Shaking hands is as required in normal social life in Norway as cheek kissing is in France. Every young Norwegian person learns the value of a firm handshake. I remember being told off for my feeble handshake by my grandmother – she could be quite stern so she only needed to tell me once. Another Norwegian custom is treating men and women the same. Norway ranks as number three, with Iceland and Finland in the top spots, of the gender equality league table, and growing up in Norway I can attest to that. Still, the progressive Norwegians don’t think they’re quite there yet, so only last week the Labour-led coalition government decided that all company boards have to include 40 percent women.
But there’s another Norway that is moving in a different direction, where handshakes are to be reserved for the same sex, and women are far from equal to men. That Norway landed in the news as a TikTok video was released last week, showing a ceremony for graduates at a a Oslo lower secondary school, one of the most ethnically diverse in the country, where 15 year-olds received their certificates. But rather than shaking the hand of the headmistress, a boy is seen grabbing the graduation certificate out of her hands, while the headmistress tries to take his hands to shake them, before letting go, and immediately addressing the audience. In an exasperated tone, she says:
Everyone, we live in Norway, and we can’t have it like this. We can’t have it. Parents, we live in Norway. You will have to work with Norwegian women, otherwise you won’t succeed in Norway. You have to tackle this.
The video, titled “Abuse by headmistress” (although we don’t have gendered words for school heads) has gone viral and has, at the time of writing, nearly 59,000 likes and 5,000 comments. The title seems absurd, but just as absurd were the reactions. One reaction came via a letter published in Aftenposten, Norway’s biggest broadsheet, signed by several Muslim women, including the actress Iman Meskini and model Rawdah Mohamed.
“What should have been a joyous graduation ceremony at a school in Oslo last week, was turned into a humiliating affair when the audience was subjected to an aggressive demonstration of power from the school leadership,” the authors wrote. The rest of the letter contains words like “ethnocentrism,” “cultural chauvinism” and “harassment”. The incident is a “crown example of negative social control”, they claim. Ironic, coming from women all dressed in hijabs, some might say.
Lars Gule, a professor of philosophy at Oslo Metropolitan University, is less bombastic, but equally apologetic of the boys. “Norwegian society IS integrated even if a few hundred or even a few thousand boys/men don’t shake hands with women,” he argued in the online newspaper Nettavisen. “This isn’t the main topic in the integration debate. Integration should not be confused with assimilation. In a free society there must be room for diversity.”
I’m all for a free society, but how free will we be – including women – in a society that allows Islam to dictate how we interact with others?
The headmistress has also received support. Eivor Evenrud, a politician in the Oslo council, wrote on her Facebook page that the headmistress has her “full support”. In a secular democracy there is freedom of religion, but no religious preference, she says. There would not have been female clergy and bishops in Norway, nor same sex marriage, if conservative forces in the church had been allowed to decide, according to Evenrud. She adds that it’s not okay to hold pupils’ arms, but that it’s certainly not racism. It’s not okay to shout “Haram!” at teachers, either, she says – something we can’t hear in the video, but has been claimed by the headmistress herself and others who were present.
What’s missing from the debate so far is the wellbeing of the headmistress, who has been shown to possibly hundreds of thousands of people around the world in a moment of frustration with young men who show her and the school complete disrespect. Is she able to go to work, and is she worried about her safety? Is she getting support from her own boss?
To the last question we do have an answer. The Education Department in Oslo commented that they support the apology from the headmistress, and won’t rule out any further consequences for her. To add insult to injury, a group of teachers at the school have signed a letter of complaint against her, based on the paragraph of the school regulations involving harassment of pupils. At least she hasn’t had to go into hiding like the Batley Grammar School teacher who showed a religious education class a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in 2021.
The new culture secretary, Labour MP Lubna Jaffery, was asked by the Progress Party about handshaking in schools on her first day in the job. Her reply was that she knew there was a video clip of the incident, but she hadn’t seen it, and that handshaking is a “personal choice”. So much for clear leadership.
Is this how liberal societies, such as Norwaty, slowly dig their own grave? By citing “freedom” to every new culture clash that pops up, our values and norms may slowly be eroded. Or perhaps not even slowly, but rather quickly. One thing is sure: liberal values and conservative Islam are not compatible and will keep colliding as they intersect. Whether it’s the relatively innocent phenomenon of handshake avoidance, or other more worrying trends – look to Sweden or parts of England for what might be in store – the question is, will we stand up for our own values?
Douglas Murray had the foresight to formulate the following in his 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, which accurately describes what is happening in Norway and many other European countries:
And so all the time the European brain has held onto two contradictory things. The first is the dominant established narrative of a generation: that anyone in the world can come to Europe and become a European, and that in order to become a European you merely need to be a person in Europe. The other part of the European brain has spent these years watching and waiting. This part could always recognise that the new arrivals were not only coming in unprecedented numbers but were bringing with them customs that, if not all unprecedented, had certainly not existed in Europe for a long time. The first part of the brain insists that the newcomers will assimilate and that, given time, even the most hard-to-swallow aspects of the culture of the new arrivals will become more recognisably European. Optimism favours the first part of the brain. Events favour the second, which increasingly begins to wonder whether anyone has the time for the changes that are meant to happen.