Why this story matters:
For the second time in not even a month, a symbolic handshake is the talk of the town in Mechelen. This time it's not about Jews, but about Muslims. The big difference is that it's not a (future) official who refuses to shake hands, it's a Muslim bride who wants to marry her groom in the city hall of Mechelen, a city between Brussels and Antwerp.
Getting married is a legal, constitutional right, whether you shake hands with the alderman or not.
It's known that several political parties -- not only the center-right Flemish nationalists -- have moral problems with people who refuse a handshake because of a religious dogma.
First standing by his alderman for electoral reasons and then calling him out has undoubtedly been quite painful for Mayor Bart Somers. However, it reveals one clear truth about Belgium, we keep struggling with symbolic gestures -- but are they the main problem here?
One thing is for sure: what happened in Mechelen is not at all beneficial for the dialogue between different religions and communities.
No handshake, no wedding in Mechelen?
- On Monday, Marc Hendrickx (N-VA), an alderman in Mechelen, abandoned a wedding ceremony after the bride was unwilling to shake his hand because of her religion. "This is the agreement," he argued. "I was in the moral impossibility of concluding the marriage ceremony."
- First the Mayor of Mechelen, Bart Somers (Open VLD) stood by his alderman.
- But one day later he changed his position: he said he wanted to speak with everybody involved in the ceremony, and insisted that the legal right to marry must be respected. He pledged to defend his principles, including those regarding gender equality, in a dialogue with mutual respect and to look for solutions and rapprochement.
- His Green partner in the city council, Kristof Calvo (Groen), added that a shaking of hands wasn't one of the legal requirements that had to be met if a marriage was to proceed, and attacked the alderman for failing to look for a solution. He castigated Marc Hendrickx after he gave prominence to the incident on social media.
- Hendrickx now feels let down by the Mayor and the coalition partner, claiming that there was an agreement. He is sticking to his principles and keeps saying that he could never continue a ceremony if the bride or groom refuse to shake hands.
- In the realm of public opinion, the (non-)handshake is a hot topic. Green leader Calvo has called for better agreements on this issue. "Such incidents should not be repeated, for example, it is best to communicate more clearly in advance, and a wedding day should be a celebration, not a moment of tension and conflict."