When Hissa Hilal takes the stage Wednesday night in the final episode of Million’s Poet, a hit reality TV poetry contest, she won’t just be competing for the $1.3 million grand prize. She’s also marking the culmination of an extraordinary journey to use her poetry to combat the extremism that she says is suffocating the Arab world.
The Saudi Arabian woman has garnered praise and incited anger with her poems, which have unflinchingly and eloquently criticized religious extremism, in particular the fatwas issued by the Islamic religious establishment. And Hilal’s rise to stardom comes amid a “perfect storm” of circumstances that make her message particularly effective in the current climate, says Marwan Kraidy, professor at the Annenburg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
Hilal has steadily risen to the final round of the competition, an American Idol-like show filmed in Abu Dhabi, where contestants recite poems they have composed in a traditional style, and a panel of judges and the viewing audience vote on the performance.
“I feel that I should speak out,” she says in a phone interview, describing the burden she felt to end the silence surround the issue of religious extremism in the Arab world. “Somebody should break the taboo, break the fear. After that society can start to talk about extremism.”
Poets and pop culture
Million’s Poet is just one of a new breed of show that has emerged in the Arab world recently. The reality television format has become extremely popular in the Middle East, but in recent years there has been some backlash against it for being too Western says Dr. Kraidy, who wrote about the rise of poetry reality shows in his book “Reality Television and Arab Politics.” But a reality show based on poetry – which resonates with the Arab public, where people consider poetry an important part of its culture – combines the best of both worlds into a show that has become a hit throughout the Arab world, he says.
Hilal also wears the black robes, the abeya, and facial veil, or niqab, on the show that most Saudi women wear in public, projecting a wholesome image that conservative viewers can identify with. And all of this comes as Saudi Arabian society is roiled in a debate about the religious establishment’s use of fatwas, prompted by a senior cleric’s criticism of the opening of Saudi Arabia’s first coed university last year.
“It’s a medium that is very resonant in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, and a format that’s very popular,” says Kraidy. “The [social] context allows her to attack extremist clerics without being sanctioned, at least by the state. … Her message is very effective."
In a performance that stirred controversy last month, Hilal recited poem critical of extreme edicts called “The Chaos of Fatwas.”
“I have seen evil from the eyes of the fatwas, in a time when right is confused with wrong,” she says in the poem, to a positive response from the audience and the judges. Hilal’s outspokeness has also earned her threats from those who say she is undermining Islam.
Hilal’s performance may resonate particularly with women in Saudia Arabia, who Kraidy says are “becoming restless.” Opportunities for women are extremely limited in a society where they cannot legally drive and must have the permission of a male relative to travel. Hilal, a wife and mother of four, had to get her husband’s permission to compete on the show.
As a child, she once had to hide her poetry from her parents, who did not think it was appropriate for a girl to be composing. But she persisted, and eventually began working from home as a poetry editor for Al Hayat, a pan-Arab daily newspaper.
She said of her appearance on Million’s Poet: “This was my chance.”
Whether she wins or loses Wednesday night, Hilal says she hopes the show will spread her message and encourage other women to speak out as she has.