Last week I went to see the movie Wadjda. It is the first Saudi Arabian film under consideration for an Academy Award, directed by a Saudi woman, no less.
I don’t go to movies very often unless someone else instigates, but this one caught my attention. It’s the story of a young girl living near the capital of Saudi Arabia. She desperately wants a bike so she can have the same independence as her (male) friend.
The movie was intriguing on a number of levels. First, I hadn’t ever been exposed to the social dynamics of Saudi women. I knew generally of the oppression they experience, which is often touted in the western media. But I had never stopped to imagine what it must be like for them at home, for example. I was surprised to see that under the burkas, the women and girls in the movie wore western clothes, t-shirts and jeans. A male friend who has been to Saudi Arabia commented that he actually found the movie to be a relief; while there, he only witnessed women in public, when they were fully covered and silent. It was uplifting for him to see that they have some sense of normalcy when they’re in the privacy of their own homes.
I also found it interesting to see the transition from girl to woman that Wadjda, the main character, is dealing with in the film. Young girls need not carefully cover themselves as the older women do, so when the movie starts out Wadjda seems like a relatively carefree kid in juxtaposition to her mother, who is unable to drive to work and is careful to cover herself and maintain her silenced composure in public. But as the film progresses, the headmistress at Wadjda’s all-girl school begins to tell her to cover her head and wear proper clothes. It seems that she’s reached an age where she’s become a woman.
The point is solidified as one of Wadjda’s schoolmates — no more than 10 or 12 years old — comes to school one day after being married off to a 20 year old. In conversation, Wadjda’s mother jokes that she won’t marry Wadjda off, but the sinister side of the joke is apparent.
Even though there are countless examples of extreme treatment of women in the film, I found it interesting that there were also many instances of relaxing the rules. It seemed to be a combination of evidence that society is changing in Saudi Arabia and also the special treatment allowed to children who are still learning the system, as it were. Wadjda’s father showers her with affection, but later abandons her and her mother to take another wife in hopes of having a son. A friend of Wadjda’s mother works at the local hospital, where she is seen uncovered in public and works in close proximity to men, something that Wadjda’s mother can’t come to terms with even though it would be a far better job than the one she has. Wadjda’s mother catches her on the roof learning to ride a bike with a neighbor boy, but delivers no punishment despite the fact that both the boy’s presence and Wadjda’s bike riding are frowned upon.
Wadjda largely runs free in the film without too many consequences from society. Burdens in her life are apparent, particularly where she crosses paths with adults, but she manages to put them off for another day throughout the film. There’s a constant undercurrent of what her future life in traditional Saudi culture will hold, but there’s also her incessant escape from it in the film. Perhaps the message here is that with independent thinkers like Wadjda, maybe her future really will be different. But the culture runs so deep, as we see in her mother’s defiance of the norm and yet unwillingness to buck the system, that it’s hard to believe significant change will come in Wadjda’s lifetime.
I was left with mixed emotions, but I highly recommend the film if you get a chance to see it. At the least, it may give you a better insight into some of the hidden aspects of Saudi culture. At best, it will give you a shimmer of hope for gender equality.