19 August 2010

Poetess Defies, Shocks Saudi Arabia

*** A brave woman in the Middle East dares to criticize her religion and her culture - through a live TV national poetry competition, the Arab world version of American Idol.

Female Poet in Saudi Arabia Heard on Live TV

From Denny: It takes courage to go against the tide of common opinion. It takes courage to criticize your own religion, your own government, your own society and culture. And in Saudi Arabia, where women have absolutely no rights for self-determination, that courage is both rare and rarely rewarded by the men of the country. The predictable end results are always death threats and promises of persecution and prosecution.

With so much going on in the Middle East lately, especially the American combat troop pullout of Iraq, women's rights in the Arab world continue to be center stage. Women's groups worry about the women in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Afghan Parliament there are many women who have won seats and they are concerned they will lose those seats once America pulls out of Afghanistan. They know the American distaste for remaining much longer in a failed war and wonder how much time they have to make a difference in their country.

Poetess Hissa Hilal of Saudi Arabia

Meet poetess Hissa Hilal of Saudi Arabia, whose story was featured this past May, around Memorial Day. She decided to enter her national poetry competition, "Million's Poet," that is only populated by men who belabor the point about how much they love soccer. Other poetry features the romantic love of the Bedouin life.

"My poetry has always been provocative," said Hilal, a housewife and mother of four from Saudi Arabia. "It's a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who have hijacked our culture and our religion."

Hissa challenges Islamic extremists

Challenging extremism in her culture, her country and her religion is risky for this poetess. Since her appearance in the poetry competition she has received numerous death threats for daring to speak against the evils in her country. But then, that's how evil thrives, doesn't it? It thrives when good people refuse to stand against it. And, of all people, the one standing up to institutionalized evil is a woman poet, a 43-year-old mother of four, who had to get her husband's permission just to appear on the live TV show. Yet appear she did, knowing her prospects.

Poets are rock stars in the Arab world

In the Arab world, poets are as famous - and treated - like rock stars. On this show the top prize is $1 million. Hissa placed third in the competition among the usual poetry odes to family, soccer and life in the desert. Even though it was obviously a rigged "old boys network" Hissa did receive $800,000 of prize money for her efforts. She wants to afford better doctors for her autistic daughter and purchase a house with the winnings.

Hissa shocked the whole country when she took the stage

It was quite a shock for the entire country when a woman took the stage to recite her poem as one of the five finalists. She was dressed in full head-to-toe niqab with only small eye slits to view her world. Hissa did not waste time feeling self-conscious and launched into her incredibly controversial poem that slammed the conservative Muslim clerics who spread extremism and give Islam a bad name. She complained about the separation of men and women, in a country where a woman is not allowed to hold the hand of her husband in public.

The audience connected with Hissa's words and passion

Hissa struck a chord with the live audience and those watching at home, sending out her message to the world when she said, "Defeat fear and conquer every frightening cave. Do not live life with one eye looking behind." She railed against social and religious extremism, something which many Saudis also find disturbing. "Something is not going good. And somebody should talk about it," she said.

Life for women in Saudi Arabia

Remember that Saudi Arabia is a harsh place for women. They are not allowed to drive a car, not allowed to attend college or hold a job - unless permitted by a male relative. For American minds to understand her level of courage is to realize that in this culture the fact she dared to attend the poetry competition, and then dared more to recite her courageous poem questioning the bedrock of their society, well, that was one seriously rebellious act. It's a rebellious act that some segments of the society believe is worthy of death.

Hissa's childhood with a strict family

Hissa said she used to write under a pen name, fearing her own strict family's reaction. But, since the TV show, she has decided to come out of the shadows of fear and write under her own name. She said she felt transformed by the experience. Hissa also has won something rare in Saudi Arabia for women: a platform from which to speak.

Poetry Academy judge speaks up for Hissa

"Hissa Hilal is a courageous poet," said judge Sultan al-Amimi, who manages Abu Dhabi's Poetry Academy. "She expressed her opinion against the kind of fatwas that affect people's lives and raised an alarm against these ad hoc fatwas coming from certain scholars who are inciting extremism."

Hissa's inspiring words to other women who want to change the world

"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."

"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.' Since I was a little girl I wanted my voice to be like a message in a bottle, reaching the other side of the ocean."

This woman of courage has inspired millions to rise up and consider a better life, accomplished from the simplicity of a powerful voice heard beneath a veil. She is a woman who wrote a poem - and challenged an entire country.

*** Photo by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage/AP

Saudi Woman Criticizes Muslim Clerics in TV Poetry Contest – Gets Death Threats

Bravery of Arab TV 'Idol' - Veiled poetess hits 'vicious, barbaric clerics' - While most regale the audience with odes to the beauty of Bedouin life and glory of their rulers, Hissa Hilal stunned audiences last week by attacking Muslim religious leaders as "vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind," and guilty of "preying like a wolf" on people seeking peace.

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