Arab Idol: Veiled Woman Rises In TV Poetry Contest

A Saudi woman is in the finals of an American Idol-style competition on Abu Dhabi TV. Hissa Hilal, who wears a full headscarf as she recites lines that criticize hard-line Muslim clerics, says her decision to enter the contest was a now-or-never situation.

She's a housewife and a mother of four from Saudi Arabia. But Hissa Hilal is also a poet — and a finalist in the Million's Poet competition on the Arabic satellite channel Abu Dhabi TV. Think American Idol, only with contestants reciting poetry written in the traditional Bedouin style.

Hilal says her decision to enter the competition was a now-or-never situation. As she told NPR's Renee Montagne, "I have something to say; this is the chance. If I don't do it this year, I think I'm not going to do it in my life."

Hilal is one of just a few women who have ever entered the competition. And her poetry has openly challenged hard-line Islamic clerics and their harsh fatwas, or religious rulings.

A poem she recited on the show earlier this month included verses that, loosely translated, read: "I have seen evil from the eyes of the subversive fatwas in a time when what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful."

Those lines helped Hilal win high marks from the show's judges and from the viewing audience, who vote via mobile phone.

Hilal said she used to write romantic poetry, about love and life. But as violence and extremism became more of a problem, she also wanted to write poems that sent a stronger message and gave voice to people she calls "silent Arabs" — those afraid to speak out.

Although her words may be perceived as subversive, her dress certainly is not. Whether she's in the TV studio or in her daily life, Hilal wears a full black flowing niqab — only her eyes are visible to the audience.

"This is a tradition," she says. "If I take it [off], all the traditional types would be shocked. I will lose the people — those I want to talk to, my people. I don't want to lose them, because I'm going to say important things."

The highly anticipated finale of Million's Poet airs April 7. Hilal is currently in fifth place, and while she hopes to finish first, she has said she's happy to know that her voice and her message have reached a wide audience.

And if she does win, the prize is the equivalent of more than $1.3 million. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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