Monday, August 31, 2009

No more handshakes

In the Netherlands, and no doubt other countries as well, Muslims have drawn attention to themselves by refusing to shake hands with women officials. While their specific motives are open to criticism, there may nonetheless be a good justification for not jumping into the risks of the handshake, let alone the kiss. Stop all this huggy-bear and kissy-face.

Some time back, I had to take high doses of a medicine that neutralizes the immunity system. In accordance with medical advice, I abstained from the usual handshaking and kissing that is common in our part of the world when you meet a relative, friend or occasional acquaintance. Actually I liked it, especially after people had accepted this odd new habit of mine. There were, after all, good alternatives established by centuries-old custom. I India, I rarely shook hands, and that only with Westernized Indians. Hindus would fold their hands and say "Namaste" or more colloquially "Raam Raam", Muslims would touch their hand palm to their forehead and say "Aadaab Arz" or "Salaam". Chinese people with a sense of tradition put their right fist in their left palm in front of the chest and bow slightly.

Touching someone is a mutual invasion of privacy with all the impurities you carry. Therefore, some cultures consider it a very intimate act not entered into loosely. While they didn't know about micro-organisms, they sensed correctly that such an invasion may have more than merely symbolic effects. Today, with the Swine Flu paranoia, health authorities advise the public to refrain from kissing and shaking hands except in situations of true and intentional intimacy. So, the coolies and fellahs were right all along. We ought to learn from them.

A handshake between a man and a woman creates an additional problem. The purity threat in the traditional view is in this case that the woman may be menstruating. This constitutes a radical impurity in most traditional cultures in South and West Asia, Africa and elsewhere, to the extent that menstruating women are not allowed into their own house nor to prepare food. This is also the reason why women are often not allowed into particularly sacred spaces. In this respect, Christianity was a forerunner of modernity by generally ignoring this monthly impurity, though it barred women from becoming priests or speaking in the assembly for other reasons.

But apart from the taboo on touching a woman in a state of impurity, there are more reasons for frowning upon a handshake between man and woman. In Islam, there is a veritable obsession with the chance that the slightest provocation may arouse in them an unstoppable sexual arousal. That is why a woman must not show an inch of flesh or hair, and why she is not permitted to spend even the shortest time in the sole company of a man who is not a direct relative of hers, such as a medical doctor making a diagnosis. Give a man and a woman half a chance and they will have a go at each other right away.

In European and some other civilizations, by contrast, a man is expected to control himself even when exposed to a woman's near and less-than-fully-covered presence. But he too should not shake hands with her. A handshake, after all, is a form of greeting between equals. When you are received in audience by the Pope, you don't shake hands with him, you kneel and kiss his ring. Likewise, when you meet a woman, you must use a form of greeting that befits your inequality.

In some respects, a woman is considered inferior, in others superior. In Chinese, a language expressive of a patriarchal but courteous culture, the numerical classifier zuo, "pedestal", is used for both women (sanzuo nüren, "three women") and mountains, (sanzuo shan, "three mountains"), because a woman is something you look up to and possibly aspire to climb. She is never your equal, never "one of the boys". Depending on who she is to you, a gentleman of the old school may take off his hat and bow, or he may kiss her hand, or nod and give a merely verbal greeting. Us carefree moderns would feel more comfortable giving her a hug or a kiss on the face, slightly more intimate but at any rate allowing for an expression of the distinction between man and woman.

A handshake, by contrast, is a purely symmetrical gesture, and therefore contrary to the traditional sense of courtesy, which always wants to do justice to people's specific status. It is a recent innovation, and there is always something uneasy about it. Let us follow the example of our Muslim fellow-countrymen and take some distance from the modern ways at least in this respect.


ফ্রায়েড দোয়েল said...

Hi I just want to ask you one question because you have tremendous knowledge regarding Hindu Nationalist movement in India these days besides RSS and its affiliate’s lot of other Hindu organisation are working among them I found the activities of Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) see very interesting in the past you have criticizes Sangh parivar for luck of ideological framework what do you think about HJS?

Koenraad Elst said...


HJS is purely reactive and unimaginative and propagates the impression that Hindus are a bunch of humourless touch-me-nots. I suppose they mean well but their calls for bans and arrests of (admittedly loathsome) enemy characters such as MF Husain are deeply counterproductive as well as in contradiction with the Hindu tradition of open debate.
Stay tuned, more on your subject to follow.

ফ্রায়েড দোয়েল said...

Thanks sir for your quick reply, I will eagerly wait for you next post on this issue, specially I am interested any article form you regarding what kind of Hinduism should RSS and BJP should adopt specially if they want to counter Islamic aggression