The handshake


“I’ve had several Somali men refuse to shake my hand.  I think this is very rude.  Can you tell me anything about this?”

I hear this both from women wondering why some Somali men refuse to shake their hands, and also from men wondering the same thing about Somali women.

My co-worker literally screamed at me because someone refused to shake her hand.  I asked if they were rude because they declined to shake her hand or if they were just rude. She said that they were rude because they will not shake her hand. I couldn’t think how to explain to her that it is a very common thing in Islam. Most Muslims don’t shake hands with the opposite sex. I pointed out to her how they wouldn’t shake hands with me although I am Muslim; I am from the same country as they are, and the same religion. 

Believe me when I tell you it is not their intention to be rude.  Growing up in Somalia, I remember hearing Imams tell people it was not okay for men to shake women’s hands and vice versa. For some, any physical contact between members of the opposite sex (who aren’t married or related) is prohibited.  Not everybody shares this belief, and while I could give you my or some other interpretation of the religious rules regarding the intermingling of the sexes, it really doesn’t matter. Some shake hands and some don’t, and everybody has their reasons and justifications.   Muslims aren’t the only ones to do this, by the way.  Orthodox Jews follow the same customs.  And really it shouldn’t matter if a person is declining a handshake because of Islamic law, Jewish law, or their own personal preference.   It isn’t my place to tell them their view is invalid.  I respect their decisions when it concerns their own bodies and who those bodies come into contact with.  How I feel about it isn’t important, since I’m not the one making their decisions.

I will say this.  While it may not be allowed to touch someone, it is still required to be polite, and I hope that whoever is declining to shake your hand is doing so respectfully.  There are few things more annoying than someone who takes a custom they don’t agree with as a personal affront.  (No offense to the person asking the question, of course.)  When in doubt, it may be better to be on the safe side and not offer a handshake, but there is also no reason to get nervous about offending someone by offering one.  People understand that their beliefs aren’t shared by everyone, and just like you should know that they mean no offense by refusing to shake your hand, they know (or should know) that you mean no offense by offering. 

I am a big advocate of “Let’s all get along.”  I like to advise and be the mediator whenever I can between the host community (U.S. population/America) and the new community (Somalis in America). I hate when people say, “You came here, so if you don’t like it, you can leave.”  That is not the solution for everything.  We can have a better dialog and come to some better agreement than me leaving the country, or I can turn around and tell that person to go away and point out that this is a free country and I will be here as long as I want to be. But that won’t help either of us now, will it?