ABU DHABI March 31, 2010— -- Watching the world through eyeslits in her black niqab, Hissa Hilal of Saudi Arabia is a rising TV star on a million-dollar reality show.
The program, known as "Million's Poet," is an American Idol-style contest in Arabic poetry. Instead of singing, contestants are judged based on how well they recite poems. A panel of judges, along with thousands of viewers voting by text message, determine who walks away with the $1.3 million prize.
Hilal, 43, is the first woman to reach the finals. She fell in love with poetry as a child, started composing verses at age 12, and after watching season after season of "Million's Poet," finally had the nerve to audition.
"I thought if I don't come this year, then I'll never come. And this is my chance to reach millions of people," Hilal told ABC News.
Unable to audition in Saudi Arabia, among the throngs of men who turned up to compete, she flew to the United Arab Emirtes where the show is taped. Funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Heritage and Culture, it has been part of a greater effort to invest oil money in reviving local culture through modern formats.
Once on stage Hilal was shockingly bold, using her poetry to slam Islamic extremists and the fatwas, or clerical rulings, that curb women's rights.
"I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden," she said in her poem.
She described hard-line clerics as "vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt," an apparent reference to suicide bombers' explosives belts, according to a translation in Gulf News.
More broadly, Hilal also criticized clerics for spreading their intensely conservative version of Islam across the Arab world.
The statement won her millions of fans among the television audience, but also set off a backlash.
A Saudi Woman's Secret Passion
"After what I said about extremism and terrorism, [critics] wrote on the Internet that such a woman should not come on TV...some said I should be killed," she told ABC News. Some of the postings called for readers to track down her home address.
"On the Internet there's no name, there's no face, so everyone can say what they like...10 people love you, three people hate you. You don't know why," she said.
For 15 years Hilal published poetry and prose in local newspapers under a false name out of fear of how her conservative, tribal family would react.
"I used to write by the name Remiya. No one knew who was this Remiya. I thought my father would be angry if he knows. When he found out, he was very angry. He said why did you go and publish like this?"
Eventually, her father relented. When one man was so moved by Hilal's poetry that he asked for her hand in marriage, she and her father said yes. Today they live in Riyadh with their four daughters, one of whom is autistic. The demands of raising a family with extensive demands and meagre resources, have left Hilal little time for her writing.
"Sometimes in one month maybe half an hour, maybe one hour," she said.
That has made the opportunity of "Millions Poet," with its financial and professional rewards, all the more precious.
"With the money I want to treat my daughters, I want to buy a house, I want a nice education for my daughters, and I have some relatives around me. They need so much help," she said.
Yet she is clearly motivated by the message, not the money that would come with a win in the final round.
"We are poor people from the middle class or maybe less, but still we have something to say to society," she said. "We don't have money, but we have love and we have wisdom."
She said the idea of a self-made champion holds special significance given a rigid class structure that leaves many at the bottom feeling locked out of status and privilege.
"I want to say that a woman, she's not from a big family, she's not from an important family, she can do it," Hilal said.
"It gives hope to all millions of Arab people, that if you some dream in your heart, one day if you believe deeply in your heart, in God, it will happen."