Wadjda is an adventurous pre-teen with a simple enough request: she wants a bicycle. But in Saudi Arabia, bicycles are only for boys. Girls are not supposed to exert themselves in any kind of strenuous physical activity, especially in public.
That is the opening premise of Wadjda, a moving and smartly produced film that reveals in painful detail the oppressive cultural ethos endured by Saudi females, whose independence is hemmed in by a panoply of restrictions.
The film is the work of Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female film director. It has garnered more international acclaim and attention so far than any other feature-length, Saudi-produced film. This is no mean feat, given the Kingdom’s hostile environment to cinema. Movie theaters are forbidden because they are regarded by the influential religious establishment as places of possible sin and corruption. In addition, filming outdoor scenes, of which there are plenty in Wadjda, is a huge hassle which often ends with crew members and actors being arrested by the religious police.
Despite these obstacles, Saudis love movies, which they watch on their laptops and televisions at home. And, as Mansour has demonstrated, there is a blossoming indigenous movie-making scene in the Kingdom, as growing numbers of young filmmakers, both male and female, are getting behind the camera lens.
In many cases, these young filmmakers are telling stories with which their fellow Saudis closely identify. From our first glimpse of Wadjda, the eponymous heroine played by Waad Mohammed, we can see that she is an iconoclast. An only child, aged ten, she favors high-top sneakers, and under her black abaya wears jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned in English with “I’m a Great Catch.” She listens to rock music on her radio, wears blue nail polish, and weaves cloth bracelets that she clandestinely sells to her classmates at school.
Her father comes home from work in a dirty jumpsuit, signaling he is a laborer. Wadjda and her mother, who works as a teacher, do not have much disposable income. Unlike most Saudi homes, there is no housemaid. Her parents would not buy her a bicycle even if they had more money, because they believe that biking is not for girls.
Wadjda is bored at school and chafes under the constant nagging of the principal, who tries to mold her students into compliant conformists to Saudi’s male chauvinist society. Students are told not to laugh loudly lest a man hear them, to cover their faces in public, and to stay away from windows and open doors so male passers-by cannot see them. In other words, they must become invisible.
Wadjda, who always seems to be getting into trouble—those sneakers really irritate the humorless principal—decides to raise the money for her bicycle by entering a school competition in reading the Qu’ran. This uncharacteristic interest in religion raises hopes in the principal and Wadjda’s mother that the girl is coming round to their way of thinking.
This film, shot inside the Kingdom, could also be aptly named “Wadjda and Her Mom,” because as the story unfolds, we are shown all the problems of Wadjda’s mother, played by actress Reem Abdullah. Since she is not allowed to drive, she has to pay a driver, who is always complaining and then quits unexpectedly. She has a long daily commute to her job. Though there is a good job closer to home at a hospital, her husband will not let her work with men. When she cooks dinner for her husband’s male guests, she has to stay out of sight. Only after they leave do she and her daughter sit down to eat what is left over. Worst of all, her husband wants to take a second wife, because she has not borne him a son.
Her daughter has begun to notice all these humiliations and slights. She sees, for example, that only male names appear in the framed family tree hanging on the wall of their home. So she tacks a piece of paper with her name onto the tree near her dad’s name. Later, she is stung when she finds the paper removed and crumpled up on a table.
One reason why Saudi society frowns on girls taking part in sports is the fear that vigorous physical activity could tear a girl’s hymen and make it appear as though she is not a virgin, bringing shame to her family and diminishing her chances for marriage. This unfortunate possibility, said the ultraconservative Sheikh Abdullah Al-Maneea in 2009, is why he counsels families not to let their daughters participate in the “movement and jumping” of sports like basketball.
Mansour alludes to these notions in one scene of her film, when Wadjda’s mother finds her riding a friend’s bike and rushes to stop her, screaming, “You won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike!” At times it seems as if Mansour, who also wrote the script, went through a checklist of all the tribulations Saudi women face so that audiences would get a realistic idea of what it is like to be female in the Kingdom. But she has woven these dilemmas so skillfully together into a good storyline that the film does not come across as polemical.
What audiences will not get from the film is a sense of how the status of women in the Kingdom is evolving. Although the pace is awfully slow, women are becoming more assertive about their rights. They are gaining more job opportunities and becoming more visible in public life. Even the custom against girls biking is eroding. Last April, the religious police announced that females could ride bikes under certain conditions: It had to be only for recreation, not for regular transportation, and a male relative had to accompany them.
These changes are happening for several reasons, including economic pressures that force both spouses to work, the expanding education of women, and the commitment in some parts of society to improving women’s status in order to advance economic and social development.
Of course, conservatives—both male and female—are pushing back against these changes. Saudi society’s conservative bent was underscored last year by the government’s faint-hearted response to demands that it allow Saudi women to participate in the 2012 Olympics. After weeks of hemming and hawing, the government reluctantly permitted two Saudi female athletes to go to London.
Mansour, who previously won accolades for Women Without Shadows, a 2005 documentary about Saudi women’s attitudes to wearing the veil, is well aware that Saudi women dislike being portrayed as victims. Thus, although Wadjda realistically depicts the vexing and complicated predicament of being female in the Kingdom, it also presents a young heroine and role model determined to break free of her circumscribed life. Getting a bicycle would be a good first step in that direction.