Shaking hands is a polite gesture indicating friendship and acceptance to many people. Certainly, greetings vary across cultures and religions. What is accepted in one culture might not be appropriate for another.
Muslims not shaking hands with the opposite gender is an example of religious difference, and it is an integral part of Muslim etiquette. Simple differences in social and religious rituals should not be a cause of friction. If understood, it would be easy to respect and accommodate different actions. If we explain our differences, in most cases, we will earn respect from others.
I was asking a few of my friends about their embarrassing handshaking situations. Surprisingly, all of them had a story to tell.
One works in a private company. Recently, she was asked to join in welcoming some guests from Australia – men and women – who wanted to make some business connections. When the guests arrived, they reached out to shake hands. Some Emirati women went along, but my friend and one of her colleagues simply put their hands over their chest. The guests were in a contradictory predicament where one group of women, covered from head to toe, delightfully greeted them, while a few abstained.
When I asked my friend if she made an effort to explain her actions to the guests, she said no. I am aware that some people might take such an attitude as a personal insult.
In a recent radio show, the host was praising our beloved UAE for its rapid development and its continued efforts to meet the needs of its citizen. At the same time, he expressed his sorrow at how much we, as a Muslim nation, fail to make our brethren, be they Christians, Jews, Hindus or even atheists, understand the cultural and religious differences among us. This is key to understanding human behaviour.
I am aware that contradictions appear within Arab societies when it comes to touching. You may meet Muslims who would be more than happy to shake hands with someone of the opposite gender. Each person is free to choose the degree to which they comply with the various tenets of the religion. At the end of the day, each person is responsible for his actions.
What if a fully covered woman fainted in front of you, a man, and no one else was around? Would you leave her to die or count the number of days you have left on earth when her family finds out you did nothing? One of my university professors asked us the same question. Let me be clear: In such a situation, there is a need for interaction and it is permitted in the religion. The person who witnesses such scene should hasten to help, otherwise, as one student said in the class, may the eyewitness be deprived of his sleep for leaving a fainted soul out of ignorance.
The best way to avoid an awkward situation is to wait for the Muslim to extend his hand before you extend yours.