22nd Jan 2021

EU brushes off Belgian Islam hand-shake spat

Female European diplomats did not shake hands with Iranian parliamentary delegates at a meeting in Brussels on Friday (1 July) while EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana served coffee, fruit juice and water, following a row over women's rights and alcohol between Belgium and Iran.

European Council and European Commission sources stressed that it is normal protocol for female EU employees, including commissioners, to avoid shaking hands with Islamic guests or hosts in order to respect religious custom.

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"The Iranians do not shake hands with women. It's their personal decision and they are our guests", a spokeswoman for Mr Solana said, adding that she is not offended by the practice and warmly embraces female Iranian delegates whom she knows well.

The meeting reaffirmed Brussels and Tehran's commitment to continue dialogue on nuclear non-proliferation, counter-terrorism and human rights in the wake of Iran's election of the conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week.

European Parliament sources also confirmed that while there are no official EU rules on hand-shaking and alcohol, such differences are usually worked out before meetings in order to smooth diplomatic relations.

The EU's attitude toward Islamic customs stand in contrast to Belgium's views on the subject however, with Belgian upper house president Anne-Marie Lizin canceling her meeting with the Iranian party on Thursday (30 June) because of the hand-shaking problem.

Belgian lower house speaker Herman de Croo also cancelled his lunch with the Tehran group after the Iranians insisted that there should be no alcohol at all present at the event, opting to meet in the parliament's offices briefly instead.

"According to our habits, we would do this [shake hands]. There is no difference between men and women in Belgium", a spokesman for the Belgian senate told EUobserver, adding that Afghan president Hamid Karzai shook Ms Lizin's hand on a visit in May.

"You can't force the authorities of Belgium to drink water", he added.

Experts on Islamic law told EUobserver that it is not against Islamic law to shake hands with women, in so much as there is no single Islamic legal canon on the subject.

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