Farah Alhajeh said that she greeted men and women the same way in mixed company, by bringing her hand to her chest., arguing 'we live in a society where you have to treat women and men the same.' She added, 'I know that because I am Swedish.'
A Stockholm labour court has awarded 40,000 kronor ($4,350) in financial damages to a Muslim woman in Sweden who claimed she was discriminated against in a job interview for refusing to shake hands on religious grounds. Farah Alhajeh, aged 24, was interviewing for a job as an interpreter at language services company Semantix in Uppsala, in May 2016, when the person conducting the interview offered to introduce her to a male boss. Ms Alhajeh said she placed her hand on her heart as a greeting, smiled, and explained she needed to avoid physical contact because she was Muslim. In an interview with the New York Times, she said was immediately shown to the elevator, explaining ‘it was like a punch in the face,’ adding ‘it was the first time someone reacted, and it was a really harsh reaction.’ The case was brought by Sweden’s equality ombudsman and the Swedish labour court said in a statement, Ms Alhajeh ‘adheres to an interpretation of Islam that prohibits handshaking with the opposite sex unless it is a close member of the family,’ and concluded ‘the woman’s 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.’
Gender equality defence
In response, the company interviewing Ms Alhajeh argued staff members were required to treat men and women equally, and could not allow a staff member to refuse handshakes based on gender. The labor court ruled 3 to 2 that while the company was right to require that employees treat men and women equally, what matters is consistency and the court said it struck a balance between the interest of gender equality and religious freedom in the workplace. Lars Backstrom, representing the company, said the labour court’s ruling had gone against Swedish laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace because of gender. He explained in an e-mail to the newspaper, ‘the Muslim woman did not take the boss’s hand because he is a man. When it comes to employees who meet clients and other external people, it’s up to the employers to decide whether employees can manifest their religious or political affiliations.’