Norway’s state anti-discrimination board has ruled that an Oslo school did not discriminate against a Muslim man when it refused to renew his substitute teaching contract. He had refused to shake hands with female colleagues or parents, but the board ruled that his refusal in turn threatened gender equality.
“If we are to make conservative practice within a religion decisive, it could be unfortunate for favourable social development,” declared board leader Ivar Danielsen. “The background for equality between the sexes as an ideal is so strong in Norway, that religious conservatism had to give way in this conflict.”
Colleagues, parents offended
Newspaper Dagsavisen had reported last summer about the conflict at Ekeberg School in Oslo, which set off the discrimination case. The man, who did not want his identity revealed, was said to be well-qualified for his job and especially gifted in languages. He wanted to work with children and claimed he had been open about his religious beliefs. He also claims he had informed officials in his job interviews that he wouldn’t shake hands with women.
Female colleagues, however, were offended when he failed to greet them with a handshake, as is customary in Norway. Some parents also reacted, and school prinicipal Bente Alfheim felt she couldn’t defend his refusal to shake hands with either school employees, parents or pupils.
Top city officials in charge of Oslo’s schools, including city government leader Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, supported the principal’s decision. Norway’s anti-discrimination organization OMOD supported the teacher, and took his complaint to the anti-discriminaton board (Diskrimineringsnemnda).
The board’s decision is expected to set a precedent, and both the school’s and city’s leadership are satisfied as well. Atle Torvund, an attorney for the city, said that no school employees are allowed to discriminate either, and that’s what the Muslim man was doing by refusing to greet or touch any women. “This was someone who wanted to treat people differently based on their sex,” Torvund said.
The anti-discrimination board did rule in favour of the Muslim teacher, however, in a separate complaint against state welfare agency NAV. It had refused to issue unemployment benefits to him, on the grounds he would have kept his job if he would accept standard practice at the school. A NAV worker had also reportedly told him that the money paid out in social benefits comes “from taxpayers, from Vinmonopolet, from pig farmers, from stores that sell alcohol,” and blamed him for being “so religious.” The board found such comments “full of prejudice and direct discrimination.” His unemployment benefits were fully restored.