126

Muslims have some restrictions when it comes to interacting with members of the opposite sex. Usually many people in USA and Europe do not know that, for example, a Muslim man cannot shake hands with a woman. I must not touch members of the other sex at all except my spouse and siblings. This is in fact a law for me.

As a Muslim who usually meets new people in my workplace, how can I politely explain to them this issue?

  • 18
    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/7531/472 – Monica Cellio May 13 '15 at 20:46
  • 77
    Comments removed. This is not the place to discuss your feelings about religious people, non-religious people, women, men, wombats, or different cultures. – Monica Cellio May 13 '15 at 22:12
  • 5
    user36054, what perceptions do you have about how this restriction will be received in your role and your culture? Is shaking hands very important and you anticipate trouble if you demur, or is it normal but you think it won't be that big a deal if you don't and you're looking for a professional way to bring that about? Do you think people are likely to be offended by your handshake abstinence? – Monica Cellio May 13 '15 at 22:29
  • 21
    Note-to-certain-people : Please refrain from "side-swipes" here. Workplace is not the place for it. If you don't have a positive comment to make, then it's better to refrain from commenting. OP wrote a simple question, either join in a positive manner or .. if you dislike it then downvote and leave. This is really embarrassing – Adel May 15 '15 at 14:17
  • 3
    Is there not already a convention for greeting women? Many cultures have different salutations. Clearly some muslim cultures do not shake hands with women, so what do they do when they meet women? – fredsbend May 16 '15 at 16:11
169

I think a simple, "I am sorry, I have religious restrictions on touching members of the opposite sex, but I am very pleased to meet you." will do for most reasonable people. It will also serve to identify the real bigots right from the start so you know what you are dealing with right up front. I wish I could say you won't run into bigotry.

Some other thoughts: Talk to your religious leader about the issue and how others handle it. Alternatively, explain the problem to your boss and see what is suggested.

I am about as big a feminist as it is possible to be, but I have worked with many men who come from cultures and religions where touching women they are not married to is not considered to be polite or is outright forbidden to them. I am not going to be insulted if such a man does not shake my hand.

What is important is how he treats you when he has to work with you. If someone doesn't shake my hand but listens to me and treats me as a respected professional, then no big deal. If not shaking my hand is a part of a pattern of treating me as less than or incapable, then yes it is a problem. The people who have treated me the most disrespectfully were a few Christians who believed that women shouldn't work (Note that only a small minority of Christians believe this) - they actually would not even acknowledge my presence in the room or talk to me in any way whatsoever. That indeed made it difficult for me to perform my job. Refusing a handshake does not, and I would not consider it sexual discrimination or harassment in isolation without a pattern of disrespect in other areas or outright discrimination in job assignments etc.

added this comment from below from @shoover2

I have encountered this situation in an interview, and the male interviewee did something similar. He started to extend his hand, but then placed it over his heart as he told the female interviewer, "I'm sorry, but my religion doesn't allow me to shake your hand." Everyone took it in stride and the interview proceeded as normal. I thought it was handled very diplomatically.

Yes, this is respectful and still allows the person to follow his beliefs.

  • 49
    +1 for suggesting seeking advice from a religious leader, I can't believe this is a remotely new question for Muslims living and working in Western countries. – Carson63000 May 14 '15 at 0:17
  • 11
    Some people don't want to shake hands for other than religious reasons (e.g. extremely wary of catching germs or some form of OCD). How do they cope? I don't think saying "Sorry, I have some insert arbitrary reason to not shake your hand" helps. It just makes it awkward. There has to be some graceful way to avoid shaking hands without appearing rude. – Brandin May 14 '15 at 7:21
  • 35
    "I am sorry, I have religous restrictions on touching members of the opposite sex, but I am very pleased to meet you." may be simple, but try saying it out loud while somebody stands there with their hand extended. It'll probably feel like the longest sentence you've ever spoken! I think any answer needs to include some body-language related deflection to go along with what's being said – Ben Aaronson May 14 '15 at 11:13
  • 25
    I attempted to shake hands with a Muslim woman and she responded in exactly this fashion. It was polite. And I learned something new and useful from the direct explanation. – Willie Wheeler May 14 '15 at 16:14
  • 19
    This "hold hand over heart" gesture is quite common. At a recent graduation ceremony in Malaysia, I witnessed this as the students were receiving their diplomas from the Chancellor. – Burhan Khalid May 15 '15 at 5:34
111

As I am a Muslim and usually meet new people in my workplace, how can I politely tell them this issue?

An easy way to do this is to not shake hands with anyone.

This avoids the problems related to sexism entirely. You can say something, "I prefer not to shake hands due to my religion" if someone tries to shake your hand.

What does the government actually say about such things?

If you live in the United States, I would take time to read through the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission position on exactly this subject. You will find this issue is not at all clear-cut.

There are multiple other factors at play with whether it's considered something an employer can reprimand you for. I would have to quote much of that article to make this point, here, however, but it does a great job articulating the religious freedom vs sexual discrimination aspects of this.

Going forward

It's entirely possible this will affect your abilities to perform well for certain types of jobs. This is something to keep in mind.

I would advise strongly against taking customer facing positions in cultures where handshaking is expected.

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – enderland May 15 '15 at 14:17
  • 20
    Emphatically yes to this. Almost nobody will care if you don't shake hands, but many people will be offended if you have a blanket policy of discrimination in choosing to whom you respect, regardless of its motivation. I'm assuming that OP has respect for all people, and a fundamental way we demonstrate that in Western culture is by treating all people equally. – Sarah G May 17 '15 at 0:48
  • 2
    No. If one of your workmates catches you shaking hands with a man, outside of work, you'll have some awkward explaining to do. It's far better to be completely honest. As a Muslim living in a largely non-Muslim country, I face this issue regularly. I always say, "My religion forbids me from touching any woman outside my family" and there's no problem. Once, a woman thought I had said "... touching anybody outside my family", and chewed me up later when she saw me shake hands with a man. Better to avoid this. – Dawood ibn Kareem Oct 29 '17 at 1:46
90

Something I'm surprised no-one has mentioned - in addition to saying clearly and plainly why you can't shake hands, replace the handshake with a different, equally respectful physical gesture.

For example, a bow.

(not a big bow from the waist, which could seem embarrassingly theatric - a subtle but noticeable dipping of the head and shoulders in their direction will be understood as respect)

This is important so the other person isn't left hanging, feeling foolish or rejected because their gesture wasn't reciprocated. Reciprocate the gesture, but differently. Then explain why.

To give an extreme parallel - in countries hit by the recent West African ebola outbreak, shaking hands was considered unadvisable. What succeeded was replacing the handshake with a non-contact physical gesture (they went with placing a fist over the heart, like a solidarity gesture). Asking people to do no physical gesture at all when greeting was not very successful - it felt very cold.


Since people will be surprised that you didn't shake their hand, I'd suggest also going out of your way to also do other things which communicate warmth, good intentions and attentiveness, to minimise any lingering awkwardness.

Say the person's name, make eye contact, smile warmly. And explicitly say that you look forward to working with them. You want to make it absolutely, explicitly clear that you're very happy and comfortable to work together.

For example:

[Smile, nod towards the extended hand so you acknowledge it, then make eye contact] I'm very pleased to meet you, Susan. [Bow slightly]

[If they look surprised or confused - smile warmly and say something like] I'm sorry, my religion only allows me to shake my wife's hand. But I look forward to working with you.

[If they don't look surprised or confused, make sure you take a minute to explain quietly later on, in case they are simply good at hiding such things]

Note how I worded the explanation in such a way that it comes across as, 'this is something reserved for my wife', not 'this is something not for people like you' - the positive side, not the negative side. Pro-wife not anti-women. (obviously, 'future wife' if you're unmarried).

It'll be obvious that the rule only applies to women from context, there's no need to labour the point. The key things to communicate are:

  • that you are reciprocating their friendly greeting
  • that it's religious not personal
  • that it's about reserving something for marriage (so it can't be misinterpreted as being anti-women)
  • that it only applies to this one thing (handshakes), and that every other aspect of your working relationship is business as usual
  • 38
    The "reserved for my wife" phrasing (nice!) also conveys that the situation would be exactly the same were the genders reversed, so it's clearly not about gender. Observant Jewish and Muslim women have to dodge handshakes with men, too. – Monica Cellio May 14 '15 at 14:50
  • 4
    I just wrote an answer on the Mi Yodeya question based on (and citing) your answer here. Thanks for this contribution! – Monica Cellio May 14 '15 at 15:06
  • 8
    This is a really good answer. In some countries bowing is common for greetings. I'm sure most people would recognize the gesture (maybe thinking it's a custom of the OP's country and not questioning it) – algiogia May 15 '15 at 8:03
  • 5
    @fredsbend you're missing the point (probably deliberately). Of course it's "about gender"; she's simply pointing out that it's not necessarily just singling one gender out, and usually applies to both in comparable ways. It's really, really obvious that's what she means. – user568458 May 16 '15 at 18:10
  • 3
    It may be worth noting that many Muslims will consider it forbidden to bow to another person. We (and I wouldn't dare to presume to be speaking for all Muslims) bow only to Allah. – Dawood ibn Kareem Oct 12 '15 at 8:58
13

Indeed, this may be awkward to deal with. But graciousness goes a long way. In a sense, body language is universally recognized. I.E I could shake a woman's hand in a cold manner , and alternatively acknowledge her presence without touching in a kind manner.

Like when I'm walking down a hall and pass someone, I nod my head at them just say "hi" - I'm not shaking hands or touching ... but the gesture is usually recognized.

A simple "I'm sorry but my beliefs forbid me from physical contact with the opposite sex" followed by a genuine smile and "it's a pleasure to meet you" ; could hardly be taken as anything offensive.

I mean, sure the beginning is awkward. But tell me how very often we have awkward encounters in this giant world? Those bathroom doors opening at the same time... the elevator being rushed while you're leaving...

I don't agree that you should adopt a universal "never shake anyone's hands" system, because that is not what you believe. The whole point is that you are peacefully practicing what you do believe while being accommodating and respectful of the majority custom.

13

One should always follow the local customs, as a matter of courtesy. Ignoring the etiquette is always frowned upon, but could be excused if one doesn't know the etiquette. It is never polite to purposely ignore etiquette.

In Europe and the USA, it's the etiquette to shake the hand of the people you meet, regardless of their gender. When two leaders of countries from those parts of the world meet, they always shake hands.

Personally, I have shaken the hand of everyone I'm introduced to during work. If a new coworker is introduced while I'm sitting behind my computer, I get out of my chair and shake his or her hand. Not only I do so, but everyone here (The Netherlands) does so. I haven't encountered anyone who refused to shake my hand once I initiated a handshake.

It is also an informal rule not to tell others what you believe, and be cautious on political standpoints as well. This avoids pointless and heated discussions, which makes it easier to concentrate on the business. Violating this informal rule by stating your religion during an introduction will be frowned upon.

In all places I've worked, it is simple not possible to politely decline a handshake. From what I've gathered, my experience holds in most of the USA and Europe.

I know many people don't like that answer, but it's the way it works in the real world.

So basically, the only solution left to you, is to ask your religious leaders for an exception from the rule.

  • 3
    I can't speak for Europe, but I am a religious Jew living in the USA and I can categorically say that it's not true that your experience holds in most of the USA. I have never had anybody object to a polite nod or wave. When questions are asked, I mention it's for religious reasons. This has never had a negative impact on my relationships with those people. – Daniel Feb 20 '17 at 15:34
  • 5
    My experience in the US is exactly the same. Whenever we have a new hire, everyone shakes hands with the new hire when s/he is introduced. If one refused to shake hands it would be perceived as weird and unfriendly. The attitude here is to keep your religion to yourself, not to use it as an excuse. – TangoFoxtrot Jun 12 '17 at 22:07
6

Let me start by saying that I believe you have the right to follow your own religious beliefs so long as they do not infringe upon others, and not wanting to shake hands is not something that would cause anyone physical harm.

As long as you explain this behavior professionally ("I am sorry, but my religion prohibits me from shaking hands with a woman I am not married to. However, I do respectfully look forward to working with you") I believe you are well within you rights to act this way - though you may want to speak to your HR department to make sure this is legally protected behavior, and your religious leader to find out if this is an entirely necessary practice.


That being said, there is one option that might make this easier for you in the long-run, both in terms of following your religious practice and in not offending anybody with said practice.

Instead of only refraining from hand-shaking with female colleagues, simply refrain from handshaking entirely. Make it a rule with those you work with that no hand-shaking takes place at all.

You also do not have to give an explanation for this behavior - not wanting to shake hands isn't so unusual. If you are pressed, you can cite religious grounds, but by no means should you be required to touch someone if it is not part of your job - shaking hands, while a common gesture, is not a requirement of any job I know.


You shouldn't have to make this a broader rule applying to both men and women - but by doing so, you could make it more acceptable by those who would perceive it as a slight against them. I would still discuss this with your HR department and religious leader, since this really should not be necessary. But if you cannot resolve it through them, this is an alternative that may make things easier for you.

  • 1
    As kleineg suggested on Adel's answer, I believe "a member of the opposite sex I am not married to" would make it clearer that this is a policy that both sexes adhere to and not something specifically against men touching women. – starsplusplus May 16 '15 at 20:08
2

When I worked in the UAE, particularly religious Muslim men would place their hands in an 'X' across their chest and a slight bow in replacement of shaking hands.

Just maintain eye contact and say that you are pleased to meet them (or whatever). Often they would do it after cleansing themselves for prayer as well.

protected by Monica Cellio May 13 '15 at 22:40

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.