By Nashwa Al Ruwaini
Three years ago, when I devised the format of Millions' Poet, it was with little more in mind than creating an entertaining, original, and youth-oriented television show. Now in its third season, with more than 15 million viewers each week, the show has become the Gulf countries' most prestigious poetry competition and a platform for young male and female poets to voice their thoughts before a broad audience. Most unexpectedly, it has also helped spur some progress in the region's attitudes toward women.
The 16-week competition, televised live from Abu Dhabi, has much in common with American Idol, but with poetry instead of pop music as its content. It engages 48 aspiring poets from around the Gulf, a panel of five celebrity judges, and millions of viewers throughout the Arabic-speaking world in a competition for 5 million United Arab Emirates dirhams (more than $1.3 million) and a coveted title.
Convincing today's youths that poetry, a pastime deeply rooted in the ancient heritage of the Gulf, can be "cool," was no easy feat. And the show's impact on the societies of the Gulf region, surprisingly, has gone even further.
With all their high-rise, state-of-the-art buildings, some of the Gulf's modern cities resemble Manhattans surrounded by sand. But cultural conservatism still pervades Gulf society, despite efforts to overcome it.
Some states in the Gulf are striving to give women their deserved place in the social and political arenas. The United Arab Emirates encourages an increasing number of women to follow in the footsteps of Sheikha Lubna, who became the country's first female minister in 2004. Kuwait gave women the vote in 2005, and women were soon appointed to ministerial positions in its government.
These changes have had a considerable impact on women in the region. And television shows such as Millions' Poet have only compounded the effect.
When the Millions' Poet competition was launched with a six-week-long audition tour around the Gulf in 2006, thousands of young poets tried out, but less than 5 percent of them were women. This was understandable, considering that it's frowned upon for women to appear on camera, "exposing" themselves to millions of prying eyes.
As the show has steadily gained in popularity, however, the number of women competing has been on the rise. Today, approximately one in every four of those auditioning for the show is a woman. And this is causing a stir.
Aydah Al Jahani, a young Saudi poetess who wears a niqab - an outfit that covers not only the body, but also the face - faced the wrath of her family and tribe for entering the third and most recent season of the competition. Upon hearing the news, her family pleaded with her to withdraw.
But Aydah pushed forward in the competition despite the lack of support from her relatives, and she became a force for women's rights in the region. Thanks to public voting for her via text message and praise for her poetic skills from the judges, Aydah continued on to the second round of the competition. At that point, her family and tribe realized that the competition was to their collective benefit and did no harm to their honor.
Aydah's story was splashed all over the news. Soon thereafter, the effects of her struggle could be seen in the audience, where the number of women rose to approximately half. Although Aydah ultimately did not win the title "Millions' Poet," she had received much moral support throughout her time as a contestant from her male and female counterparts, as well as from viewers.
Like Aydah, I have strived to break down gender barriers in Gulf society. I have been working in media for 20 years, and I host my own talk show on Dubai TV, tackling some of the most taboo issues in the Arab world. I am thankful that my viewers around the region think of me as a mother or a sister - someone who can help them overcome their struggles.
While the road might be long, the region is changing for the better. It will take time. But we need people to realize that they can use the media - even entertainment media - to facilitate and instigate the change. We can already see that it's working.