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Muslim Woman Who Refused Handshake And Then Suffered Discrimination Wins Court Case

Updated at 9 a.m. ET, Friday

A Swedish labor court has ruled that a translation company must pay a Muslim woman 40,000 kronor, or around $4,500, in discrimination compensation, after her job interview was shut down upon her explaining she would not shake a male worker's hand for religious reasons.

Farah Alhajeh said she placed her hand over her heart instead of extending it to a male representative of Semantix at their offices in her hometown of Uppsala. The 24-year-old told the New York Times that she explained to him she avoided physical contact because of her Muslim faith.

Alhajeh had been hoping to land a job as an interpreter with the company when she went in for the May 2016 interview. Instead, she said she was escorted to the elevator, the interview abruptly over.

"As soon as I got to the elevator, I cried," she told Swedish news channel SVT. "It had never happened to me before."

For its part, Semantix argued that it is a defender of gender equality — and it says it could not hire anyone who would discriminate based on the gender of the person seeking a handshake.

Attorney Lars Bäckström, who represented Semantix at court, told NPR in a statement that it was actually the male worker who had his dignity violated, when Alhajeh rejected his handshake.

"He was very upset and felt offended by her refusal," he said.

Bäckström said the law should have protected the man in this instance.

"According to the Swedish Discrimination Act, it is the victim's experience that determines whether or not a violation has taken place, as long as the reaction is not disproportionate," Bäckström said.

Because the court did not take the man's dignity into account, Bäckström said, it failed to strike a balance between gender equality and religious freedom.

But Alhajeh told the BBC she respects Sweden's gender equality and thus does not shake anybody's hand.

"I don't have any physical contact with men or with women," she said. "I can live by the rules of my religion and also at the same time follow the rules of the country that I live in."

Ultimately the court agreed, ruling that while the company was right to insist upon gender equality, it could not enforce it by imposing handshakes. Alhajeh's right to refuse the form of greeting on religious grounds, the court said, is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The labor court said in a statement, as published by the Times, that Alhajeh "adheres to an interpretation of Islam that prohibits handshaking with the opposite sex unless it is a close member of the family."

Sweden's Equality Ombudsman, which defended Alhajeh, told the BBC that the ruling properly weighed "the employer's interests, the individual's right to bodily integrity, and the importance of the state to maintain protection for religious freedom."

After the decision, Alhajeh told the broadcaster that it was important to "never give in" when defending one's beliefs.

"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."

It is not the first time religious and cultural norms in Europe have clashed around the issue of handshakes.

In 2016, two Muslim schoolboys in Switzerland found themselves the subject of international headlines for refusing to shake hands with their teachers as is customary there.

In that case, however, education officials ruled that the significance of the Swiss custom outweighed the boys' religious objections, and the boys were required to shake their teachers' hands.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amy Held is an editor on the newscast unit. She regularly reports breaking news on air and online.