A Handshake and the Right to Bodily Integrity

Recently, France’s highest administrative court upheld a ruling denying citizenship to a woman who has been married to a French national since 2010. Media outlets reported that the woman cited her “religious beliefs” as a reason for not shaking hands with a male official during the citizenship ceremony. As a result, she was denied citizenship due to the government’s assessment that she was “not assimilated into the French community.” According to the civil code of France, the government has the right to deny citizenship on grounds of “lack of assimilation, other than linguistic.”

There are a number of cases in France and other European countries that are using this concept of assimilation to take away a privilege or penalize those that are perceived as not assimilating. There are arguments supporting both sides of the debate but I thought it may be interesting to use a rights framework to examine these types of cases.

If you are advocating for the woman in this case, a major argument would be that individuals have freedom of religion, which is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, along with many other domestic and international law instruments. The challenge with this argument is that countries have different histories that lead them to a divergence in the understanding of freedom of religion. For example, in the United States, freedom of religion was loosely based on a concept of pluralism. You can argue that it is not completely the case in practice.  Nonetheless, children in U.S. schools are taught that some immigrants to the United States came to practice their religion freely and openly and this is one of the positive aspects of living in the U.S. This concept remains to be an integral part of American education and understanding. In some other secular countries, governments adopted a definition of freedom of religion that involved relegating religion to the private sphere—essentially practicing freedom from religion in the public sphere. This is mainly due to historical relationships with religious institutions. The history is even more complex than this summary, which highlights the difficulties in advocating a position based a freedom of religion argument alone. Therefore, putting this religious freedom argument to the side for now, I started thinking about the concept of the body and the rights of a person to her or his own body.

In this case, we are talking about a handshake that a woman was being pressured to give, in order to get the benefits of citizenship. A man decided that he had a right to touch her hand and if she did not allow him to touch her hand, then he could use his power to deny her request for naturalization and all of the benefits that come with citizenship. Courts upheld the decision. It is not about the action being sexual or not sexual, or violent or not violent in nature. It is about power to touch others’ bodies as you feel is appropriate without regard to whether they find it appropriate. Similarly, two Muslim male students at the Swiss school were obligated to shake hands with a female teacher or face a fine. Coercion can take many forms ranging from threats of disempowering an individual to monetary penalties. There’s a power imbalance in both of these scenarios. That power imbalance naturally warrants deeper scrutiny about who or what the law is actually protecting.

The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights Article 3(1) states, “Everyone has the right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity.” Physical integrity or bodily integrity provides that a person has autonomy and self-determination over their own bodies. Physical integrity is not often raised except in relation to marginalized groups and medical interventions because it is so inherently understood that everyone should have this right. Self-determination over one’s own body would logically include the right to prevent others from touching you without your permission.

There was a time (and maybe still the case in some places) when groping women was seen as culturally acceptable because women were deemed to not have autonomy over their bodies. We should hope that we have progressed beyond that. Regardless of any cultural significance, it does not justify taking away an individual’s autonomy over her or his body under the standards of international and domestic human rights law.

View, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this post belong solely to the author.

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One thought on “A Handshake and the Right to Bodily Integrity

  1. I appreciate this blog post because I–and I believe most Westerners–hadn’t ever applied a rights-based approach to what we would consider “a simple handshake”. However, there’s no reason not to. It’s now become the norm in parenting to teach children that they don’t need to hug/touch people they don’t want to; why don’t we apply that rule to adults?

    The legal question is how much of a connection does a handshake have to assimilation, which we can assume is an important government interest. While handshakes are prevalent in Western societies, they’re not given great weight. It’s not rude for someone to not offer their hand when they’re sick. Why not for other personal reasons?

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