A New Saudi Show Challenges ‘Halal’ Sex Rings

The controversial drama sheds light on bogus marriage contracts and social problems usually kept in the dark

A New Saudi Show Challenges ‘Halal’ Sex Rings
Om Noura handing Sahar a contraceptive pill before her latest marriage. (MBC Shahid / Still from “Dahaya Halal”)

“How many times have you been married?” Badr asks.

Sahar, seated across from her terminally ill husband, Badr, lowers her gaze as she begins to describe her first forced marriage. She was 14 years old at the time. The recently orphaned teen’s aunt, Om Noura, had married her off to a 50-year-old man.

“It was the worst memory in my life; I can never forget it,” she tells Badr. At that moment, as the two newlyweds seem to fall cautiously in love with each other, Badr tells her to pretend he was her first. She replies that she hopes he will be the last. He then tells her he will get her out of “here.” Sahar stares at him in disbelief.

“Here” is her aunt’s home. Sahar lives there with a handful of other young women who, following a sequence of unrelated misfortunes, end up in need of her aunt’s help. Om Noura was quick to help and, in return, the women were wedded off to wealthy men looking for secret marriages. For the scheme to work its best, the young women would ideally be temporarily married so as to collect as many dowries as possible, which is paid by the groom to the bride or her kin. Choosing older men for the task, like Sahar’s first husband, or dying men, like Badr, speeds up divorce (or widowhood) and, subsequently, another marriage with a brand-new dowry that Om Noura could get a share of. The house — which basically ran its business of revolving door marriages with unsettling parallels to that of a pimp who runs a ring of trafficked women — was the site of more marriages than we know, and sexually exploited young-women-turned-serial-“brides” who dreamed of escaping but lacked the means to do so. By all accounts, this was a prostitution ring operating under the guise of marriage, therefore sanctioned by religion and the state. And while the characters involved hailed from different countries in the region, the operation took place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The provocative plot of the newly released show “Dahaya Halal” (Halal Victims) — an allusion to the operation’s apparent compliance with religious law, since none of the victims was committing adultery or fornication — on Shahid, Saudi Arabia’s rival to Netflix Arabic, has stirred drama, with people from across the Arab world going as far as calling for it to be pulled off the air. It was already taken off when it first began airing in 2020, but it returned this month.

The 10-part series, with the last episode airing May 31, is a show about Om Noura — how she coerces and takes advantage of young and vulnerable women. She blackmails and beats them if they try to break the cycle, either by refusing a marriage or even attempting to stay in one.

The reasons behind Shahid’s U-turn are unclear, but the second release comes into a very different kingdom from the one that existed in 2020. It coincides with a new law introduced last summer to address the very issues the show depicts, which might be why the series found a new life. In March last year, the kingdom passed its first legal instrument to regulate family matters. The Personal Status Law, which went into effect last June, sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both men and women, and guarantees women financial and property rights in marriage. It spells out other financial rights for women, including a full dowry that a husband has no right to interfere in, like making demands on how to spend it. A husband must also tend to his wife’s keep — her financial needs, food, clothing, housing, medical care and other needs, irrespective of the wife’s independent wealth, which, according to Islamic law, is hers alone and not the subject of her household’s spending, which is 100% the responsibility of the man. (This is one rationale given for why, in Islamic law, male heirs inherit twice as much as females.) The law also stipulates that marriages must be registered by an officiator and by all parties with the Ministry of Justice, and gives husbands 15 days to register a divorce, removing the ability to keep it secret or unofficial, which is how women become exploited in schemes akin to trafficking and forced prostitution. Traditionally, a woman could marry through a “mazoun” (officiant) without registering the marriage and sometimes even without the knowledge of her own parents.

For marriages to be permissible in Islam, they generally need to meet four conditions: consent from the bride’s guardian if she is under 40 years of age; consent from the bride and groom; a monetary dowry given from the groom to their future wife at the time of the marriage; and two witnesses (usually adult men) to the contract. For the contract to be legal and enforceable in the eyes of the state, it needs to be registered with the court. Even though these are the main rules, there are other stipulations that have to be met, but since they are not always spelled out and can differ under different Islamic interpretations, it leaves room for exploitation. The show brings to light an underreported way by which people try to manipulate the Islamic and legal system — through a marriage of “misyar,” a practice in which women give up their traditional rights to housing and living expenses but acquiesce to physical intimacy for a negotiated price.

The show has indeed stirred up unsettling questions about how to reconcile the Islamic tradition, which shuns sex outside marriage, with what appears to be a religiously sanctioned vehicle for a sex-trafficking ring, with a hijab-wearing “pious” Om Noura and a religious cleric as its ringleaders. Clerics who openly sanction these “temporary marriage” schemes acknowledge that they are not proper Islamic marriages but a pragmatic way to curtail adultery and illegal sex — in other words, a way to legitimize and respond to the spread of sex outside marriage in otherwise conservative societies. The show, in this sense, is a realistic depiction of this marriage and its cynical application.

In the show, Om Noura, an elderly woman played by the Saudi actor Sanaa Bakr Younis, is a marriage broker. Abu Bandar, played by the Saudi actor Saeed Saleh, is the marriage officiator and religious cleric. Abu Bandar brings Om Noura clients: men with money looking for a secret marriage, some of them already married and with children. Om Noura trades the women who live under her roof and under her mercy as pawns, marrying one off after the other, and recruits new women along the way. When a marriage takes place, the groom pays a dowry to the bride, which is handed to Om Noura, who takes half for herself and gives half to the bride. The prettier the woman in the eyes of the clients, the greater the dowry. And if she’s a virgin, the dowry is even higher. Abu Bandar is given a commission, and marriage witnesses are paid for their service. Abu Bandar marries the women using not the local Saudi official legal system but the doctrine of one of four Muslim schools that allows a woman to marry herself off in the absence of a guardian. The marriage, marriage consummation, divorce and everything else take place in the same camera-rich home for every marriage under the watchful eyes of Om Noura.

Viewers have objected to the show in part because they were quick to dismiss it as pandering to “foreign” concepts and practices, but that’s what makes the show interesting. It is offering new language to depict and describe existing but long-hidden social ills in the region — such as sex-trafficking rings, pedophilia and child abuse — discussing them by way of a gripping storyline. The show also humanizes the trafficked women who are often left out in such stories, where people often place blame on women for allegedly putting themselves in sexually exploitative situations.

Throughout the show, the audience is told in various ways that the marriages are neither Islamic nor legal in the eyes of the state. When a police patrol passed by Om Noura’s house during one marriage ceremony, Abu Bandar ran and hid with the groom. Om Noura told the women to hide before she put away contraceptive pills in a candy dish and stashes of cash in a safe. In another scene, when Badr grilled his brother as to whether his marriage was permissible in Islam or not, he was given conflicting answers, despite having been the one who brought him to Abu Bandar for the marriage. In a third scene, when a divorce takes place, the marriage contracts are burned, as if the marriage never happened in the first place, with incriminating evidence destroyed.

The first time the show aired at the end of 2020, with an audience having been introduced to it earlier only via a trailer, it faced a popular backlash. In an interview on Saudi TV, one of the actors in the show, Alanoud Saud, who plays the role of one of the female victims, said she wasn’t surprised by the criticism, since it was a difficult and uncomfortable story for people to watch. She urged people to give it a chance and watch before they judged it. But people were quick to sharpen their pitchforks, denouncing the show and its actors. Some were particularly worried that the show would teach children the wrong lessons, normalizing pedophilia as well as underage and forced marriages. The show, of course, aims to do the exact opposite. Yet when it was released the first time, criticism flooded in even more. One of the more controversial scenes, which has since been deleted, depicts a reverse-gender case of exploitation, where a 15-year-old Saudi boy is married to a Moroccan woman twice his age under exploitative conditions similar to what the young women endure in Om Noura’s house. People took to social media to express their outrage, asserting that such a thing did not represent Saudi society, despite the show’s producers insisting that this was a societal issue that needed highlighting. As a result, in early 2021, the show was canceled, having aired only four episodes. When it aired again, it included an explicit warning that it was only for viewers over 18.

The relationship between marriage and human trafficking is a global problem, as traffickers take advantage of varying national laws and cultural norms to exploit women and girls, primarily, but also boys and, in some cases, even men. A study funded by Germany and conducted by the United Nations examined the connection between marriage and trafficked individuals. The study analyzed cases from countries such as Canada, Germany, Jordan, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam. The findings were released shortly before the show aired the first time.

The U.N. report reveals that in Jordan, certain minority groups would marry Egyptian women and compel them to beg on the streets. In South Africa, women who entered into sham marriages were coerced by their fake husbands into smuggling drugs. In Serbia, thousands of child marriages are recorded each year, predominantly within the Roma community, even though they are criminal offenses. Similar cases were also found in other parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, including the Gulf.

In some Muslim countries, traffickers exploit temporary or pragmatic marriages as means to force girls into marriages for sexual exploitation. These practices are widely condemned for their misuse, yet they persist. During the early stages of the Syrian refugee crisis, it became common for desperate and destitute parents to marry off their daughters in exchange for shelter, sometimes for the bride’s entire family. A video recently went viral on social media showing an old man in northern Syria harassing a displaced woman and promising to marry her and “move you to a building.” Because of gross income disparities throughout the region, there have also been troubling trends of wealthy men from Gulf countries going on the prowl for young and vulnerable women among refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon or in the poor provinces of Egypt.

Before the show was taken off air in 2020, there were intense debates on social media regarding abusive practices related to marriage. The law in the country mandates that a male guardian’s approval is required for a marriage. As a result, many women found themselves trapped in a situation locally referred to as “adhl,” where their male guardians prevent them from getting married by simply rejecting every marriage proposal. This issue gained significant attention when the case of the “Unayzah Bride” came to light – a woman from the Saudi city of Unayzah remained unmarried for years because her brother rejected all her marriage proposals. In 2019, hundreds of women filed court cases, seeking permission from authorities to bypass their guardians and proceed with marriage. In response to the growing number of cases, authorities imposed a time limit for the adjudication of such cases in order to expedite the process.

To address exploitation that takes place within its borders, Saudi Arabia established a special court to handle marriage requests involving individuals under the age of 18, ensuring that such unions do not harm either party. In a significant step toward protecting children, the country’s legislative body, the Shura Council, passed a child protection law earlier in 2019, banning marriages for individuals under the age of 15. This new law aims to enshrine the fragmented policies regarding underage marriages within coherent legal measures.

The show also speaks to how Saudi and Gulf TV in general have lately become known for tackling tough questions about social ills, ideologies and much more. These controversial shows are part of the story of the rapid changes taking place in the Gulf region and have become valuable for understanding governmental signaling about any given big issue. This wouldn’t be the first time Saudi authorities have used entertainment and drama to drive social change and trigger debates on political, social and religious matters, all while stirring what feels like a seasonal controversy: Why do people join extremist groups? How can you depict a Muslim figure on the small screen? What is the real threat of using religion to justify violence and when and how religious extremism is born? What about Indigenous Jewish populations in places like 1940s Kuwait? There’s a show about each one of those issues, with scripts and actors becoming more daring with every new season.

As the powers-that-be keep pushing the limit on addressing what ails their societies, it is often the people — the viewers of these shows — who are pushing back. But so far, this push is to no avail.

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