By Huma Munshi

This review was first published on The F Word.

Wadjda is the first feature film by a female Saudi director, Haifaaa al-Mansour. It is shot with great precision: every veiled glance has significance and every touch is noted. It gives us a unique insight into the experiences and stories of women in Saudi society, ones we rarely get to hear. The strong female characters are played with real sensitivity and warmth.

Saudi Arabia is a country where women are not allowed to work with men, they are forbidden from driving and currently cannot vote. Walking around freely without a male chaperone is not permitted. Haifaa al-Mansour shot some of her film in the conservative districts from a van and directed it via walkie-talkie; this film on women’s rights in Saudi society is very much a labour of love.
Wadjda tells the tale of the eponymous young girl, artfully played by 12-year-old Waad Mohammed, as she tries to fundraise to buy a bike to compete with the boy next door, ending with her entering a Quran recitation competition.

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Wadjda is a bit of a misfit in school. Unlike the other young girls, she wears torn converse trainers under her burka and has her scarf draped carelessly over her head so her hair is not fully covered. She is an entirely sympathetic character and you cannot help but cheer on her act of rebellion as she secretly practises on her neighbour’s bike, despite her mother’s wishes. What is most apparent is her will, steadfast in the face of opposition (like that from her head teacher).The child character can critique very complex issues of oppression and patriarchy from a position of innocence.

When I asked Haifaa al-Mansour in an interview after the London press screening about the similarities between her and Wadjda, she said that when she was young she was also a bit of an “outsider”, but in different ways. Her family were seen as “too liberal”: they had a television, for example, which meant her friends were not permitted to play in her house. This sense of being an outsider enables a critique of the societal norms and values.

In my recent review of When I Saw You, I noted that it was through the eyes of a child that a subtle critique of the society was made; this is also the case in Wadjda. The child character can critique very complex issues of oppression and patriarchy from a position of innocence distance and the audience can draw their conclusions. It is perhaps more permissible for a child to play that role in their naivety than for an adult who must abide by the rules.

Wadjda stands out in school. She neither wears the right clothes to please her teachers nor does she partake in gossip or close friendships with the others girls. Her being a perennial outsider allows us to see what it is like to be exposed to the gender-specific forms of oppression (covering oneself or not being allowed to do certain activities) but also to understand what mechanisms she has at her disposal to express her identity and opposition to the norms.

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Wadjda’s pursuit of her bike becomes a symbol of her assertiveness and (unintended) rebellion. It is also a vehicle by which others around her express their judgement of women’s role in Saudi society: her headmistress is judgemental and dismissive at the thought of a girl riding a bike and her mother initially prohibits her to do so. Only the young boy who lives next door, who has a crush on her, offers to give her his bike. The innocence of youth has not yet been tainted by the hegemony of patriarchy that seeks to suppress a woman’s autonomy.

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When interviewed, Haifaa comes across as very attached to the society she was brought up in and there is clearly much warmth and compassion. Perhaps this is partly because her own experience is different from the main character’s, as she has enjoyed comparatively more freedom and autonomy. I ask her if this film was her act of rebellion, subtle enough to be permissible in a society where women’s stories often go unheard. However, this is only part of it. The main reason she gives, which many artists would mention, is that she produces art based on what she has experienced. Growing up in a strictly segregated environment she heard and learnt from women and so this is her truth and her story to tell. Moreover, one cannot separate their political stance from their personal experiences so her feminism (and she does call herself a feminist) is rooted in highlighting the ways in which women are suppressed and hidden from society.

Through Wadjda’s eyes we observe the strained relationship between her parents. Wadjda’s mother, played with much warmth and compassion by Reem Abdullah, has not been able to have another child after Wadjda due to a very difficult labour and therefore hasn’t given birth to a son. For this reason her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is looking for another wife. Haifaa calls Wadjda’s mother a “warrior” as she fights for her husband but will not put herself in danger of having another child: her boundaries are firm.There are particularly touching scenes when Wadjda is helping her mother in the kitchen and they start singing together, as well as some moving moments when they are reciting the Quran together on the balcony. You can see where Wadjda learns to be a strong young girl, at the same time being a source of comfort and solace for her mother.

But the mother is a construct of the society she is born into and by internalising the patriarchy, she cannot consider Wadjda riding a bike because this is “not what girls do”, this is not acceptable. Ironically, it is through her that we see the repercussions of curtailing a woman’s freedom of movement. In Saudi society it is illegal for women to drive and so Wadjda’s mother is reliant on the male taxi driver. On a daily basis she endures the crowded group taxi. When the driver refuses to drive her, she has to plead with the school where she teaches in order to keep her job.

The coming of age element of the story is only part of this film. As central as Wadjda’s journey is, her mother’s is equally important. While her mother is a “warrior” in many respects, in the end it is Wadjda that saves her. Perhaps this says much about movements for gender equality wider than in Saudi Arabia – real progress can only be made through female solidarity, first and foremost.When asked, Haifaa says that she feels “hopeful” for women’s rights in Saudi but the situation remains full of contradictions. The fact that such film has been permitted might indicate progress, but the audience will be limited as public cinemas are banned (the film will be released on DVD too). Next year women get the right to vote, yet they still can’t drive.In this setting, art plays a particularly important role.

Wadjda depicts the injustices within Saudi society and is a critique of its values. It has the potential, if the audience is wide enough, to help shift attitudes. Hopefully, this can stimulate further dialogue on women’s rights and allow this hidden world to be seen. Haifaa al-Mansour, in her own way, is a quiet revolutionary.

Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing at HumaMunshi on feminism, forced marriage, mental illness, films and her trade union activism. She is a regular contributor at the F-Word and Black Dog Tribe amongst others, find her @Huma101 She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others

Related articles:

‘Wadjda’ Director: ‘It Is Time To Open Up’ (npr.org)

A young boys journey symbolises the struggle of the Palestinian people (Mediadiversityuk.com)

6 thoughts on “The Revolutionary With A Bike

  1. When it comes to kids, may I draw your attention to ‘The Children of Heaven’, which inspired ‘Bumm Bumm Bole’ in India. A heart-warming tale where the bias against the female child (not the main theme of the movie) is brought out subtly.

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  2. I was lucky enough to catch a preview screening of this. I have to give huge props to Haifaa al-Mansour, especially having to go through a lot more than many other directors do, just to make a film. The performances were also outstanding. Waad Mohammed is a star in the making. However, I did have one major problem with the film, which is largely unrelated to the creative process.

    It appears to be framed as evidence as how backward brown people in the Middle East/South Asia region are, not like us cultured and tolerant westerners. I was in a screening that was about 95% white, and they would laugh at certain points in the movie, almost as if to say, “What a ridiculous way those people live.”

    While I wouldn’t contest the oppressive way that the patriarchal society affects women in Saudi Arabia. I fear that it will be perceived as making it look like living in Saudi Arabia is a hellish existence.

    But if that’s the case, it’s not the fault of the people who made the movie. I think ‘Wadjda’ was a fine piece of work, and look forward to seeing more from al-Mansour in future.

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    1. I find the attitude taken by the interviewer in the video above bears out the importance of your comment, Shane. I think he repeatedly urges al-Mansour to condemn the Saudi authorities for not allowing the film to be shown. Why not just let her talk about her own feelings on the matter rather than trying to get her to endorse the sentiments he speaks for?

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      1. Yeah, it puts me in mind of something Jon Stewart once said; “The most valuable person in the world is a turncoat.” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88uZXOvV3q4

        Obviously al-Mansour’s not a turncoat, but it seems as if it’s in the interests of some to try and frame her as one: “Look. Look how uncivilised those brown Muslims are! Don’t take our word for it. The brown woman’s film says so!”

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        1. Well said. Often I find that imperialist types will weaponise feminism in the same way. Use the plight of women as an excuse to demonise Arab people & in the end ‘civilise’ them by invading, bombing & stealing their resources. They never seem to listen to the women however when they say they want to wear a hijab or something that is part of their religion or culture.

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      2. Such a true remark. Every reactionary group is always wheeling out some ever-useful black or brown bodies. Yesterday I strayed from my filter bubble and stumbled across this which, just like UKIP, is all like ‘ask our black members if we’re racist!’. (Who is surprised that libertarianism, an atomising individualistic ideology, is colourblind ie ahistorical irresponsible and assimilationist?)

        In Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW one of the protagonists, a barrister, finds herself courted by firms that defend multinational corporations taking land and resources from indigenous people; they are exploiting her blackness (and woman-ness) to make it harder to call them abusers…

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