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REVIEW | Dahaya Halal: The Saudi Show Uncovering Sexual Exploitation and Social Issues in the Arab World

July 8, 2023

In 2020, streaming platform Shahid released the Saudi show Dahaya Halal (Halal Victims), but after causing nation-wide uproar due to its bold scenes and controversial storylines, the Saudi General Authority for Audiovisual Media demanded its removal from Shahid and other MBC screens.

Three years later, Dahaya Halal is back on screens, delving into worlds unknown and uncovering social problems usually kept in the dark.

No specific reason was provided as to why the show is back on screens, however, social transformations in Saudi Arabia — where gendered laws and norms are changing — may have played a part.

Dahaya Halal is a heart-wrenching, and controversial to some, show that tells the story of five women who, due to misfortunes and difficulties, seek refuge with Om Noura (played by Sanaa Bakr Younis) who promises to help them.

Om Noura weds them off to wealthy men who are in search of secret, albeit perceived as halal, marriages. Through the marriages, which are arranged to be quick and temporary, Om Noura collects dowries that she splits in half between the girls and herself.

In Om Noura’s house — which parallels a trafficking and prostitution ring — escape is impermissible. Once they are at Om Noura’s mercy, there is no use trying to break the cycle as she blackmails and abuses the women if they attempt to refuse a marriage or stay in one.

The 10-episode series is directed by Egyptian Ahmed Medhat and written by Jordanian writer Adel Al-Jabri, and screenplay is done by Syrian Nour Shakili.

Note: If you wish to avoid spoilers stop reading here. The below discusses key plot points of the series.

The Story: Painstakingly Real

Om Noura presents herself as a pious and religious woman who merely wants to help vulnerable women out of their misery. She surrounds herself with religious clerics — namely Abu Bandar (played by Saeed Saleh) — who brings in the men and ‘officiates’ the marriages.

The five women in the house all present incredibly painful stories: some went to Om Noura by pure choice, like Shouq, while others found themselves in the house by force, like Sahar, who is Om Noura’s niece. Sahar’s story is perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching storylines, because although she is of her own blood, Om Noura marries Sahar off when she is just 14 years old.

The clients which Abu Bandar brings are wealthy men; some married with children and some not. As some bring in more money than others; the dowry is higher if the woman is a virgin or pretty in the eyes of the client.

Yet, forced marriages and sexual exploitation is not Om Noura’s only transgression. Against their knowledge and consent, the women are recorded by cameras hidden and installed in each of their bedrooms — constantly being watched by the attentive eyes of Om Noura.

Overcoming Censorship and Public Discontent

Dahaya Halal is a show that paints in bold colors the thin line between what appears to be halal and what is actually not.

Although the marriages and divorces seem to be according to Islamic law — they are neither Islamic nor legal. Abu Bandar marries them according to a doctrine that allows a woman to marry herself in the case of a lack or absence of a guardian. Moreover, the marriages in the show are temporary and contingent on a quick divorce, which is considered by most to be forbidden in Islam.

In fact, when a divorce takes place in one of the scenes, the papers and contracts are burnt to ashes: deterring any evidence that can incriminate either party. When police officers pass by the house, all the women hide and the papers are hidden away.

The entire series centers around what is often perceived as a grey area, despite being condemned by scholars: that these sexual relations are carried according to religious laws — between two married people — disregarding any of the illegalities pertaining to adultery and fornication in Saudi Arabia.

Although the show gained a wide range of attacks, it succeeded to depict a word concealed: a realm of social ills in the Arab world, including sex-trafficking, child abuse, and domestic violence. The show succeeds in shining the light on the stories of hundreds of women who have been coerced to succumb to a lifestyle that exploits them physically, emotionally, and mentally.

“The series raises a case that has long been kept secret in drama, and that is why the work came as a surprise to the audience,” explained lead star Sanaa Bakr Younis in a recent interview.

Dahaya Halal is real, riveting, and edgy. It presents a new era of thought-provoking shows in the Arab world, one that has been shunned by censorship.

Perhaps one of the ways this show could have been better is if it ran for more than 10 episodes, due to the many layers that could have been uncovered. Each character was mutli-dimensional and presented themselves differently, meaning that there was ample room for further exploration.

The last episode of the season ended on a cliffhanger, which leaves an important question: will there be a second season to the show?

It is also worth noting that the show is not for the faint-hearted as it discusses — and portrays — scenes that are gruesome and can be triggering to some viewers.

At the beginning of each episode there is a disclaimer that this show is for those of 18 years old or above, which opens the door for a conversation on adding trigger warnings in Arabic shows.

Overall, Dahaya Halal is worth watching because it is unprecedented in its boldness — especially for the Gulf region. Even at the peak of its heaviest scenes — which can seem strange and at times unrealistic, Dahaya Halal is one step towards a needed change of women empowerment and autonomy in the Arab world.

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