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The Iranian handshake mess could have been avoided – here's how

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It’s our duty as hosts to ensure people’s boundaries are respected, but we should make it clear what ours are.

It’s the smallest things that are so often the most telling in our progression as social beings – and they include the simple handshake. An Iranian delegation to Parliament last week refused to shake a female MP’s hand, and two of our male MPs, in solidarity with their colleague, refused to shake the visitors’. For this, the MPs were both congratulated and pilloried.

Theirs was an awkward situation, and until recently the interests of diplomacy would automatically have prevailed so as not to risk giving offence to guests. No handshake for her; offence on our side politely swallowed. Let’s not imperil our hard-won meat access by causing a diplomatic incident. But with the liberating currents of the #MeToo movement now swirling around ingrained male dominance of women, even cross-cultural interactions that may once have been exempt are seen through a new lens.

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Provided it is done respectfully and not coercively, this has to be healthy. Religion and culture have for too long been places for human rights abuses to shelter. As the US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently said in the Washington Post, “This pedestal women are supposed to stand on more often than not turns out to be a cage.”

Labour MPs Rino Tirikatene and Kieran McAnulty had little time to react in an unexpected situation. Their instinct was to show solidarity for caucus colleague Jo Luxton by demonstrating to the Iranian delegation how seriously we take women’s equal status in this country. For this they’ve been accused variously of immaturity and showboating. But let’s remember that just last month, Jacinda Ardern became the first female Prime Minister to be permitted to speak on the marae at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. We have yet to see whether the relaxation of the traditional ban is tokenism or will extend to other women, but it created a context in which the MPs’ actions seemed exactly right.

It is argued the Iranian visitors would have viewed it as intrusive and disrespectful to touch a woman. That’s fine. No one would have forced them to do it. Visitors to New Zealand are tactfully excluded from hongi in official greetings if they’re not comfortable with the practice. It’s our duty as hosts to ensure people’s boundaries are respected. That why mannerly protocols are important.

But equally, we’re entitled to make it clear to visitors what our boundaries are. Discrimination against women will be viewed as disrespectful in New Zealand, in the same way as we deplore it on the grounds of race or sexual orientation. We need not be confrontational about it, but we do need to be clear. Perhaps our protocol should be that visitors have a choice: shake everyone’s hand or no one’s.

This is the time for Women’s Affairs Minister Julie Anne Genter to step up. The only safe, practical way to steer through the labyrinth of conflicting cultural practices is with agreed guidelines. The handshake issue may seem trivial to some, but it’s part of a bigger picture of human rights infractions against women. In many countries, women’s rights are restricted in ways that cannot be excused as respectful or reverential: they may not drive, for example, or work or have legal recourse when they are assaulted.

We don’t generally berate these countries about human rights when we visit, having found this sort of diplomacy futile or even counterproductive. But we do try to effect change through such forums as the United Nations and we seek to lead by inclusive example: when people visit New Zealand, they may not demand that Kiwi women cover their hair or refrain from wearing swimming togs on the beach. No one who lives here has the right to insist that physical education in co-ed schools be segregated by gender for their daughters, no matter how often immigrants request it. Nor are they allowed to force female relatives into marriages or circumcise them. Where people’s cultural or religious practices don’t break our laws, they’re free to do as they wish. But our commitment to human rights is sacrosanct.

We must find respectful solutions to inevitable cultural clashes and not let differences fester or grow. World leaders offer little inspiration: on one hand, US President Donald Trump classified culturally different nations as “shithole” countries; on the other, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau engaged in an ill-advised and embarrassingly ingratiating Bollywood-costumed tour of India.

New Zealand obviously needs to put thought into this, but Tirikatene and McAnulty’s polite but firm “yeah nah” is a promising path toward progress.

This editorial was first published in the March 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.