Made in Sweden: Halal-TV

Made in Sweden: Halal-TV November 6, 2008

Muslimah Media Watch thanks Shaista for the tip!

A couple of days ago, a new TV show about Muslim women in Sweden, Halal-TV, aired its first episode on Sveriges Television (SVT), a Swedish television channel.

As expected, the show, which features three young Muslim women as hosts, was stirring up debate before it even began. A Kurdish-Swedish author, Dilsa Demirbag-Sten, pointed out that 23-year-old host Cherin Awad had said, at age 18, that stoning a woman to death was an appropriate punishment for adultery. Awad, a lawyer, has since retracted her previous comments.

The show also features 22-year-old doctor-to-be Dalia Azzam Kassem and 25-year-old dental hygienist Khadiga El-Khabiry. All were born in Sweden.

But that’s not what the hullabaloo is now about. On the very first episode, Awad and El-Khabiry refused to shake the hand of Carl Hamiltion (all pictured below), a columnist from the left-wing newspaper, Aftonbladet. According to a transcript published in the Expressen newspaper, this exchange occurred:

“I’m sorry, you ought to shake my hand,” said Hamilton.

“That’s something I decide,” replied El Khabiry.

“No, I don’t think so!” Hamilton shot back.

[He was then asked what he thought a Swede who had converted to Islam ought to do].

“He should shake hands when in Sweden. If he can’t manage that then he can go live in a cave and be a hermit. It’s about how we live as Swedes. That’s how we socialize, we shake hands. It’s not we who are the problem. The problem is that you come here and don’t want to shake hands, so it’s actually you who are the problem.”

“We didn’t come here. I was born here,” El Khabiry reminded Hamilton.

Cherin Awad, Dalia Azzam Kassem, Carl Hamilton, and Khadiga El Khabiry. Image via SVT.
From left to right: Cherin Awad, Dalia Azzam Kassem, Carl Hamilton, and Khadiga El Khabiry. Image via SVT.

If you understand Swedish, go to the program’s website then click on the side bar where it says “Se programmet” to watch the clip. You need to know Swedish because the incident happened off-camera though it was audio-recorded.

According to Shaista, a Swedish-born Muslim:

“In the clip [the incident is] when they’re sitting down and the picture is a bit blurry. They sort of had a row. They asked him why he reacted the way he did and he was saying he was the one being normal, that’s how everyone would react in Sweden, etc.

At the end of the show he is given an opportunity to state his side of the story, he’s basically saying he lost his temper a little, he doesn’t usually but he felt he was being accused of being a racist and they were rude towards him and tried to undermine him by not shaking hands, that’s what made him question them and lose his temper.”

In a column he published in his newspaper Hamilton asked “Is it racist to want to shake hands with a Muslim?” and said the non-handshaking minority should adapt themselves to the handshaking majority.

(Most of the above information I got from the well-researched article in The Local, Sweden’s English newspaper).

Where to start?

Let’s take how the media tackled the no-handshaking issue. In the article I quoted above, the article was actually passably fair, though, as Shaista points out, the transcript is slightly edited, not mentioning that Hamilton forcibly grabbed one of the women’s hands to shake, and that he said that if she doesn’t shake hands in Sweden she might as well return to Iran (Note: Not her country).

Some blog posts (where the issue was first raised) were sarcastic of the whole issue, with the author of this post titled “On Swedish TV, a Muslim Woman Supports Stoning Adulteresses,” saying:

“My only question here is, how long will it take before the closed minded columnist of the Left-wing rag Aftonbladet is labeled as a racist? If Hamilton refuses to see the light and the error of his ways, it’ll only a matter of time before he’s cast into the outer darkness by his peers. All that wailing and moaning and gnashing of the teeth awaits him, especially the gnashing of teeth.”

And that’s not the only sensationalist title. A post on is titled “Muslim TV Show Shocks Swedish Public,” and has some very interesting insights on the show:

“What’s striking about the response to the show is how both journalists and the Swedish public react negatively against watching radical Muslims appearing live on television. What are we, I ask as a Swede, afraid of? Did we think all Muslims would convert to law abiding Social Democrats the minute they crossed our borders?

I may be one of the few Swedes who appreciated watching these three Muslims express their opinions on TV. Aside from the tedious socialist propaganda and the poor journalism, it reflects the feelings, behavior and attitude of a great portion of the people who’ve come to stay in this country since the late ’70s. These people are no longer portrayed as hard working wannabe-Westerners without cultural roots. They represent their cultural and religious identity, and do so with pride. Even more, they refuse to accept our culture.

Such a silly social act as shaking hands, which in Sweden is a very important formal signal that you welcome a person in question (not shaking hands is the same as expressing resentment towards that same person), sparked a lively debate among people. “Why can’t they accept our social traditions?” The answer is: they already have social traditions of their own, and we’re morons if we thought they’d abandon these on the whim. Opposed to us, they are proud of their culture, while we spend hours on television condemning ours.”

I don’t want to go off on a tangent here, but I have some reservations about his whole post. In the above comments, he not only labels the three women hosts as “radicals,” he assumes that just because Muslims are proud of their culture they must reject Swedish culture and laws. He paints a picture of “us” and “them” that are in binary opposition, forgetting that the three Swedish women are part of that “us!” By simplifying the situation, he has effectively reduced the difficulties any person with dual identities faces to something trivial. He also refuses to consider the idea that shaking hands may mean a very different thing to those women—one has to take into account different beliefs and cultures. If it wasn’t a religious issue (for example, let’s say giving the okay sign in Brazil, which is equivalent to giving someone your middle finger), I’m assuming it wouldn’t have been so hard to avoid doing it.

I do believe, though, that the women should have made it clear before the show began taping that they did not want to shake hands, because I understand it is embarrassing to put out your hand and not have it shaken.

On the issue of shaking hands, Shaista is frustrated:

“The debate in Swedish newspapers continues and much focus is on why some people in the Muslim community chose not to shake hands with the opposite sex. TV-shows and journalists are once again calling to get in touch with the Muslim community to have us “explain this” to them. They think we should be happy and grateful that they are getting in touch with us to let us have chance to clarify things. But I’m not too happy or grateful. The only time they contact us is when we have to explain ourselves as the problematic part of society. We are once again given on-air time in defensive positions. A lot of us are getting tired of it. It’s not our job to run to the studios and explain and answer the questions they pose when they feel like it.”

(For more stories, go here, where the blog author has posted links to dozens of English and Swedish stories on the program).

A couple of last comments on the show itself, which is supposed to be the Muslim women explaining Sweden through their ‘Muslim’ eyes. I don’t speak Swedish, so I can’t judge the content, but from what I’ve read, the first episode talked about class and wasn’t very ‘meaty.’ I watched the clip on the site, and even though I don’t understand Swedish, I still have something to say.

The three women, although they come from different backgrounds, are hijabis. And although way harsh, this is what Demirbag-Sten, the Swedish author, wrote in a column published last week in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper:

“There are many ways for public broadcasting to use high standards of journalism to address the diversity issues which affect the Muslim part of the population without reducing the group to deeply faithful, headscarf bearing, homophobic teetotalers who believe that women should be virgins until they are married and support stoning for adultery.”

Immediately, you see that the connection has been made that wearing hijab = the stereotypes he just spewed. Awad’s previous statement and the women’s refusal to shake hands just reinforced those stereotypes.

I have to question why it is the three women are hijabis. It’s an unfortunate truth, but the reality is that the hijab, especially with the target audience of the show, might make all three women seem homogenous. Criticism of them being veiled actually came from unveiled Swedish Muslim women.

In an interesting eight minute (English) radio interview with the TV show producer Gunnar Hofverberg and the three hosts right before the show began, Hofverberg says:

“They don’t represent anyone but themselves. We have 150,000 religious Muslims in Sweden and we don’t make a program that represents this group.”

The radio interviewer (who’s actually very articulate though he does ask the [Swedish born] women “have you learned anything about Sweden?”) asked the three women why they think people look at them and say “Ah, three women in hijab. They must all think the same.” One of them answered (sorry, can’t tell their voices apart!):

“It seems so illogical when you say it so I can’t even say why. If I see three white men next to each other, I won’t say they must all have the same political views. We would never think that way.”

The radio interviewer then told them that because so few veiled women are on Swedish TV, people will see them as role models or forebearers. Another one answered:

“We’re all very aware that people consider us to be representatives for the Muslim community and we understand that but that’s not what we want. We want to show we are all individuals. We have two factors in common: we live in Sweden and we are Muslim. But other than that we are very different.”

Last comment: why is the show named ‘Halal TV?’

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