Saudi Poet Has Rhyme and Reason

I’d like to give it up to Hissa Hilal, a Saudi woman who’s caused some controversy for slamming Islamic extremists in an American Idol spinoff called Million’s Poet. Instead of singing, contestants are judged based on how well they recite poems in front of a live audience; a panel of judges, along with thousands of viewers voting by text message, determine who walks away with the $1.3 million prize.

Over the past episodes, poets romanticized Arab culture with odes to Bedouin life and glorious leaders. Then last week, Hilal, a former journalist, decided to give the audience a dose of reality with her anti-extremist poem against Muslim clerics “who sit in the position of power” but are “frightening” people with their fatwas and “preying like a wolf” on those seeking peace. Hilal laid it on thick, garnering loud cheers from the audience and winning a slot in the competition’s finals.

She is the first woman to do so, and after watching season after season of Million’s Poet, she finally worked up the courage to audition. “This is my chance to reach millions of people,” she told ABC News.

Granted, since sugarcoating Arab life may be the norm, Hilal’s poem ruffled a few dishdashas. Many in the Arab media saw it as a response to Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia who issued a fatwa saying those who call for the mingling of men and women should be considered infidels, punishable by death. Her poem was seen as an attack against hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who get major television time. On the show, many viewers hailed her “courage,” but others called for her death, lashing out in heated exchanges on internet forums and blogs.

While Hilal is being applauded and praised by judges and viewers, she is also being cursed by those who don’t wish to hear dissent, especially from a woman. The Saudi newspaper Al Watan’s headline captured the gravity of her opponents: “Saudi woman risks life to share poetry.” They also reported that a member of the Ana al Muslim (I am the Muslim) website (which has previously posted videos about al-Qaeda operations) called for Hilal’s death. One member was quoted by the newspaper as posting the message: “Can anyone tell me her address?”

Despite the threats, Hilal remains steadfast, telling The Associated Press, “My poetry has always been provocative. “It’s a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who have hijacked our culture and our religion.”

Hilal, who is portrayed as somewhat of a rebel rouser, told Abu Dhabi’s The National that she’s not covering her face because she’s afraid, but because “We live in a tribal society and otherwise my husband, my brother will be criticized by other men.”

“I know they love me and they support me. It’s a big sacrifice for them in such a society to let me go to the TV and talk to the media. I am hoping my daughters won’t have to cover their faces and they’ll live a better life.”

That statement might be more ammo for westerners shouting “Islam oppresses women!” but here we have a Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia saying her government does oppress women, and her voice should not be underestimated.  The fact that a Muslim woman is protesting anything on a popular TV show can only help counter the idea that Islam oppresses women. Plus it shows that Arab women are a part of the dialogue for equal rights, and have an opinion about the laws that dictate their way of life. Hilal is setting the record straight and the media is listening.

Celbrifi called her a pop idol and icon for women across Arab countries. What’s that? Pop sensations Haifa Wehbe and Nancy Ajram are competing with a niqab-wearing housewife? A Saudi woman is blasting off about men who issue fatwas that curb Muslim women’s rights? Eloquence, calls for equality and empowerment of women are taking center stage in the Gulf?

Good thing someone’s recording this. Most of the media coverage (Arab or western) about Millions Poet emphasizes the fact that a Muslim woman is criticizing Islamic hardliners. And that is just good public relations across the board.

Editor’s Note: We were unable to find a subtitled version of the poem. Please post a link if you find one!

  • Omar

    I agree with you, that she did tell some interesting truths in a nice way (and she got the appreciation of the jury and audience for that, too).

    On the other hand, i’m sick of this glorification of this person. For years now, there are poetic contests in arabic television and no, not nearly all of them deal with “odes to Bedouin life and glorious leaders” but some do. Others deal with controversial political subjects, with social injusticed and so on. The contest format is a knock-off of the popular song contests running in any western country but – in my opinion – of higher value, since it’s more about the content (hence the poem) than the music or the show. For all those years, i didn’t hear any peep about it in western media (living in Europe) but now suddenly it’s all interesting and revolutionary. I’m sorry, but i still think, that change not only has to come from the inside of a country, but i’m suspicious of changes, that have their supporters outside the country. Seeing that a google search for “Hissa Hilal” returns thousends of results (most not speaking any arabic, and much less being able to understand her rather thick dialect) i think there is much hypocrisy in this. Sorry.

  • Online Quran

    Nice poetry done by the women ….she is the first woman to do so all the best for her future…


  • Person

    Got this from someon on Jezebel:

    English translation is third post down.

    “Translation from The National:

    ‘I have seen evil from the eyes of the subversive fatwas in a time when what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful;

    “When I unveil the truth, a monster appears from his hiding place; barbaric in thinking and action, angry and blind; wearing death as a dress and covering it with a belt [referring to suicide bombing];

    “He speaks from an official, powerful platform, terrorising people and preying on everyone seeking peace; the voice of courage ran away and the truth is cornered and silent, when self-interest prevented one from speaking the truth.’ “

  • Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

    I am so proud of her !!!

    Also, Million’s Poet is such a cool show with a great concept. That’s real talent, having to write and recite poetry, unlike these hacks on American Idol who just stand there and sing dumb songs.

  • Kadi

    I’m not so sure about the quality of the translation, but here goes:

  • Kadi

    …She’s not covering her face because she’s afraid, but because “We live in a tribal society and otherwise my husband, my brother will be criticized by other men… I am hoping my daughters won’t have to cover their faces.”

    It’s sad to read that she is not wearing the niqab for Allah :-(
    I originally assumed she was wearing it for spiritual reasons.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Kadi: What’s sad is that this woman is in real danger and feels her family will be in real danger if she doesn’t cover her face.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Omar: I think you make a really great point about nobody caring about poetry contests until now. Didn’t last year’s Millions Poet have a female contestant or two, also?

  • Person

    Fatemeh and Omar,
    Are you telling me that from a media analysis standpoint this may be another situation in which female Muslims are only celebrated when they do something that can be wrongly spun as “defying Islam” or some other neo-conservative or anti-Islam talking point? That it does seem strange that some people who can not even fully understand the poem in Arabic and get a lot of the spoken word aspects of it are jumping all over this (like this would be akin to Italian-only speakers lauding an Allen Ginsburg translated spoken-word piece as the best thing ever)?
    I refuse to believe it, nooooo. I want to live in a bubble where I can be certain she is being celebrated for her talent, just for a little while. Seriously though, it is a really good point.

  • jamillah

    I don’t know what the problem is a Muslim woman can speak from behind the veil. As long as it’s the truth, to make the falsehood fail. For twenty years I have written poetry dawwah, people get scared of muslims gaining power. Truth be told this was a test. There will be others, and Allah knows best.

  • Yusra

    @Fatemeh you’re right, she is not the first woman to compete but she is the first to be so critical of conservative clerics in her poetry.

    @Person She is absolutely being celebrated for her talent, like @ DeafMuslim says this is a show based on talent, contestants write and recite their own poetry, but let’s be real: she’s getting major press coverage because she’s agreeing with the west(in this instance I don’t think that’s a bad thing) and because a Saudi Arabian woman speaking out against Saudis is newsworthy.

  • M. Lynx Qualey

    @Yusra, I see that The National, for instance, is celebrating her for her talent, but I don’t think the Western press has been interested in assessing or celebrating her poetic skills. First, of course, we would have to understand nabati poetry.

    And yes, newsworthy, but some of the headlines are still fabulously cringe-inducing. My favorite (nonsensical) headline is from the Sun:

    Mum braves TV burka backlash

  • Hasan Kamal

    I dont know why one has to slam the poet infront of the whole audience, while judges have to listen and sms voting is done.