Halal-TV, a Swedish talk show hosted by three Muslim women, was the center of a great deal of controversy and confusion recently, resulting from the decision by two of the hosts not to shake hands with a male guest. The guest at the center of the storm was Carl Hamilton, a newspaper columnist for Aftonbladet. Hamilton reacted to the perceived slight with hostility and anger, arguing that shaking his hand was the polite thing to do. According to the transcript of the incident (available in Swedish), Hamilton told host Khadiga El-Khabiry at one point, “The problem is that you come here and don’t want to shake hands, so it’s actually you who are the problem.” It’s important to note here that El-Khabiry was actually born in Sweden.
Later, Hamilton said he didn’t know he was being taped and excused himself for making a scene. Although he still felt the offense had been against him, he wanted to clarify what he meant. According to his written response, Hamilton felt El-Khabiry was too quick to assume he was discriminating against her. However, he still doesn’t seem to understand that her decision was based on her religious beliefs and that his response was condescending and dismissive.
What was the real problem? Sweden’s English newspaper The Local said it was bad journalism. In fact, the public impact of the show was much lower that what was expected by SVT, the network that carries the it. And even the people who did tune in were soon confused about what was actually going on. For the hijab-wearing hosts of Halal-TV, their appearance and the name of the show tells viewers they are making a statement about being Muslim. So, what does the incident say about Islam?
The image of three Muslim women wearing hijab on a Western TV program, while unusual, doesn’t say much in itself. Even though the various forms of the veil are specifically identified with Islamic tradition, their significance stems from the intentions of the individual, known ultimately only by god. Generally speaking, the veil represents modesty in Islam. However, those virtues don’t disappear if a woman doesn’t wear one in public, nor do they mystically appear when a woman covers.
Mainstream-media conversations about the public face of Muslim women frequently resort to using images of women wearing a hijab without any clear sense or context of what the veil represents or the role of women in Islam. When it’s not clear what the hijab means from the start, discussion is reduced to generalizations about Muslims and focus on the debate over who is right and wrong, if women are oppressed or liberated, and so on. Nevertheless, the public image of Muslim women is becoming more diverse and the their role in the world is changing. For example, in “Muslim Women Go Public,” Fatemeh Fakhraie points to a host of examples where Muslim women are emerging as leaders.
The image of Muslim women as agents of social change is a positive way to view conflicts between Islam and Western culture, and a departure from the norm of negative, sometimes violent encounters. However, it’s hard to make a case that the hosts of Halal-TV will be considered part of the positive category just because they wear a hijab or because the show is an explicit reference to Islamic teachings. The program’s role is further complicated by a controversial statement made by another host, Cherin Awad, that stoning is a justifiable punishment for adultery. Although she later changed her position, her logic in switching from one view to the other isn’t clearly presented, at least in the articles available in English. From what is presented by the media coverage about Halal-TV, the controversy says little about Islam as a religion in any real sense. More likely, it points to the fact that Islam is a controversial subject in the media today and Halal-TV was able to attract attention as something like a poster child for religious diversity.
As I have pointed out, though, there are clearly images of Muslim women creating social change and that does say something about Islam, namely that Islam doesn’t oppress women even though it’s true to say that some Muslim women are oppressed. They can and do contribute important public works and meaningful and positive images of Islam. However, their intentions are not always immediately apparent and so to understand the message requires looking deeper at complex issues. For instance, this positive image also implies that modesty and humility can be virtues, not just of women who wear the hijab but also of Muslims who choose not to and even of men.
To be fair, I do understand Awad’s position although not because it was well explained. In a statement published and later pulled by SVT, the network says that in theory:
the evidence requirements are so strict that the sentence can never be applied in practice. But if she has to choose, God’s law always precedes man’s law. And the penalty for adultery is death.
Neither Cherin Awad nor I are legal scholars, but even for people who are, these are complicated issues. UW Madison’s Asifa Quraishi clearly outlines these points in “Who says Shari’a Demands The Stoning of Women? A Description of Islamic Law and Constitutionalism.” Quraishi also joined us for Inside Islam’s most recent radio program “Women and Sharia” to explore the topic in depth. What is your take on the Swedish TV controversy and the broader issue of the role of Islam in women’s life? Join the conversation by commenting below.
Updated: January 15, 2009. Fatemeh Fakhraie’s name was misspelled in the original post and the change was made above. Thank you for the update.