Poetry has been the classical means of expression and battle (much like rap battles) in the Arabian peninsula. In ancient times, different tribes developed their own style and verse and monthly competitions were held. During a competition, work would stop and hundreds if not thousands of Arabs would gather to hear the latest poems and verses. Both men and women would compose and recite and often times women would win competitions. Poetry was the most revered style of art; so much so that the Qur’an is written in poetic verse. Conflicts and wrong doings were often resolved through poetic battles or through poetic oration of apologies and acceptances rather than by sword or stone. As history progressed, poetry continued to transcend sexual lines, but in more recent times, as the role of women continued down a path of repression and forced submissiveness, their influence in poetry began to fade. Women still competed, but often lacked the ability to present issues of substance in their poems.
Saudi Arabia, a US ally, is one of the most repressive and sexually segregated regimes in the Middle East. Unmarried men and women are not allowed to be alone in the same room and as recently as March 2010, a woman was arrested for driving! But things are beginning to change in the country. Women have begun to protest that only men staff lingerie stores which makes purchasing properly fitting lingerie nearly impossible. While protests over these kinds of issues are important a new world hero has quickly emerged thanks to the Middle East’s version of American Idol. Her name is Hissa Hilal.
In the United Emirates, the show has taken the form of a competition among Arab poets. Both men and women compete, but until this season, no woman has ever reached the semi finals. What is even more amazing than Hissa Hilal reaching the semi finals is that she is the crowd favorite. Did I forget to mention that the live audience is separated into men and women sections. And what’s even more amazing is that Hissa Hilal’s poetry is a non-violent protest against the repressive Saudi regime. Hissa Hilal stands in front of the audience, covered head to toe in a black abaya cloak, beautifully criticizing her country’s government. Her actions are extremely heroic, every time she takes the stage and bashes her home country she runs the risk of being arrested upon returning home and facing unspeakable torture and travesty.
Let’s hope that she has gained enough popularity to become an untouchable social and political leader upon her return to Saudi Arabia. If you know anyone living in the Middle East, please ask them to text their vote for Hissa Hilal, the world’s newest heroine, to the show.