Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Saudi female poet whose verse inflames and inspires

Hissa Hilal
Hissa Hilal: strong words, softly spoken

From beneath a veil, a Saudi woman is setting her conservative Arab homeland alight.

Hissa Hilal is already challenging convention by being at once a journalist and a wife and mother of four children.


But it is her blistering poetry - recited while dressed in a traditional head-to-toe abaya cloak and broadcast on traditional Arabic television - that is really defiant.

Using a traditional verse form native to the Arab Peninsula's nomadic tribes, she writes critically about the country's hard-line Muslim clerics, calling them: "vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind".

Anger in the spotlight

Condemning the violence that she says lies beneath their religious messages, her poems speak of some of the clerics "wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt" - an apparent reference to suicide bombers' explosives belt.

Her poems rail against what she sees as a dangerous and excessively conservative shift in Arab society and mores, from within a country where women cannot travel without a male guardian and are forbidden from driving.

Most of the people loved what I said, from their hearts
Hissa Hilal

"What made me so angry is seeing the Arab society becoming more and more kept to itself, not like before - loving and caring and sharing and open and welcoming everyone," she told the BBC's World Service.

"Now, even if you want to be simple and nice with others, people are asking themselves whether it is haram [forbidden] to say hello to strangers," she said, adding: "I blame those who have led the people, and directed them this way."

Hissa Hilal's words are delivered from beneath a spotlight and televised across the Arab world from the capital of UAE, Abu Dhabi, on a reality television programme called The Million Poets, where contestants compete to be the best poet.

If she wins, she will take home a prize of $1.3m (£870,000) in cash.

She describes the experience of reaching the competition's final - due to be aired next week - as "amazing", but her poetry has also sparked death threats on Arab websites, with some outraged commentators saying she is acting shamefully.

'Small village'

Her voice quietens when she describes how some have posted messages asking for her home address - with the underlying threat that they would track her down and kill her.

I know the world is a small village - from my heart I wish peace and love for everybody
Hissa Hilal

But, she says, many more have expressed support for her poems. She told the BBC that women especially have said they are rooting for her.

"Even old ladies, young ladies, they all said: 'You are our hope'.

"Most of the people loved what I said, from their hearts. They think I am very brave to say so, and that I said what they feel in their hearts."

She explains the apparent contradiction in the fact that she advocates women's rights while wearing the full veil - which some suggest is a symbol of female oppression: "Covering my face is not because I am afraid of people. We live in a tribal society and otherwise my husband, my brother will be criticised by other men."

While her poetry is intended for a wide audience, the act of covering herself, she says, is out of understanding for her male relatives.

"I know they love me and they support me. It's a big sacrifice for them in such a society to let me go to the TV and talk to the media. I am hoping my daughters won't have to cover their faces and they'll live a better life," she said.

A published poet, Mrs Hilal - who is reported not to have studied at university - held the position of poetry editor for the Arab daily newspaper, al-Hayat.

A fan of Victorian writer Charles Dickens and US author Ernest Hemingway, Mrs Hilal says her fundamental message is one of peace and understanding: "I know the world is a small village. From my heart I wish peace and love for everybody."

Here is a selection of your comments on Hissa Hilal and her poetry:

Thank you Hissa for your braveness and Inshallah the rest of us will feel inspired to do the same. We need the voices of reason among us to be heard loud and clear-and there are many of us. I agree with Abdallah al Ahmad from Kobani, Syria; Muslims were more intellectually sophisticated 1400 years ago
Ahwa, Muscat, Oman

An immense scale of respect to the poet, she has done a great job so far. Moreover, the fact that she has her Burka is purely a tradition and for family satisfaction is true. Unfortunately, I will not be voting for anyone, as I am not a reality TV sucker.
Moayad, Riyadh, KSA

I'm so proud of her, Keep challenging Hissa and God bless you.
Huda, UAE

Truly inspiring and courageous. She, indeed, is a ray of hope for many Saudi women who are living under tightly woven fabric of conservative Arab culture. Such women should be encouraged to use their potential in bringing about a positive change instead of being clamped down by death threats.
Eeman, Doha, Qatar

Nasser Nathaniel, Southend-on-Sea, Essex: perhaps you should leave Essex and live your brilliant sharia law in Taliban-ruled lands. This woman has more courage, bravery, humanity and brain than you do. And hell YES, I wish her all the best. The Arab world and wider Muslim world would be heaven if there were more like her and far less than you.
Loubna Hadid, London, UK

I applaud my Saudi Arabian sister for her courage and the courage of her family for supporting her. I hope one day soon I can visit my homeland where women are treated with the respect they deserve…They are our Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Daughters
HB Al-Ibrahim , A Saudi Arabian in Houston, TX USA

Saudi Arabia is the best country in the world it is the only country which has justice and is truly Islamic. As for those criticising the Islamic Saudi scholars, they should fear Allaah and know that these scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets and their flesh is poisonous i,e don't speak ill of them.
Mariam Yaser, Madinah, Saudi Arabia

Sha3er Al Milyon is my favourite programme right now and she is truly inspirational. I hope that she wins!
Anis Isa Al Zaydi, Muscat, Sultanate Oman

Mrs Hilal has shown the positive side of her character by continuing to honour her culture and family with dress and respect. I don't like the culture of the veil, but am likewise glad my wife hijabs out of respect . And she has shown her bravery to speak against abuse as she sees it. The tendency of every culture is to bad-mouth others and gloss over out own problems; "self-justification by degrading others" is a problem in every place and religion. Raed Abu-Yahya, Yemen

I am proud of her. I'm glad her family is supporting her. It's time for people to speak out against the brainwashing that is going on. I fully support her and only hope her voice and poetry is able to bring about much needed change. I truly hope she wins!
Tania, Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain

This is mostly a non-issue. It's not as though she is the first person to ever criticize the clerical establishment nor will she be the last.
Mohamed S, Riyadh

I admire her courage and believe she is one of many other young women in the Saudi Arabia who will change the current status to the better- this is life and no one can stop it changing - we just need to be patient.
Yousif Hussain, Bahrain

The article states that mostly women support this courageous woman...not true! I know many men that love what Ms. Hissa has said! She is every logical-thinking Arab and Muslim's hero! (male and female)! Not only because she stands up to oppression but because she speaks from her heart and for our hearts as well.
Mohamed Obeid, Jeddah

It's not a surprise to have a renegade like Hissa. If she feels oppressed let her and others move to the West where there is "freedom" to be naked and be abused by male chauvinists. Then she can be "liberated" and used as object of advertisement. She can also spend her monetary gain in hotels and brothels!
Abuaishah, Nigeria

Hissa Hilal is a great woman and I hope all women in Saudi Arabia do the same because we get sick of Muslim clerics.
Saeed, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Hissa Hilal is speaking the truth and beautifully expressing what many people in the Gulf region - women and men - feel about the hate-filled extremists who have far too much control here. These extremist clerics and the politicians who ally themselves with them abuse faith to help repress the people here on behalf of the leaders, to misdirect attention away from the endemic corruption that blights any hope of real progress in the region. Viva Hissa Hilal, she is a true inspiration.
Rachida , Salwa, Kuwait

In my 20 years of life I don't think I've ever seen something so inspiring. Here in the US we never fight we barely speak out. Somehow in a place where censorship is more prevalent, she still speaks out in the loudest way in the quietest voice. I think the people in my country could learn a great deal from her.
Jordan Brown, Buffalo, Ny United States

This is a brave lady and I wish her well.
Mike English, Dubai UAE

It seems amazing to me that this woman has gone so far. My sincere congratulations to her and to her family that support her, without a doubt but she will need protection, especially if she wins because she will be in grave danger.
Allara, Montreal, Canada

I find the behaviour of this lady shameful. Has she never heard of not washing your dirty linen in public? Whatever issues we have with male oppression of women must be dealt with internally and within the framework of the Qur'an and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet [saw]) not according to the licentious ethos of western liberalism.
Nasser Nathaniel, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

I think most of the Muslim clerics adhere just to the textual meaning of the Holy Quran and Hadith. Muslims 1400 years ago were more civilized and more intellectually sophisticated than they are now.

Abdullah Al Ahmed, Kobani,Syria

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