Further to Coatsey’s post on Wajdja, I could not miss a film about a girl longing for a bicycle so as to pedal against the patriarchy. Wadjda is a charming film.
Wajdja, played superbly by Waad Mohammed, is a spunky tomboy and rebel, the Saudi descendant of Jo March in Little Women, whom Simone de Beauvoir and other feminists have always loved. Like Jo she is best friends with the boy next door and like Jo she lives in a highly religious society but Islamic Saudi Arabia is far more restrictive than nineteenth century Protestant America. Her mother does go out to work – but wearing an abbaya, and with a long commute to an all female workplace driven by an illegal immigrant, Saudi women not being allowed to drive. Wadjda’s father is sweet to her, however work keeps him away from home and he is also considering a second wife, his first wife being unable to bear more children.
The school that Wajdja attends is reminiscent of a convent circa 1880. The girls wear long, heavy dresses and there is much emphasis about keeping out of the sight of men. They are a prurient, giggly lot, kept under control by their strict, heavy-eyed headmistress (Ahd Kamel) . Everyone is sex obsessed. The girl who has a clandestine rendezvous with her “brother” is married off, one of the girls in Wajdja’s religious class, who’s about 14, has also been married, the headmistress is anxious about romantic friendships between the girls, and when Wadjda falls off her friend’s cycle and cuts her knee, her mother is afraid that it’s blood from a broken hymen.
Wajdja longs for a bicycle, and in order to pay for one she joins the religious school so she can enter a Koran knowledge and reciting competition with a big money prize. We have some rather Hollywood conventions of following your dreams and the suspense of whether she will win or not but because of the film’s gentle pace and the exotic location it feels fresh and the stakes seem real. You do root for the delightful Wadjda and her longing for a bicycle is the longing for freedom and action.
At the end of the nineteenth century the bicycle was a symbol of liberty for women. They became independently mobile and they also had to stop wearing whalebone and other constricting clothing. They could go out to work, attend Suffragette meetings and, of course, socialise with young men. When women first straddled the machine they were seen as bold and unwomanly. So Wadjda’s mother, lovely and talented, was married from high school and is much hampered by her female role, but thinks that bicycles can prevent you having babies.
In Saudi Arabia the religious police have only just allowed women to ride bicycles, and then only with a male guardian in parks. The religious police are mentioned, but it is more social than legal sanctions that make everyone tell Wadjda that bicycles aren’t for girls.
Although the women are highly constrained, the view of Saudi is not overly dark. These are ordinary middle class people with strong family and tribal ties, habitually religious and also showing a fair amount of affection towards each other. When Wadjda does her Koran recitation, the liquid chanting is hypnotic. Again, as in a convent, the clothes may be drab and the behaviour repressed while the religious performance offers drama and poetry.
There are some final twists to the story with two scenes of heartbreaking disappointment but in the last scene Wadjda has broken free with her mother’s approval and is pedalling with her friend around the wide, sandy streets of the neighbourhood until she comes to a busy highway, where no sane being would cycle. She is smiling and the film ends on a hopeful note.