Life after Covid: Claim Your Space

As a Muslim woman, I usually avoid shaking hands with men. Most men I come across with have been respectful of my choice. However, there are certainly some who find it offensive. Before the pandemic hit, it always got a little uncomfortable for me to respectfully say no to shaking hands. But I still mostly did it as my personal and faith obligation.

Now with the pandemic, shaking hands is out of question. Ironically, I am not the only one who is feeling more comfortable about stopping physical contact with men. According to a December Harris Poll, out of 1,015 participants 54% agreed with the statement, “I would be happy to never shake someone’s hand again.” An informal twitter survey, “What’s a pre-COVID social norm that doesn’t need reviving post-COVID?” also suggested the similar trend. Out of nearly, 2000 responses, avoiding handshakes was among the most popular suggestions.

Handshaking is not the only norm that may be going extinct in the post covid era. There are many other things, such as standing too close to each other and touch of the opposite sex in general. Most women are happier without the unwanted touches at their workplaces. But while CoronaVirus is promoting the culture of no-touching, for some people it’s a problem. They argue that human touch is important for us to tell others how we feel about them and it enhances verbal communication. This is totally understandable. A good touch definitely helps a person feel comforted in the times of grief and despair. A warm handshake helps a person feel welcomed at his/her new workplace, a big farewell hug has a lasting effect on two friends parting from each other for a long time. 

However, all of the above must happen with open and transparent consent. What doesn’t make sense is when touching becomes such a social norm that it can’t be avoided even when a person wants to avoid it. It is a problem, when a person feels pressured to shake hands, or hug a co-worker that he or she feels intimidated by. It is a problem, when a young intern of any gender, feels sexually harassed by the unwanted touches at his/her first job and can’t find the nerve to report it. According to the 2021 guide to workplace sexual harassment, 69% women have been sexually harrassed at the workplce and 72% of such cases are never reported. In women’s only groups on facebook, several women have shared their experiences where male colleagues have touched them inappropriately and they are forced to accept it as a normal behaviour. The problem here lies in normalizing an inappropriate behaviour to the extent that those who question it are made to appear as outsiders or as those who refuse to assimilate. In the last 9 months, people have seen first hand that they can still function in a work environment without touching each other and yet still appreciate each other all the same. 

Islam forbids physical touch between opposite sexes to minimize the chances of sexual harrssament in the society.  But it does not discourage handshakes among one’s own gender. Also, such rules don’t apply to close family members and upon children. Islam is the religon of middle path that recognizes the importance of touch but also puts some limitations and safeguards.

Beth Robinson, a British employment lawyer who handles sexual harassment cases says, “So if you put it in the space of COVID, where people are working remotely, out of that direct space, they don’t feel physically threatened or intimidated. They’ve got a lower fear of backlash.” The harassment cases may not have decreased with social distancing but it has empowered victims to speak up for themselves. Contrary to what some critics claim, Islam protects women’s rights and their personal boundaries.

Whether we like it or not, Covid has changed our world view on several things and physical touch is one of them. People may go back to shaking hands and physically touching each other as before. But one thing is more clear—they won’t feel offended if someone like me refuses to shake their hand. 

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