Sweden: Halal-TV has given rise to heated debate

WLUML Networkers
A new Swedish TV show fronted by three veiled Muslim women has been accused of perpetuating stereotypes of Muslim women.
Halal-TV is a show presented by three young, devoutly religious, Muslim women who explore Swedish culture, discussing subjects such as class, gender equality, sex, alcohol, and ideals of beauty. Crtics have accused the show of presenting a narrow portrait of Muslim women in Swedish society. (WLUML Networkers)
The Swedish TV show Halal-TV has given rise to much debate in Sweden. The debates concern issues regarding the actual TV show, and also broader questions such as gender equality within Islam, and Islamophobia. I will here provide a short introduction to the TV show, explaining what Halal-TV is and what it is about. I will also outline the main features of the debate. I have chosen to exclude any reference to the purely racist and extreme rightwing propaganda that has been visible, especially in the blogosphere. This is because there is no value and little reasoned argument in such expressions of racial hatred.

Halal-TV is a show, over eight episodes, that focuses on the lives of three young Muslim women – Cherin Awad, Dalia Azzam Kassem and Khadiga El khabiry – who explore Swedish culture and discuss Swedish commonalities. More specifically, the women broach subjects such as class, gender equality, sex, alcohol, and ideals of beauty in each of the episodes. Cherin, Dalia and Khadiga were all born in Sweden, they consider themselves Swedish and they see Sweden as their home-country. They are all highly educated: Cherin is a lawyer, Dalia studies medicine, and Khadiga is a dental nurse on maternity leave. Halal-TV is produced by the Swedish public service company, SVT.

The debates regarding Halal-TV started even before the first episode was broadcast on TV. The show was accused of presenting a very narrow portrait of Muslim women. Cherin, Dalia and Khadiga are all devoutly religious. They all wear hijab, and two of them – Cherin and Khadiga – do not shake hands with men. Many people have opposed this; they have pointed out that there are around 400,000 Muslims in Sweden, and only around 250,000 of them are practicing Muslims. Furthermore, among these 250,000 practicing Muslims, there is a huge variation in background, and in how religion affects everyday life. Therefore, Cherin, Dalia and Khadiga are not considered representative of the majority of Swedish, Muslim women, and, it is claimed, it is unfortunate that SVT chose these three women as hosts for Halal-TV. SVT representatives responded by saying that the three women do not represent anyone but themselves. However, critics maintain that even though it is explicitly said that Cherin, Dalia and Khadiga only represent themselves, they will regardless be viewed by the public as representatives of Muslim women in general. The concern is that having three religiously conservative Muslim girls hosting a show called Halal-TV will create in the audience’s mind an image of all Muslim women as similarly religious.

Cherin Awad has been accused of supporting stoning as a death penalty for adultery. In 2003, in a Swedish TV show called “Existens”, Cherin participated in a discussion regarding stoning as a death penalty. Cherin said that it is almost impossible to be sentenced to death by stoning within Sharia law, since there are severe preconditions that need to be fulfilled, for example there have to be three eye witnesses. When she was asked whether stoning is a proper punishment for adultery if these preconditions are fulfilled, she answered yes and explained that by this severe punishment Islamic law makes it clear how horrible adultery is. Today, Cherin says that she is, and has always been, against death the penalty. She further states that she thought the question, whether stoning is a proper punishment for adultery if the preconditions are fulfilled, was a question about features of Sharia law, not a question about her personal opinion. Many people find it offensive that, after such a statement, representatives of SVT asked Cherin to be one of the hosts of Halal-TV. Some critics, often Muslim, claim that this will reinforce the public perception of Muslims as fundamentalists. Other critics, often so called “ex-Muslims” and other non-Muslims, claim that such fundamentalists as Cherin should not be on TV spreading their anti-democratic opinions. However, it could also be argued that the heavy criticism of Cherin Awad is due to racism and sexism. Within the Swedish patriarchal and racist discourse, if you are a woman – and especially a Muslim woman – you have to watch your mouth very carefully; any careless statement might haunt you for the rest of your life.

Moreover, after the first episode a few TV-critics in the media argued that Halal-TV was poor television. The problem, they reasoned, was not that the three were Muslims and were wearing hijab; it was that the three did not display enough competence and journalistic skills as hosts in a programme whose objective was to mirror society. And they questioned the criteria in selecting the three.

Then there is the hand-shaking incident that has caused a huge debate. In the first episode, one of the interviewees, Carl Hamilton, got very angry and upset when Cherin and Khadiga declined to shake his hand. Carl Hamilton is a well known Swedish, left-wing debater. When Cherin and Khadiga, instead of shaking Carl Hamilton’s hand, put their hands to their hearts and said “this is how we will greet you”, Carl Hamiltion gets very annoyed. He angrily says that if the girls do not want to greet him in a conventional way, they can go back to Iran. Khadiga reminds him that none of them are from Iran, they are all born in Sweden. In fact none of them has anything to do with Iran, neither their parents are from Iran, nor have they ever been there. Khadiga asks Carl where he thinks a blond, Swedish girl, who has converted to Islam and therefore does not want to shake his hand, should go. Carl says that such a girl should go and live in a cave somewhere.

The three presenters with guest, Mona Sahlin, Leader of the Social Democratic Party in Sweden. Source: www.svt.se

This conversation between Carl and the girls has raised debates, both regarding multiculturalism and sexism. Carl Hamilton has (of course) been accused of being a racist. Saying things such as “go back to Iran” and “go and live in a cave” are not acceptable. On this point, most reasonable people agree (even Carl, who has apologized for losing his temper). The more interesting questions are those regarding multiculturalism. Should minorities adapt customs of the majority, or should the majority accept minorities and their customs? What if the customs of the minority are gender oppressive? It could be argued that the phenomenon of women not shaking men’s hands is a result of patriarchal customs and values. It reflects men’s control over women’s bodies and sexualities. In a liberal and gender equal country, such as Sweden claims to be, these patriarchal customs should not be accepted. Hence, the argument goes, if Cherin and Khadiga want to be polite they should shake Carl’s hand. On the other hand, it could be argued that Carl Hamilton’s anger is a result of Swedish patriarchy. Men, in their experience of being men, are used to the privilege of dictating how a society – economically, socially and culturally – should operate. When Cherin and Khadiga do not shake Carl’s hand, they break the patriarchal order by not accepting Carl as a superior being. This is why Carl got angry.

Broader debates concerning Islam have also emerged following the screening of Halal-TV in Sweden. For example, there are some so called “ex-Muslims” who have raised their voices and said that Islam is an oppressive religion, and they question if Cherin, Dalia and Khadiga actually know anything about things such as gender equality. These ex-Muslims urge Swedish media (such as SVT) to stop being polite and overly accepting of Muslims: Islam, they argue, is oppressive and we (Sweden) need to openly discuss issues such as “honor killing”, genital mutilation and forced marriage. This point of view has been heavily critiqued as being Islamophobic. Some Muslims have said that these so called ex-Muslims should stop blaming Islam. If these ex-Muslims have been subjected to, for example violence in the name of honour, they should blame their relatives. It is their relatives who are oppressive, not Islam. Some Muslims have further said that they find it offensive and racist that people call Islam oppressive. They claim that they did not know anything about honor killing, genital mutilation and so on, until they moved to Sweden and were told that this is what they condone as Muslims.

Furthermore, it is argued that the heavy critique of Halal-TV is foremost a sign of a deeply rooted Islamophobia in Swedish society. An Islamophobia that can be traced back to the Christian crusades and that has, since then, been a part of the European cultural heritage. Halal-TV has nothing to do with fundamentalism, terrorism and gender inequity. Rather, Halal-TV gives, for the first time in Swedish history, the opportunity for veiled women to speak in public about subjects other than their veils. And people find it hard to accept that veiled women also have agency. However, the critique against Halal-TV continues. The organization “Ex-Muslims in Sweden” has started an appeal, which they urge everyone who wants to stop the TV show Halal-TV to sign.

My personal opinion, after having seen the first three episodes, is that the show is quite harmless and fairly entertaining. The girls are, do not strike me as fundamentalists rather they are average girls who reflect on things such as notions of beauty and equality. And they do have differences of opinions amongst themselves. Cherin, for example, encourages her son to play with dolls, since she believes gender stereotypes are socially constructed, and she strongly believes that household work should be divided equally between men and women (quite progressive, I think.) Khadiga, on the other hand, thinks that it is a private matter how you should divide your household work. Furthermore, both Dalia and Khadiga use makeup every day. Cherin does not agree with this since she thinks make up does not go well with the veil.

19 January 2009

By: Johanna Heden