Person of the Week: Poet Hissa Hilal

Saudi Arabian woman stands up against extremism through poetry competition.

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.

Life for Women in Saudi Arabia

In a country where women can't drive a car, can't attend college or hold a job without a male family member's permission, Hilal's mere participation in the competition is a rebellious act.

"I want to say something to the world," she said. "And … give hope to all millions of Arab people: if you ... dream in your heart, one day if you believe deeply in your heart, in God, it will happen."

The judges gave her high marks and praised her courage, but it wasn't enough to upset what some would call the Arabian old boys club. Hilal placed third and received about $800,000 in prize money.

She wants to find better doctors for her autistic daughter and to buy a house. But in Saudia Arabia, it will be her husband who decides how the prize money will be spent. Hilal's supporters say she was robbed – that she and her poetry were too controversial. But for Hilal, it wasn't about winning.

"I'm happy. I said what I wanted to say. I reached what I wanted to reach," she said. "Maybe the girls and ladies would say, 'nothing is impossible.'"

At least for one night, a voice behind the veil was heard around the world.

And so, we choose Hissa Hilal as our Person of the Week, on speaking her mind, empowering others and, no matter the final vote, showing the world she is a true winner, in any language.

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