The movie Wadjda, by Saudi Arabia’s first female director Haifaa al Mansour, is an entertaining and endearing story of headstrong ten year old Wadjda who can’t make sense of the crippling restrictions that Saudi society imposes on women and girls. By the end of the film we too are left wondering at the childish tyranny of the adults in charge.
Wadjda is the first film to have been entirely filmed within Saudi Arabia, by the country’s first female director. The film’s central character, Wadjda, is a ten-year-old schoolgirl who wants to buy a bicycle, so she can race against Abdullah, the little boy next door. But in Saudi Arabia little girls do not ride bicycles. Headstrong, and gifted with a nascent sense of justice, Wadjda refuses to abandon her dream.
The central plot in Wadjda makes for an entertaining and endearing story, but the real power of the film is the insight it provides into the everyday indignities suffered by women under a system of total subjugation. Wadjda’s mother struggles to keep her job when her male driver suddenly quits. Forbidden to drive, women in such situations are effectively confined to house arrest. Wadjda’s mother also suffers heartbreak as her husband, under pressure from his relatives, searches for a second wife to give him a male heir. Complications during Wadjda’s birth mean that Wadjda’s mother is unable to have another child. The enforced servility of women is shown in other ways too, such as when Wadjda and her mother cook for her father and his friends, then leave the food on the floor outside the room where the men are meeting, knock and walk away.
Women’s absolute subjugation is enforced from the earliest age. In school the girls are told they must use tissue to turn the pages of the Koran in class if they are menstruating – forced publicly to recognise their own ‘uncleanliness’. In another scene, the girls move indoors when workmen appear on a roof overlooking the school playground. Only bad girls would remain in sight and flaunt themselves they are told– with a clear message that anyone disobeying deserves whatever may come. This transfer of guilt and responsibility from bully to innocent victim underpins the entire system of sexist oppression. Women must cover their bodies and stay out of sight of any man outside their family for fear they will unleash the uncontrollable lust of men. And women are forced to shoulder the burden of responsibility under law should their ‘provocative nature’ lead any man into temptation.
Saudi’s System of Apartheid
Saudi Arabia’s social and legal system creates a set of rules and practices as abhorrent as South Africa’s apartheid system. Uniquely among Muslim-majority countries, Saudi Arabia imposes almost complete segregation of the sexes. While things are slowly changing, this policy currently excludes women from most activities, including paid employment. The obligation for employers to put in place separate facilities for women, so as to guarantee that they do not mix with men in their working lives, makes the employment of women virtually impossible.
Saudi Arabia also enforces a male guardianship system, whereby women require permission from their male relatives for almost every conceivable activity, including driving alone. Senior government clerics have issued religious rulings prohibiting women from driving, for fear that they would become morally corrupt if they were to encounter and mingle with unrelated men.
Saudi law also enables fathers and brothers to force their female relatives to marry against their will. Women who refuse can be tried for unlawful ‘rebellion’ against their guardian. For women who find themselves in violently abusive relationships, the Saudi interpretation of Sari’ah law makes it is virtually impossible to escape through divorce. The male guardianship system and the limits placed on women to work, to move freely, and to interact with unrelated men, represent a system of laws and practices as abhorrent as the apartheid system in South Africa. And as the film Wadjda shows, enforced marriage between young girls and men decades their senior are commonplace.
Women and the Arab Spring
Although Saudi Arabia represents an extreme example of women’s oppression, cultures of patriarchy, in which men hold authority over women, children and property, are widespread across the Middle East. The leading role played by women in the Arab Spring, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, and the Green Revolution in Iran, signal a rebellion not just against political dictators but a rebellion of women against dominant cultural values that dehumanise them. The aftermath of the revolutions, however, show clearly that the overthrow of the dictators still leaves the tyranny of deeply rooted sexist cultures to be addressed.
Director Haifaa al Mansour, who directed parts of the film from inside a van in order to adhere to the restrictions on men and women working together, insists she is not a radical. She is right of course. There is nothing radical about women being treated with dignity and respect. There is nothing radical about insisting that women must have the same freedoms as men. And there is nothing radical in seeing that the restrictions that Saudi society imposes on women and girls make no sense at all. After all, even a ten year old child can see that.