Saturday 30 May 2009

Muslimah at Work - Shaking Hands

It’s general knowledge that a good way to make a positive first impression when you meet someone is to begin with a solid handshake. The American Psychological Association has published a paper indicating that “a firm handshake may provide an effective initial form of self-promotion for women”

This has always been a tough one for me. Despite living in 21st Century multi-cultural London, most people still don’t seem to have clocked on that many Muslim women do not like to shake hands. Our faith prohibits unnecessary physical contact with men who are not mahram (or allowed) for us, such as our husband or close members of our family. As such, those of us raised in traditional or fairly conservative Muslim families will have had limited or no physical contact with men outside of our families.

Then you start looking for your first job. Interviews invariably begin with handshakes and not to reciprocate the offer of an extended hand seems like a good way to make sure you don’t get the job. Then you begin work and the continual rounds of meeting and greeting new people, both colleagues and clients means that the problem of the handshake comes up again and again.

I have to admit, coming from a conservative Asian family meant that shaking hands, making eye-contact and speaking assertively have always been problematic for me. We speak deferentially to our elders (through both habit and on pain of a smack with a slipper) and prolonged eye-contact with people outside of your family or peer group is considered either trashy (i.e. you are giving someone the come-on) or aggressive (because you are failing to show respect). Over time, I realised I needed to get over these hang-ups because in Western society it’s a given that if you don’t look someone in the eye when dealing with them, you must be a very shifty character.

I overcame this because one of my A’ level teachers realised that out of his class of 16 students, not one made prolonged eye-contact with him (every student in that class was Asian and female, though not all Muslim). He questioned this and we explained all of the above. He taught us that if we need to look someone in the eye and cannot bring ourselves to do so, then we should look at their nose – no-one can tell the difference (he also suggested that if we feel nervous, we should imagine the other person naked, but I might not take him up on that suggestion).

I have to admit at first, when I overcame these inhibitions and grew in confidence, I didn’t think about the implications of shaking hands on my faith and just went ahead without qualm. But as time went on, I started to question and feel very uncomfortable with this practise (salaah (our daily prayer) is a serious inhibitor of doing what you shouldn’t be).

At first, I looked for excuses, such as going to meetings or greeting visitors with my hands full of papers and files, saying hello with a big smile, a “follow me” and then whizzing off before they could think to volunteer their hand.

As time went on, I found my self saying, “Sorry, I don’t shake hands” (I’m English - we apologise for everything), this has led to a lot of people looking embarrassed or confused, but In suppose if you are open to their questions and polite, it can be a form of dawah too – and another sister might be spared this problem.

Over time though, as my work situation has changed and my confidence has waned, I have found that sometimes I lapse and then beat myself up over it. My best friend told me about a colleague she met from another branch of the organisation and her example has been of help to me. This very smart middle-aged lady on being approached with a handshake always smiles and says, “I’m afraid I don’t shake hands, but it is lovely to meet you” – how can anyone be offended by that?

A lot of sisters will look at this as a non-issue, perhaps especially those who avoid the world of work particularly because of these kinds of issues of mixing and contact. But some of us have to work, and some of us even choose to. This being the case we have to deal with these kinds of matters, and the hope is that we make things easier for the sister’s that follow us. In my last two or three job interviews I noticed that the panel did not offer to shake hands at all, which is also a step in the right direction.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem for sisters. My husband’s previous job for a wholesaler meant that he often met sales representatives. Once he was approached by a man and woman, he shook the male rep’s hand, but declined to shake hands with the woman. She asked why, and he explained that the only woman he will touch is his wife. Rather than take offence, she was moved by his devotion mash’Allah.

So for any non-Muslim readers, please try to be understanding, it’s not you personally (well in most cases anyway), it is the guidance of our faith.

For Muslim brothers and sisters – how do you deal with this issue?

"It is better for you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is to permissible to you." ~ At-Tabarani in Al Kabir No. 486]

Any of the believing women who accepted the conditions of the verse and agreed to live by them were considered to have offered themselves for giving their oaths of allegiance. When they declared their committment to do so, the prophet, peace be upon him, would say to them, "You may go. I have confirmed your allegiance."
I swear by Allah, the prophet's hand never touched the hand of a woman. He would receive their oath of allegiance by spoken declaration. I swear by Allah, the prophet, peace be upon him, never took any vow from women except what Allah had ordered him to take and his palm never touched the palm of a woman. When he had taken their pledge, he would tell them he had taken their oath from them orally. ~Sahih Al Muslim Book on Government, No. 4602)


  1. Anonymous31 May, 2009

    Assalamu alaikom,
    I have to deal with this in the workplace and it's SO ANNOYING! I try to prevent the situation from occurring in the first place but when I do find myself confronted with a hand to shake, I get so embarrassed I just do it to make the moment end. I know we're not supposed to but I get really flustered and shy! I like it better when a man puts his hand on his chest (I don't know if that's just an Arab thing because I've only seen Arab men do that) because it's a nicer gesture, really, when you think of it. Instead of pumping each other's hand like a game of some sort, he's touching his heart. LOL Sounds corny, but I like that better.

  2. Walaikam-assalam
    I know exactly how you feel about this, I still struggle with this matter and undoubtedly will continue to do so, so like you, I aim for the avoidance tactics.
    I like your hand-on-the-heart description.

  3. hi, just surfing in and I'm a non-Muslim but admittedly I was unsure how to greet Muslims myself.

    Would a short amount of eye contact, smile and a head nod be fine? If I know for sure the visitor is a muslim could/should I say assalamu alaikom without offending or is it best to just say 'hi nice to meet you?'

    How could I make a muslim feel at ease in the office, am I fine to suggest that one takes a seat? Or would a muslim prefer me to be seated first and they follow?

    I'm sorry if this sounds ridiculous!! Better to ask direct hey?

    Thankyou for posting this

    1. Would a short amount of eye contact, smile and a head nod be fine? --> Yes

      should I say assalamu alaikom without offending or is it best to just say 'hi nice to meet you?' -->Say any greeting other than Assalamu Alaikum. Example: "Hi nice to you!"

      How could I make a muslim feel at ease in the office, am I fine to suggest that one takes a seat? --> There is no restriction in this regard. Anyone can sit first or later.

  4. Asalamualikum

    Jazakallah khair sister for sharing this.
    I am struggling with this right now.
    insha'Allah it gets easier for us, because i think its a big deal and we should promote that Muslims don't want to shake a non muhrams hands.

  5. Salam sister, thanks for your post... I was just struggling with this today and your post made me feel better as I realised I'm not the only one having to deal with this handshaking problem.
    I was caught off guard at the playground by my daughter's school friend's father (non-muslim) and I ended up shaking his hand..I wasn't expecting him to offer to shake his hand and I wasn't prepared at all... I just panicked and shook his hand.

    1. Seek Allah's forgiveness. At times your repentance after a sin is more reward-worthy and lovable to Allah than your actual compliance with a command of Allah.

  6. Salam sis,
    I came across this article after googling how to avoid handshakes (lol) in preparing for upcoming interviews, and I really have to appreciate your honesty mashallah,
    It can be so difficult in these kinds of situations especially when job interviews arise and embarrassment overcomes us in avoiding handshakes.
    Very thoughtful and honest article.
    Jazakallah sis

  7. As alaamualaikum
    Alhamdulillaah great to see all comments and the concern to follow our Deen.

    I am a physician and as a part of my daily patient encounters, I meet about 2000 new people and families every year.

    Been doing this for 10 years.

    20,000 hand shakes avoided using this simple straightforward and true excuse

    "I am sorry I don't shake hands or hug young women,I don't mean to offend you, but this is to keep my marriage strong and a part of my marriage vows.
    my wife does not shake hands or hug young men either
    I hope you will understand "

    All this has to be said holding your hand to your heart,with a smile and genuine sense of feeling bad that it is going to be awkward for the person.

    Works like a charm, lot of times they say, I wish my husband was like that.

    one lady made me call her husband and explain to him to be like me!

    the sisters can do the same with the appropriate change in the sentence for gender.

    The trick is to be prepared and not fumble with the sentence.

    Should say that calmly with confidence
    but not with arrogance.

    Almost have to rehearse and memorize so it comes out right.

    Ultimately Allah Subhaanahu wa taala make a way out because we do this for Him.
    As salaamualikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuhu.