In the debate that has ensued since the closing ceremony at an Oslo school a few weeks ago – where three young students placed their hands on the chest when greeting the principal instead of shaking her hand – a number of politicians and opinion-makers have revealed their ignorance of Islam and have been engaged in scaremongering about Muslims. By portraying the principal as a courageous defender of women’s rights and gender equality, such ill-informed and prejudiced opinions have, either intentionally or unwittingly, used Islamophobic tropes and stereotypes of Muslim men as misogynistic. The principal herself did this by shouing «You will have to work with Norwegian women» – as if the students have expressed a revulsion to work with women. The boys have been ascribed intentions they do not have, and their actions have been portrayed as everything from misogynistic and dangerous to extremist and un-Norwegian. The debate has even spread to Denmark, where a policy spokesperson for the Social Democratic Party believes the boys’ reluctance to hand shake is a expression of a disgusting view of humanity that runs counter to democracy. Support from such quarters has probably given the principal the confidence to say that she stands for the message she conveyed.
The premises undergirding the discourse are completely wrong: This has nothing to do with the oppression of women: There are both men and women who avoid physical contact with the other sex, unless they are close relatives. The allegation of discrimination against women falls under the weight of its own absurdity due to the fact that the reluctance to shake hands can go both ways. The logic of the principal and like-minded people dictates that Muslim women who avoid physical contact with men are hostile to men. This is absurd. There is, of course, no disparagement of the other sex simply because you set different limits for yourself in terms of body contact, depending on which gender with which you interact. On the contrary, putting one’s hand on the heart as a cordial greeting, is a friendly expression of respect. Those who claim that the Islamic norm of avoiding unnecessary physical contact is based on misogyny are misleading, deliberately or unintentionally.
A false understanding of the word haram has also been used in a way that sows fear. From the videos, you can’t hear anyone saying haram. The principal has however claimed this, and used it to justify her reaction. Regardless, it is important to underscore that the reason why someone does not shake hands is not that the other party is considered haram. A human being can never be haram in Islam. Haram simply means «not allowed», and in the jargon used by youth it often refers to something that isn’t okay. In this case, it is then used to express that it isn’t ok that the principal is physically forcing herself upon the boys.
In conclusion, we would like to advise against the creation of a false moral equivalence between victims – children who «are being themselves» and have tried to greet in a friendly and respectful way – and an adult authority figure who acts in an unbecoming manner. Noteworthy, the principal condescendingly calls out to Norwegian-Muslim children and their parents three times that they live in Norway. If someone is to be accused of belittling others, it must be the principal – who obviously believes that Norwegian children and parents at a Norwegian school need three reminders of which country they live in.
The ones who seem to need a reminder are the principal and her supporters: a reminder that the school should be experienced as a safe and inclusive arena for all children – regardless of background.