Swedish woman who refused to shake hands at job interview paid compensation

Farah Alhajeh

A Swedish woman has won compensation after her job interview was ended when she refused a handshake with a male interviewer.

Farah Alhajeh, 24, was applying for a job as an interpreter when she declined to shake the hand of a male interviewer for religious reasons. She placed her hand over her heart in greeting instead.

“I was really shocked,” Ms Allhajeh told SBS News. “I felt the tears going up so fast to my eyes and I was just thinking ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’.”

When she tried to discuss the issue with those at Semantix, Ms Allhajeh claims she was told that a “bacteria phobia” would have been an acceptable reason for her refusal to shake hands but not her faith.

“I just started crying and crying for hours, I was so shocked when that happened. I had been a practicing Muslim for a year-and-a-half so I hadn’t been practicing my religion for that long, so this was a shock to me.”

On Wednesday, the Swedish labour court ruled the company had discriminated against her and ordered it to pay 40,000 kronor (£3,420) in compensation.

Sweden’s discrimination ombudsman’s office said the judgement had taken into account “the employer’s interests, the individual’s right to bodily integrity, and the importance of the state to maintain protection for religious freedom.”

The interpreting company in Ms Alhajeh’s home town of Uppsala had argued that its staff were required to treat men and women equally and could not allow a staff member to refuse a handshake based on gender.

But the discrimination ombudsman said she had tried to avoid upsetting anyone by placing her hand over her heart when greeting both men and women.

Sweden’s labour court found the company was justified in demanding equal treatment for both sexes – but not in demanding that it be in the form of a handshake only.

Her refusal to shake hands on religious grounds was protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, it said, and the company’s policy in demanding a specific greeting was detrimental to Muslims.

The court also disagreed with the firm’s assertion that Ms Alhajeh’s approach to greetings would cause a problem for effective communication as an interpreter.

After the judgement Ms Alhajeh told the BBC she believed it was important to “never give in” when convinced that one is in the right, even as a member of a minority group.

“I believe in God, which is very rare in Sweden… and I should be able to do that and be accepted as long as I’m not hurting anyone,” she said. “In my country… you cannot treat women and men differently. I respect that. That’s why I don’t have any physical contact with men or with women. I can live by the rules of my religion and also at the same time follow the rules of the country that I live in,” she added.

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