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To shake or not to shake? Part 1

The first Decline

After a year in a pandemic, I recognise this is probably the least relevant topic to talk about. But I am still going to share!

Many of us who strive to follow our Islamic principles, male or female, may have come across the “shake or not to shake” conundrum (pre-pandemic).

That is, hand-shakes with the opposite gender.

I recall it being so daunting to think about how to deal with handshakes when I was at university. The image of someone pulling out their hand and having no idea on how to respond; do I tell them beforehand that I don’t shake hands? Do I wait to see if they do? Do I tell them why I am not shaking hands? Do I dodge it by holding other stuff or say I have a cold (pandemic win!).

I remember my first experience in my second year of university. I had applied for a summer job, the first professional job I had, and had no mental preparation for handshakes. I did not attend an interview for the job, so the induction was the first time I had met them. Up until this point I was in correspondence with a woman and as far as I was aware that was who I was going to meet. I arrived early and met the lady with a firm handshake. And lo and behold! her male colleague right after her. I mentally froze, but unfortunately my hand did not and reciprocated his handshake. It was absolutely devastating.

Honestly, if I knew at that time I would have declined both of their handshakes to save face, but all my mind could think of was how can I decline his handshake when he saw me shake hers?!

Lesson learnt.

Hand-shaking became at the forefront of my mind if I was going anywhere professionally. I still had no idea how I was going to go about it, but I knew I really did not want it to happen again. A couple of months later I attended an all day event by an organisation that helps you find an industry placement whilst at university. I had come to the conclusion that I will have to somehow say no. I don’t know who I was meeting or when there would be an expected handshake, but I had to do something. Yet, in the back of my mind I was afraid of succumbing to the pressure.

So I went to the local scarf shops and got myself a pair of black gloves (the niqabi ones). I know it was still not allowed to shake hands with gloves, but this was the only back-up I could think of - no skin contact at least?

I attended the day with the gloves in my bag - I wasn’t going to turn up with gloves on! I arrived early and scrutinised the room. It was a typical class-room style environment so I didn’t think they would ask for handshakes. We got well into our teaching session and then we had to do 5 mins of networking (human bingo) with the other attendee university students. Although handshakes were frequent in this environment , Alhamdulillah, as these people were not going to be my employers it was easier to decline their offers

A slight smile to lessen the blow

“I don’t shake hands”

Keeping my hands in low and close to my body

I actually do not remember their reactions so I cannot imagine it was a big deal at the time.

Now thinking back, I think this helped with my momentum.

The last session of the day was the mock-interviews.

That was when the sweat started.

We had our allocated time-slots. And I was experiencing a mental back-and-forth in my head: should I put the black gloves on or not? For the remaining 15 mins I continued with this mental back-and-forth instead of preparing for the mock-interview.

The time arrived. I had not put on my gloves.

I suddenly considered how odd it would look to wear black gloves inside.

I was called up. There was an old man at the door to the room for mock interview stations that were running at the same time.

He pulled out his hand and said something, I cannot remember.

Here goes nothing,

*A slight smile to lessen the blow*

“I don’t shake hands”

His smile turned to a quick, ‘Oh sorry/no problem at all/that’s fine” all blurted into one. He then quickly directed me to my interviewer.

Alhamdulillah. My first decline of a professional handshake.

That was my first experience. I share it as I know how daunting the experience was for myself and can be for others, having discussed it with a few sisters. . Ultimately however, , you can prepare all you want thinking your ‘piety’ will get you through it, or by rationalising the insignificance of the act.. But remember that aid comes from Allah alone. If you want protection from something, you need to ask Allah first. The ability to continuously decline handshakes from the opposite gender is not from ourselves but from Allah. So ask Allah to guide you and keep you firm and keep you away from these situations in the first place.

So I am now going to continue sharing all the different experiences and responses I have had from declining handshakes, from the dead-pan response to ‘do you want a hug instead, ha’ response (*face-palm*, and no, it’s not funny).

Yeah, I saw your face

I was at a huge networking event in my first two weeks of a year-placement. A huge hall with around 200 people. I am quite an introverted person myself so this was not my cup of tea. Unfortunately it was compulsory for the induction week even though I actually don’t think it added much value, but hey-ho.

I was trying to find the managers I was assigned to for the year so I could at least introduce myself. I found one manager who was already crowded by a few of my colleagues. Consequently, it was quite difficult to penetrate the circle. I have seen most people break the circle by thrusting their hand forward and introducing themselves. This is something I still struggle with now, introducing myself to a group already mid-conversation. I cannot go for the handshake and have not practiced other alternatives (especially working from home during the pandemic!). Finally, I was able to get in and introduce myself but declined the handshake.

As soon as I said ‘I don’t shake hands’ *smile*, from the corner of my left eye I saw a colleague’s jaw drop. Not only did his jaw drop but he made such a grimace that you could see the ‘What?!’ written all over his face. I am sure the rest of the group must have seen it. I ignored it, continued with my introduction and spoke about the year ahead.

I left the networking event with mixed feelings, but I definitely did not appreciate that guy's response. I would not say I was fuming, but I was definitely left questioning his audacity, just who did he think he was?!

Fast forward 4 month later.

This same colleague was on the same scheme I was in. He was doing the same rotations as me and my next placement was the one he had just finished. We had a handover where I was expected to pick up the majority of his work streams when I arrived at the placement. During the handover he suddenly asked me, “do you want the team to know ahead of your arrival that you do not shake hands?” I was like, “erm, I do not mind…” whilst questioning the intent behind his query. ? He then responded that he would inform them in advance so they would be aware. I was like, if you want to you can, thanks…?

I had no idea what to make of this and did not really understand why he was interested or concerned, especially remembering his reaction a few months ago.

But when I met the team I realised why, and Alhamdulillah I was so grateful that he did. This particular team had quite a specific culture (lad-ish), and would probably have felt really awkward face to face and panicked if I suddenly said no to a handshake. I started the team without having to decline handshakes and warmly welcomed to the team.

SubhanaAllah, can you believe his reaction when he first saw I did not hand-shake and now he tried to help me out! I learnt later on he did not mean to have that reaction at the networking event; it was a first for him and caught him off-guard. I never spoke to him about it directly as there was no need to, but I couldn't help but think how Allah had turned his heart to the point where he went out of his way to remember my preference and endeavoured to make both myself and the new team more comfortable.


Oh Turner of the hearts!

Decline 4 times in a row

So this is probably the funniest experience I have had. We were onsite carrying out a trial for my project. Contractors had attended the site for assistance as they were the owners of the product being tested. There were around 4 of them and other colleagues from the business, making up about 11-12 people onsite. I was actually heading the trial (my first ever, woot!), so I rounded everybody up to give them the brief of how this was going to run. We stood in a semicircle with myself on the side. A contractor came to introduce himself and held out his hand which I politely declined. The second one came up and again I politely declined. I was a bit bewildered, like I just said no… The third one came up and offered again. At this point a senior colleague of mine stepped in.

She was much senior to me (and older) and was sweet enough to take me under her wing for the time I was on the project. So with the 3rd guy, she literally put her hand out in front and said she doesn’t shake hands and then moved him to make it clear to the one behind.

We looked at each other trying to hold back our laughter. I realised that we were standing at such an angle that the guys behind could not see that I had declined shaking hands. Plus, the site was really loud so they could not hear what I was saying anyway. They just saw their colleague coming and leaving.

It was such a weird experience when it was happening. My colleague/mentor then called me the day after and we had a laugh about it. She said that she and her husband used to work in Egypt so she was aware of this custom, subhanAllah.

She was such a sweetie, but at the same time a very assertive person. The different teams also respected her so she held some clout. She was so nice to be invested in my own development and gave me such constructive feedback at the end of the project.

May Allah guide her, Aameen.

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