TV program leader confronts her critics

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A young Muslim woman who won fame in Norway for speaking out against Islamic extremists made her TV debut Thursday night as leader of a  program aimed at encouraging other young Norwegians to vote. Faten Mahdi al-Hussaini also responded to all the criticism state broadcaster NRK has received for allowing her to wear her hijab on the air, suggesting it has strengthened her resolve to fight prejudice and intolerance.

Faten al-Hussaini wishes her critics would pay more attention to what she says and does on her new TV show aimed at helping young Norwegians choose a political party, instead of being “hung up” on the hijab she wears. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The actual content of her new pre-election program called Faten tar valget (Faten makes a choice), which chronicles her own research into choosing a political party, was overshadowed by all the fuss during the past few weeks over her hijab. As of Thursday, NRK and Norway’s broadcasting council have received more than 6,000 complaints, a record for NRK while some of them appear to be part of an organized campaign. In addition comes all the criticism hurled at both NRK and al-Hussaini herself in online commentary fields, much of it written by so-called “Internet trolls” who hide behind anonymity. Most don’t think religious symbols should be allowed on national TV, especially since an NRK news reporter was prevented from wearing her cross. News reporting, respond NRK officials, must remain objective, while other programs can be more flexible. One of the stars of the smash NRK series Skam (Shame) also wore a hijab, and that had encouraged al-Hussaini.

“She was the cool girl on an internationally successfull series, which gave me hope that the hijab doesn’t limit you,” al-Hussaini told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. It meant, she thought, “that I could also be a program leader on TV.”

Instead she was met with the torrent of criticism, even before her program went on the air. “I read in commentary fields online that I should be shot,” the 22-year-old who has publicly and bravely condemned the brutal terrorist group ISIL, told Aftenposten. “That was the worst, especially because the program wasn’t even on the air yet. I was getting hit with such hatred not because of what I say or do, but because of a head scarf.”

Lingering ‘fear of foreigners’
Police equipped Al-Hussaini with a special alarm after she received death threats for speaking out against ISIL at a rally in front of Norway’s Parliament in 2014. She hasn’t reported any of the threats she’s getting now to police, saying with a laugh that “I’ve almost gotten used to feeling threatened.” But she is disturbed and hurt by them, attributing the threats to hatred against immigrants and what she calls “Islam phobia.” It seems to fuel her desire to demystify Islam and stress that her religion has been severely misused by extremists.

“Folks get hung up on this because of their fear of foreigners,” she said, even though she was born in Norway and feels proud to be a Norwegian. That’s why she wanted to do the pre-election program, to help other young Norwegians be good citizens and exercise their right to vote and take part in Norway’s democracy. In some of the sequences from Thursday night’s debut, al-Hussaini donned an army uniform and protective fear and took part in military exercises to learn more about defense issues. Her hijab was hardly visible under the helmet she was wearing.

When NRK’s new program leader took part in military exercises, to learn more about defense issues, her hijab was hardly visible. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

She’s disappointed so many Norwegians are unable to see beyond her hijab and pay attention to the message she’s trying to get across. “Haven’t we come farther than  this in Norway?” she asked rhetorically. “When a headdress is the only thing you see in 2017, you have a problem.”

The hijab debate in Norway has also pointed out that even many Norwegian native costumes known as the bunad include headdresses for women, designed at a time when it was customary for women to cover their hair. An annual “Turban Day” in Oslo, sponsored by local sikhs keen to share their custom of covering up their hair, has been wildly popular. Yet hijabs still spark complaints.

“Now it seems okay to wear a hijab only if you’re not representing Norway or shall be part of the Norwegian public sector,” al-Hussaini told Aftenposten. “That’s terrible. If you don’t want to call me ‘Norwegian’ on TV, then I’m not really Norwegian.” It amounts to discrimination that she finds totally unacceptable.

All the opposition she’s faced has only made her social commitment stronger. “I’ve never had so much motivation to participate publicly than I have now,” she said. “Those who don’t want to see me, can just turn off their TVs.” Berglund