible study on Thursday nights.) Being treated like crap in a personal way is just part of life, not everybody will like you and they'll have different reasons for that. Ever worked with a gay man who doesn't like women? (They do exist, it's not all Will and Grace. Same thing.) It's different, of course, if it affects work.  
    #  September 19th, 2006 8:04 AM      kris
    I disagree. Just because something doesn't effect me personally isn't a reason to ignore it if I think it's wrong, is it?  
    #  September 19th, 2006 8:46 AM      Laura
    The world is chock-full of things I disagree with, and a lot of people disagree with me. Where I draw the line is where my freedom is restricted. Refusing to shake hands may be offensive, but it's essentially a benign behavior.

    And I didn't mean "ignore it" so much as I did, "take no action" which isn't exactly the same thing. (In the first scenario - since I gave possible responses for the other ones.)

    Ignoring it would mean pretending it didn't happen. Taking no action means letting that person's behavior inform your opinion about them, which affects how you treat them, i.e. with less regard. I mean, you can't make them shake your hand, and even if you could, it would avail you nothing because their basic opinion about you hasn't changed - so what's the point? And at the end of the day, you don't really want to restrict someone else's freedom because that diminishes you. All you can do is accept that that's how they regard women, and go about proving them wrong by your own customary exemplary behavior. They'll either wise up, or not.  
    #  September 19th, 2006 8:59 AM      kris
    Oh sure, I wouldn't take any action against an individual. I'm not going to bitch at someone for refusing to shake my hand. I'll turn the other cheek (which is an ironic phrase in this discussion), but I'm going to be offended by their actions and think less of them and their religion.  
    #  September 19th, 2006 9:12 AM      Laura
    Fair enough. I guess it all comes down to how "being tolerant" is defined. I think a lot of folks these days think being tolerant of something is tacit approval, but to me it means not taking action against something. Hmmm... I'll have to think about that. How do you think the majority of Americans define tolerant, and is there a left/right divide on that?  
    #  September 19th, 2006 9:15 AM      thegameiam
    I'm an Orthodox Jew, and I'm quite conflicted about the subject myself - I wrote about that conflict here.

    If the contestants had had an illness or disability which prevented them from shaking hands, would you be as offended? If not, then it's not about the lack of handshaking per se - it's about a different cultural perspective on normative behavior...  
    #  September 19th, 2006 9:50 AM      kris
    I guess that's my question--can I be offended by someone else's culture/religion? Because frankly, it does offend me and I do think it's sexist. Should I excuse sexism if it's done in the name of religion or culture?

    It's a hard question because I don't want to offend the person who's following their religion or culture either. They really are just following their religious or cultural norms. I'm offended by the norms, not the person.

    #  September 19th, 2006 1:29 PM      Laura
    Isn't that really at the heart of multi-culturism? The concept that all cutures are equal, no one culture is superior to others?

    But the fact is that some cultures ARE superior. A free culture is superior to one that enslaves people, for example. American culture today, for all it's faults, is better than what we had in 1850. And it's better than what's going on in Sudan right now.

    So I don't think it's contradictory to acknowledge that a persons culture or religion offends you, while at the same time giving the nod to their right to practice it, insofar as it doesn't cause substantial harm to others. Remember this? -
    In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of "suttee" - the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Gen. Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural:

    "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

    So if someone insists on following a custom that is backwards or sexist, let the consequences of doing that while they're living in *our* culture - being despised and/or isolated - happen. Or, they can move to a place where it's socially acceptable.  
    #  September 19th, 2006 2:10 PM      james
    laura, you said pretty much what i was going to say, so i won't keep trying to come up with an intelligent way to say it. :-)

    what does concern me, though, is that many people here are doing their best to eliminate the consequences that should naturally flow from socially unacceptable actions. all of this constant pounding on words like "tolerant" and "multi-culturalism" has led to society holding different standards for different groups of people.

    out of curiosity, how have you been "snubbed" in the past because of your religious beliefs? i have worked with some veeeeerrrry religious people have never seen anything of that sort. just kinda curious.  
    #  September 19th, 2006 2:33 PM      Laura
    >how have you been "snubbed"

    Oh, nothing too serious. From marked dislike from some people to not being invited to unofficial group activities, then being told after that they assumed I wouldn't go because I'm a Christian. I didn't mean to imply that that is the norm, just the occasional thing, never often or severe, just background noise. And I'm not the type to get all up in people's faces about faith, either, so I generate less ill will than folks who do.

    I'd really like to figure out what "tolerant" means, or should mean.
    Is the equation -
    Disapproval + Live and let live = Tolerant?

    What is tolerance as opposed to sanction? Something to think about...  
    #  September 19th, 2006 4:11 PM      thegameiam
    I'll take "disapproval + live & let live" thanks :)

    If someone thinks that I follow backward dietary customs and that modern people shouldn't do such a thing, that's fine with me. I obviously disagree, but hey, free country, right? Now, if a law is passed banning me from observing my dietary laws (don't laugh, some countries have kosher slaughter, and some folks talk about banning circumcision), THAT would be a problem, from my point of view. Disapproval and disagreement, I have no problem with.

    Here's how I see it in practice: I won't work on Saturday, so that means some jobs are right out - retail/food service, etc, largely require Saturday work from most of their full-time employees. My choice limits my opportunity in that matter, and I'm okay with it - the world doesn't have to change for me. However, I'm thrilled that in my current line of work that's not an issue.  
    #  September 20th, 2006 3:36 PM      james
    i dunno, thegameiam -- i'm with you on the disapproval + live & let live thing. but with something like circumcision, i think the situation is a little different. i understand that circumcision is of religious significance in the jewish faith, but it's also (arguably) body mutiliation. it's one thing if an adult chooses to be circumsized, but it's another if a parent makes that choice for a child.

    i'm not coming out for or against circumcision here - truth be told, i'm not really sure where i stand on the issue. but i see a difference between practices undertaken by adults and those chosen for kids by their parents. i'm curious, where do you stand on the issue of christian scientists refusing medical treatment for their children on religious grounds?
    #  September 20th, 2006 4:38 PM      Laura
    That's funny, because when I read thegameiam's comment about circumcision I realized that if I'd had a son instead of a daughter, he probably would have been circumcised as routine matter. No religious reason in my case, and I've read somewhere that there's no particular health reason to do it either. But *female* circumcision is, I think, a crime that should be prosecuted. I just don't care that some people say it's a religious matter. Hypocritical of me, huh? So be it, I guess...

    I guess the difference (in my mind) is that a circumcised man can still enjoy sex, so to me it's not a harmful act, where a "circumcised" woman will not.  
    #  September 20th, 2006 5:23 PM      james
    I think it is harmful to a degree, though certainly not as harmful as female circumcision. And it may be that that the lesser harm is justified by social norms. (Though interestingly, those norms are changings - many fewer newborn US males are circumsized these days. If im not mistaken, in some states eg California, fewer than 50% are circumsized any more.) But that's not my point-

    I was getting the sense that thegameiam was saying that he should be free to practice his religion, in whatever way he wants, and everyone should just leave him alone. I agree, but only to an extent.

    For example, I've worked with many, many jewish people who observe Shabbat. They can't work on the weekends and they leave work on friday so they can get home before the sun goes down. that doesn't bother me one bit -- i dont think that government has any business legislating in this area, and as a private employer i would gladly accomodate all such situations. not a problem

    But he also mentioned Kosher slaughter. I honestly have no idea what Kosher slaughter entails, but I do know that some forms of slaughter, eg Halaal slaughter, are, in my view, somewhat inhumane. If religious tenents are in conflict with animal cruelty laws, I don't agree that the religious right trumps the generally applicable law.

    this is, btw, exactly the way US law currently works - you don't get an exemption from generally applicable laws simply b/c of your religion. (empl div v. smith) [however, as an aside, if you happen to to observe a saturday sabbath, and if state unemployment benefits are tied to your willingness to work on a saturday, you do get an exception. (sherbert v vermer).]

    so, while agree with the general sentiment, I cant agree with thegameiam's 2 examples - i think that both of those are areas where congress should (theoretically) be permitted to curtial religious freedoms. (not that i think they should.)

    it's not different from the religious cults (eg branch davidians) that advicate sex with 10 year olds - it's not "ok" if it's part of your religion.

    #  September 20th, 2006 8:35 PM      thegameiam
    James, paedophillia is a red herring: neither kosher slaughter nor circumcision are in that class.

    I was circumcised as an infant, and I'm grateful, becuase when I converted to Judaism, that meant that I didn't have to do this as an adult (and THAT is a rough procedure).

    If the standard for slaughter is "be nice to the animals" then no slaughter is acceptable, because inherently we're killing them and eating them. If the standard is "cause as little pain as possible" then kosher slaughter is probably the best method, because while there are no stun bolts or anything like that, you don't have the case of the animal getting dissected while still alive the way it can happen at some nonkosher slaughterhouses.  
    #  September 21st, 2006 6:55 PM      james
    in the same class or not, the point is the same - namely, that religion and religious decisions made by one person shouldn't trump laws involving the well being of others. im not arguing for or against circumcision or slaughter methods, im only saying that government should be permitted to legislate in that area if necessary.

    do you think that parents should be permitted to withhold medical treatment from their kids based upon a religious belief?  
    #  September 21st, 2006 8:06 PM      thegameiam
    48 states provide religious exemptions for immunizations. The exceptions? Mississippi and West Virginia.

    So what I'm describing is maintaining the current legal framework on which the country relies.

    Without a relatively blanket religious exemption, the government can take it upon itself to make observance of any religion (or no religion) sufficiently onerous as to cause an undue burden. Really, there is a 'common sense' test here: balancing the needs of a state to protect citizens against the freedom of religion is necessarily a fine and moveable line, and thus flexibility and sensitivity is required.  
    #  September 21st, 2006 10:02 PM      james
    Without a relatively blanket religious exemption, the government can take it upon itself to make observance of any religion (or no religion) sufficiently onerous as to cause an undue burden.

    this is not true. see, eg,
    Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah
    508 U.S. 520 (1993). there, the city tried to do exactly that, and the law was found to be invalid.

    i agree that a common sense approach may be required. however, i also don't support turning ours into a swiss-cheese-legal-system where not all laws apply to all people. and i really dont like the idea of parents making poor choices, based on religion, that result in physical harm to their children.

    most people would agree that a parent who purposely didnt seek treatment for a kids broken arm should lose custody of that kid. why should it be any different if the parent takes the same action but cites a religious reason?

    youre right in that a line needs to be drawn, and i draw it far tighter than im getting the sense that most people around here to. states providing religious exemptions whereby parents can refuse to immunize minors? i definitely do not support those exemptions.  
    #  September 21st, 2006 11:11 PM      thegameiam
    Whether or not you support them, these exemptions are part of state law in the majority of states.

    Take a look at for a summary of the laws around the country - the site is quite biased (they believe that religious exemptions lead to child neglect), but it was the best-written summary I've seen.

    The case of the Santeria practicioners is interesting, but flies in the face of your prior argument regarding kosher slaughter. If the government had merely specified that all animals which are slaughtered must be slaughtered in X manner (when X would render them unfit for religious use), that would have prohibited both Kosher slaughter and Santeria - would that be legitimate?  
    #  September 22nd, 2006 1:30 AM      james
    it's not inconsistent at all - in the babalu aye case, the court found that the city was targeting the religion. in the case of a hypothetical law against a particular kind of slaughter, the purpose of the law would be to prevent animal cruelty. (read the empl div v. smith case if you're interested in the treatment of generally applicable laws.)

    to be clear, im not making any arguments about anything really, especially kosher slaughter. like i said, i dont even know what it entails.  



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