Minaret of a mosque in Geneva
Minaret of a mosque in Geneva, SwitzerlandReuters

A Swiss secondary school has been widely criticised after deciding that two Muslim boys should be allowed not to shake hands with female teachers where the form of greeting is common in Swiss schools. The pupils who attend a school in Therwil, northern Switzerland told authorities that making physical contact with women outside their family was forbidden by their religion.

The school's decision to grant special dispensation to the boys, who are aged 14 and 15, by local officials and the federal government has since caused great controversy. A local teacher's union said the decision discriminated against women, while Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga explained that shaking hands was part of Swiss culture and life.

Therwil council told AFP in a statement it would "not intervene" as the decision is the responsibility of the school, however the town's Mayor, Reto Wolf, said that the community was unhappy with the decision. "In our culture and in our way of communication a handshake is normal and sends out respect for the other person, and this has to be brought [home] to the children in school," Wolf told the BBC.

Islamic organisations also condemned the decision, with The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland (FIOS) declaring that shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex was "theologically permissible", and saying it was a common form of greeting between men and women in several Muslim countries so should not be prohibited in Switzerland.

However, the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland argued the greeting was forbidden in Islam. "Classical (Islamic) jurisprudence and the vast majority of contemporary legal scholars ... assume a clear prohibition of this contact form (handshakes) between the sexes", said the organisation.