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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!