Person of the Week: Poet Hissa Hilal

Saudi Arabian woman stands up against extremism through poetry competition.

ByABC News
April 9, 2010, 5:08 PM

April 9, 2010— -- The Arab world's version of "American Idol" isn't about singing at all. It's about poetry. Contestants on the Abu Dhabi TV show "Million's Poet" recite verse in their quest for a top prize of over $1 million. In a part of the world where poets are as famous as rock stars, the show celebrates odes to family, soccer and life in the desert.

But at this week's finale of "Million's Poet" was an amazing sight: A woman was one of five finalists, reciting her controversial poetry in a full niqab. Hissa Hilal, is a 43-year-old mother of four from Saudi Arabia who watches the world through slits in her niqab. She used the stage – and her poetry – to send a message, slamming conservative Muslim clerics who she says unfairly separate men and women, spread extremism and give Islam a bad name.

"Defeat fear and conquer every frightening cave," she read on stage. "Do not live life with one eye looking behind."

Hilal often writes about courage and inspiration, but her poem about the perils of religious and social extremism struck a chord with the live audience and those watching at home.

"Something is not going good. And somebody should talk about it," she said.Hilal's words won her millions of fans who voted for her by text message and turned out in droves for the finale.

But not everyone was a supporter. Hilal received death threats for her outspoken position.

"After what I wrote about extremism and terrorism, my colleagues said they wrote on the Internet, 'such a woman should not come on TV,' and some said, 'she should be killed,'" she said.

Hilal used to write poetry under a pen name to keep her secret passion from her very strict family. But the show has transformed her, giving her a platform few women in Saudi Arabia have.

What "I'm seeing is a lot of courage out there, a lady, she's speaking out and she's in niqab. That's something amazing for me," one fan said.