Wadjda – A Film Review
Where Riding a Bicycle is Political
Wadjda, the subject of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s seminal movie of the same name, is twelve years old. She sports a loose veil over her long hair and wears skinny jeans and Converse sneakers under her black abaya (a loose-fitting full-length robe worn by some Muslim women). She loves listening to pirate rock music radio stations at full volume, and racing her friend Abdullah on their way to school. However, too often, the competition is not fair. Abdullah rides a bicycle while Wadjda runs by his side, as cycling is considered scandalous for girls in Saudi Arabia.
Determined to buy her own bike in spite of conventions and her mother’s and teachers’ disapproval, Wadjda starts saving money by selling illicit homemade mix tapes and bracelets to fellow students and neighbours. One day, a Quran recitation competition is launched atWadjda’s school with a 1,000 Saudi riyal prize to be awarded to the winner. Wadjda decides to compete for the prize, learning verse after verse of the holy book in the name of which the Saudi Arabian regime is denying her the right to ride a bike.
Saudi Arabia is infamous for its violations of human rights and individual freedoms, its strict implementation of political Islam and its male guardianship system. Hence, it is somehow ironic that the first Saudi Arabian full-length feature film, entirely shot in a country with no movie theatres, was made by a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour, and dealt with the subversive topic of gender-based discrimination. Hidden in a minivan, Al-Mansour had to direct her actors and technicians through walkie-talkies (handheld, portable radio transmitters) in order not to disturb passers-by that might be offended by the sight of women and men working together.
Despite the sensitive nature of her work, Al- Mansour never pictured herself as an activist in the many interviews she has given since the release of Wadjda. Rather than openly denouncing the male guardianship system of her native country, she chooses to share glimpses of a contrasted society by oscillating between respect for conservative traditions and a growing desire for freedom. Through the eyes of her rebellious young heroin, the 42-year-old filmmaker subtly portrays the grim and sometimes tragic realities of Saudi women by pointing out the absurdity of a political system that crushes the potential of half of its population.
Contemporarily, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges of abolishment. Under this system, women are prohibited from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian – their husband, father, brother or son. While women were for the first time allowed to vote and run for municipal council elections in December 2015, countless obstacles undermined their effective political participation, and hampered the capacity of the newly elected women to exercise their legislative mandate. Rather than full-fledged citizens, Saudi women are considered goods, traded between families in order to fulfil their domestic and reproductive roles.
In a society that values boys over girls, it is legitimate for a husband to enter into a polygamous relationship when his wife, as was the case for Wadjda’s mother, fails to produce sons. Being a girl and the only child in her family, Wadjda desperately seeks the recognition of her father. Despite her attempts to bond with him and prove that she can be as worthy as a boy, he slowly drifts away from her and finally marries a second wife with the hope of having a son to perpetuate his legacy.
Wadjda witnesses, with mixed feelings, the daily tribulations that wreck her mother’s life. She first resents her mother for not being able to retain her husband; then blames her for not standing up to him and to the traditions that are pulling their family apart. Wadjda refuses to follow the path of her mother – a woman forced to give up on her dreams, reduced to working a menial job, and serving a man who neither loves nor respects her.
With no inspiring figures to look up to, Wadjda’s quest for identity is frustrated by an overwhelming social order designed to crush any expression of individuality. The streets of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, are walked by dark female shadows and their male counterparts in pristine white thwab (ankle-length garment worn by Saudi men). As a viewer of Wadjda, you cannot help but be appalled by the uniformity in the characters’ dress code and general appearance, as if the diversity of both female and male bodies has entirely been denied. With so few features of a person’s appearance left to their own self-determination, Wadjda’s loose veil and Converse shoes are a bold attempt to convey her personality and construct her own identity and femininity.
The societal system depicted in Wadjda is the same model Saudi Arabia has been exporting to countries in the East and Horn of Africa since the 1970s through massive oil-sponsored investments. By providing social services to the region’s poor, establishing madrassas (Islamic religious schools), funding universities, and offering thousands of scholarships a year to East-African graduates, Saudi leaders have successfully spread Wahhabi fundamentalist Islam and accelerated religious radicalisation in the region. Today, the Wahhabi ideology shapes the realities of millions of men and women in the Horn of Africa, a region once known for its tradition of tolerant Islam.
For most girls featured in Wadjda, teenage dreams are cut short by the weight of traditions, as in the case of Salma, who is a victim of a legal system that (clearly) does not ban child marriage when she is legitimately married off at the age of thirteen to an older man. Despite such wrenching scenes as this, the message carried by Al-Mansour remains one of hope, with Wadjda finally fulfilling her wish to ride a bicycle. The film is careful to show the potential for change in both the female and male characters. It is obvious in Wadjda that boys and men are also under a lot of pressure and may similarly suffer from the gender segregation and discrimination inherent in Saudi society.
With nearly 60% of its population under the age of 21, Saudi Arabia struggles to create appealing opportunities for its youth, who aspire to more freedom and participation in the decision-making processes. This frustration may be among the push factors for the alleged 2,500 Saudi youth who joined Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Irak and Syria, or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq between 2011 and 2015, making Saudi Arabia the second largest supplier of foreign fighters for the terrorist group since its creation.
Recently, however, a few key events have demonstrated women’s challenge of the social order. For example, in September 2016, a petition signed by more than 14,000 Saudi women calling for an end to the male guardianship system was submitted to the government.
This unprecedented campaign seems to be proving Al-Mansour right. As she stressed in an interview given to The Independent in 2013, small changes do not seem to mean much, but indeed show that “attitudes towards women are changing, and women are getting more liberties [...]. There is still a long, long way to go, but hopefully things like this pave the way for bigger changes.”
From Women in Islam Issue 3 (2017)