Louis Armstrong might have thought that “a kiss is just a kiss” but, perhaps unsurprisingly, many socially-conservative and religious Iranians would disagree. This has been made all the more clear following last month’s attendance of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the funeral of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez in Caracus. At the time a photograph was widely-circulated online which shows Ahmadinejad in an embrace-like position with the mother of the deceased. The matter was reported in the Iranian media and even discussed in the Iranian parliament.
So what is the issue? One issue is the extent to which the photograph truthfully captured the moment in which Ahmadinejad and Chavez’s mother, Elena Frias, came into contact. According to a clip of Venezuelan news coverage posted by a Farsi-language news website, Ahmadinjejad can be seen approaching Frias with his hands in front of him in the position of the pranamasana gesture. Frias returns the gesture and for all of about two seconds rests her head on Ahmadinejad. But as brief as the moment was, a skillful photographer was able to capture it and leave others free to form the impression that the consolation was longer and more intimate than it actually was.
Were it not that Ahmadinejad was such a divisive figure, inside as well as outside of Iran, and were it not that Iran was approaching a general election in June, controversy might never have ensued. After all, Ahmadinejad clearly did not invite Frias’s embrace – the pranamasana gesture is not an Iranian custom but rather a closed body position that Ahmadinejad adopted to ward off close contact, as do some other religious Iranians in such situations.
An issue more worthy of discussion is not the veracity of the photograph but the social and religious context which made it widely discussed in the first place, if only for a week or two. For many accustomed to harmless hugs and continental kisses, consoling an elderly bereaved mother at a funeral in the way the photograph suggests happened will not be an issue.
But for some Muslims, as with some Jews, skin-to-skin contact between unrelated adult members of the opposite sex is forbidden in all but essential cases such as medical emergencies. In this context, what counts as a relation is limited to one’s spouse and a handful of relations which does not include, for example, cousins and adopted children. While not all Muslims recognise the prohibition, Shia Muslims, who are predominant in Iran, are among those Muslims who generally do and hence the media storm in which Ahmadinejad became embroiled.
The prohibition on skin-to-skin contact leaves many faithful Shia living in the West in awkward positions when, say, a hand is extended upon greeting or parting. While some faithful Shia might just straightforwardly refuse to shake hands others find that illicit handshakes can be avoided, for example, by standing one’s distance or by wearing gloves.
Yet others might be quick to avoid a handshake by indicating a bandaged or unclean hand. A friend of mine once had a footer on the bottom of his e-mails which explained his preference to not shake hands. However, these strategies often fail to help at the job interview or the family gathering where the elderly family friend, unacquainted with your social mores, grabs you without notice! The situation is made all the more embarrassing when there is genuinely no intention of causing offense and all the more frustrating when there is a genuine desire to interact.
As mentioned, Muslim groups are not the only religious groups who avoid handshakes and embraces. Orthodox Jews have similar concerns. Both communities see themselves as following their religious laws out of obedience to God, whether or not the laws seem bizarre to outsiders. For this reason the proverb “when in Rome, do as the Romans” has little currency to them. According to Liyakat Takim, author of Shi'ism in America, the late Shia jurist, Ayatollah Javad Tabrizi, insisted that refraining from inter-gender handshaking is a distinctive part of the Islamic identity. Takim says that Shia jurists have been unwilling to bend to the petitions of their followers on this matter.
The point to learn from all this for those of us who are interested to become acquainted with people of different religions and cultures is that any manner of things might cause misunderstanding or embarrassment. Many perhaps think that sensitivity is restricted to catering for differing dietary requirements, but as the fallout over the Ahmadinejad snap suggests, dietary requirements are only the start of sensitivity.
Although some situations could be more carefully planned there are sure to be those unscripted moments for which planning is not possible. The key here for comfortable acquaintance is to not be easily unnerved and to follow the verbal and non-verbal cues of one’s counterpart. This in turn requires humility: the humility to not be domineering and to care for another’s feelings.
But it has to be admitted that being sensitive to possible misunderstandings is made all the more difficult when generalisations about religious customs are difficult to make. The truth is that religious practices vary at the individual level and according to both knowledge and conviction. This was made manifest to me as I met with Orthodox Jews in their synagogue with other members of my local Shia Islamic centre. To my surprise, people began to shake hands across genders as soon as they met. Fortunately for them no photographers were present!