Hissa Hillal is the voice for countless 'Invisible Women." She is the Saudi woman who has captured the Arab world's attention through her poetry on Abu Dhabi's televised poetry competition broadcast by Emirati. Watched by millions, analogies to American Idol readily follow. Her poetry focuses on the abuse of Islam as it is wielded by extremist clerics. Her public challenge to established theocracy has garnered breathtaking attention in the region where women like Hissa, Saudi Arabian stay-at-home moms, are usually neither seen nor heard.
There is however a far more arresting aspect to Hissa's accomplishment. By thrusting her powerful verses into orbit through satellite television, she has thrown dawn a gauntlet in a way that newspapers, bloggers or network media segments cannot begin to compete. Her public poetry contains the latent power that will ignite a new dimension of dialogue in the Arab and wider Muslim world, a power derived of an ancient cultural currency.
Poetry, which speaks to the Arabian Peninsula's heritage of oral poetry as a means of cultural dialogue, invites much more attention than news commentary or opinion editorials. Traditionally, the true forebears of the modern day Saudi Arabia recorded their history and tradition through the medium of poetry, largely unwritten, but instead committed to memory and recited with elaborate, ceremonial oratory. This was the medium through which they preserved feats of arms and celebrated events in their history. Similar oral poetic history is also evident elsewhere in the Middle East including Israel, where fears for the preservation of this fading culture are growing.
Considering the geographic environment and the sparse population comprising pre-Twentieth Century Arabia, preserving cultural memory through transmitted and treasured poetry makes perfect sense. Ornate poetry traveled across the sandstorm-swept nascent Saudi steppe, immortalizing cultural yearnings, history and opinion in a pulsing ebb and flow across barely inhabited land. Vital to the survival of this art across generations, over desiccated Wadis and desolate escarpments was the role of the poet: his dedication, his imagination and his willingness to dialogue with other poets.
I learned this not through extensive studies of central Najd poetry but rather while teaching class one day in the post graduate medical center of the King Abdul Aziz Medical Center in Riyadh, last winter. I was teaching a class on scientific medical writing to a group of animated Saudi men and women. Yes, it was a co-ed class and my students were physicians, surgeons and masters candidates enrolled in various degree programs (contrary to popular belief, postgraduate medicine in the Kingdom is desegregated). We were enjoying an intense debate on the use of references, citations and sources. During the hour we examined how to correctly attribute authorship following accepted rules concerning plagiarism as defined in Western academia. The topic was a surprisingly disturbing one for my accomplished Saudi students. The class discussion was growing heated and edgy. We had evidently touched a nerve. As I struggled to understand the implications, one of my class, a board certified gastroenterologist demystified our growing distress. Rising from the too-small classroom chair in his crisp white thobe, Abdullah gathered his portly figure and stood up to make his point. He spoke in soft, accented English.
"In our culture, an author is esteemed, as are his values and his creativity. Readers who want to cite an author here often believe they can only devalue his work, and dishonor the author, by rephrasing it into their own words. They simply don't believe their words do the author justice," my eyes widened in comprehension realizing why what is taken as bald plagiarism in Western academe might be interpreted here as according an author the highest honor.
"I am a poet, when I don't practice medicine, Doctora Qanta," he continued, "in fact, I have won several prizes for my skills in Arabic poetry, which is an ancient art form. To be truly appreciated and recognized as creative, one poet must dialogue with another. In the process of dialogue one poet incorporates another's words into his or her own poetry, to continue the conversation. We make new stanzas using each others words, and the poetry unfolds, back and forth in a rhythm between poets. So while you may think this is plagiarism - to take another poet's words and incorporate them into our own - this is an ancient and fundamental part of our culture,"
Suddenly everything made sense. In a culture where a teacher is accorded high respect, and the written word, beginning with the revealed Quran has traditionally been preserved by rote repetition and painstaking memorization, the repetition of unattributed words did not constitute plagiarism. Of course, Abdullah was referring to non-scientific writing. (Saudi Arabia has a robust and rapidly evolving medical academe where standard rules guarding against scientific plagiarism are upheld). But Abdullah taught me something new: interacting culturally at the highest level involved listening astutely to the poet, and responding in kind.
This is why Hissa Hillal's poetry is such a colossal cultural moment: not merely because one Saudi woman has had the courage to speak out, but because of the cascading, tumultuous conversation this will certainly uncork. Like a gathering storm, a cloudburst of cultural rebellion is mounting. Seen in this light, a woman shrouded in store-bought polyester presents a brazen, dangerous agent provocateur to challenge the crumbling status quo. Her very 'everywoman' qualities - of being a homemaker, wife and mother in Saudi Arabia (one who evidently doesn't shop at Lamsa for a $500 Swarovski encrusted veil) - is precisely what makes her an unmistakable force. Nor did she have to attend a costly Chicago Dental School to say what Riyadh or Jeddah is thinking. This woman is the real deal. She is from within the world that we dumbly insist on characterizing as 'invisible' while every reality constantly reveals it is we, the viewers from here, who are truly unseeing.
Hissa's Nabati poetry, a genre particularly beloved to the Arab Gulf world, exposes witless, misogynistic and unIslamic fatwas in their true light: as crude tools for mass oppression exercised by an increasingly calcified theocratic autocracy on the irreversible threshold of rigor mortis.
The woman calls a spade a spade, as we like to say in England. Her breathtaking condemnation of the abuse and misuse of Islam as evil incarnate, expressed in the most ancient art form predating modern day petrochemical Wahabiism contains the power to free a world increasingly mired in Petronia, antiSemitism, Islamophobia and polarization. The key to such freedom is nothing other than authentic Islam.
She grabs the bull by the horns, as this line shows:
"I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden,"
Reading the above reminds me very much of a particular Hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet Mohamed). Let me share it with you. When the Prophet was leading prayer, a member of the congregation asked him what he feared for his people and followers.
After careful thought, the Prophet responded, revealing he feared most those who would come from within his flock and recite the Qu'ran but that the Qu'ran would go 'no further than their throats' (sparing their hearts and souls). Using the cover of religion, he foretold they would do the exact opposite of what Islam intended purely for their own gain while claiming to exalt God. These people, he predicted, would come from within us (the Muslim Ummah), filleting our community to the innards very much 'like an arrow passes through its quarry.'
I read this Hadith shortly after 9-11 and immediately recognized the references to modern day terrorism executed by imposter Muslims in pursuit of their sick fallacies of serving Islam, when they do exactly the opposite by desecrating everything sacred and humane.
But words are weapons too, and can slay whole societies and cultures. Hostile clerical theocrats can do just as much damage as a demented Mumbai bomber, 9-11 hijacker, or British-born 7-11 plotter.
Hissa becomes even more explicit. Her descriptions, which speak to suicide bombing, capture exactly how such seditious and deceptive rhetoric directly leads to bloodshed, and indeed the voices and forces inciting such destruction are exactly what the Prophet foretold. She writes these instigators of evil, in the form of distorted clerical leaders and suicide bombers
"are vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt"
I thought of this as I caught today's GPS. Fareed Zakaria mentioned Hissa on his show this morning. Briefly he played tapes of Hissa reading her poetry as a panel looked on, noting she has reached further in the competition than any other woman ever. Some believe that she may perhaps even win. In my eyes she has won already, by articulating what countless Muslims fear expressing irrespective of the political environment within which they must function. Speaking negatively of a Muslim is detested in Islamic culture, yet if we are to be true, principled Muslims we must speak up in the exposure of injustices.This is what Hissa is doing and why she is so brave. She risks becoming pariah.
I was about to switch off when I caught Fareed's closing comment on the segment, which couldn't end without the de rigueur comment about Saudi Arabia where 'women cannot drive'. This remains true and certainly impedes womens' liberties, as well as the liberties of their men folk buckling under the economic pressure of providing a vehicle and chauffeur for every independent woman in the Kingdom. So while it may be ironic to Fareed that that a woman is taking on the rigors of the established and often punitive theocracy, his implication that men are absent from such dialogue and positive insurrection is myopic.
Certainly Hissa's womanhood - concealed and yet therefore for the same reason so extremely revealed - augments her power. Indeed, speaking at a Perspex podium in her traditional veiling of the niqab which covers her face and her stark, undecorated abbayah which covers her body is indeed intensely arresting - much more so than if a Saudi man was composing the same invective. Aye, I am with you on this Fareed.
But we must make an important, further deduction. For every Hissa objecting to the stultifying restrictions of a fundamentalist theocracy on women, lets not forget these restrictions weigh heavily on Saudi men too. Many, many Saudi men share the objections and pain that is expressed by her verse. In some ways, while one can easily construct a metaphor for Saudi womanhood to be invisible, in my experience, Saudi men are just as invisible and in the rising climate of scrutiny for all aspects of Saudi, and in fact Muslim, feminism, the male voice is even more often obliterated, quashed. Try reading about Islamic masculinities to understand this double-edged sword.
Behind Hissa are supportive male family members, a husband who is not emasculated by her intensely public stance and controversial views, and a growing number influential men (alongside influential women) who have helped her find a means of expression in a culture which vehemently shies away from individualism and the bald glare of public attention. She speaks for these men too. She assumes the role of leader. And agreed, while unlicensed to drive a stick shift, she does however, drive the charged climate for cultural change forward. She does so, in keeping with historical mores defining Islam at its birth.
If we look at early Islam, history records the first Muslim women to be strong, effective and indomitable advocates for social change, even during the lifetime of our beloved Prophet Mohamed. Islam gives women many rights: the right to choose one's life partner, and the right to divorce him, the right to hold wealth and property, the right to a valid vote so that a woman can be heard equally to any man. Muslim women are required to fulfill exactly the same obligations in religious duty as are Muslim men, and so too are their rights to earn equivalent blessings.
Hissa Hillal is merely exercising her right to voice what millions have feared to do so: the right to return to meaningful Islam, which is benevolent, just, honorable and devoid of compulsion and oppression. She does so at the grave risk of being accused of a particularly offensive moniker recently leveled at me: to speak out in criticism of Islamic poses the risk of being type cast as Islamophobic, as a critic prejudiced against Muslims, when in fact such actions of bravery are the very mettle of being a functioning Muslim.
While Hissa is heavily veiled, she has seized, and indeed very much owns, the spotlight. Once embodied by able horsewomen in the field of battle, now these Islamic feminist wage war in air-conditioned studios beaming into millions of households. Hissa emulates our first female forebears who lent their voice to justice for Muslim women, and men, through the centuries: her message is clear.
For Muslim women, and Muslim Men everywhere, Hissa demands Poetic Justice.
And, once demands begin, justice has a habit of following.