Amnesty International makes some interesting comparisons:
‘While Manning could face more than a century behind bars, numerous high-level officials … have been let off scot-free’ – Widney Brown
The US authorities have failed to deliver justice for serious human rights violations committed during counter-terror operations dating back more than a decade, Amnesty International said as the sentencing phase opened today in the military trial of the US Army Private Bradley Manning.
Manning, who exposed potential breaches of international humanitarian law and other violations by US forces, could face up to 136 years in prison after being convicted yesterday of 20 separate charges – including theft of government property and violations of the Espionage Act.
Amnesty pointed out that, for example, high-ranking officials have avoided investigation for the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq in 2003-2004. While 11 low-ranking soldiers were sentenced to prison terms after being convicted in courts martial, they have all since been released. The Brigadier General in charge of the detention facility was reprimanded for dereliction of duty and demoted to Colonel.
Meanwhile, no criminal charges have ever been made in relation to the US secret detention programme where enforced disappearance and torture were authorised at the highest level of government, and details of the programme remain classified.
Amnesty International’s Senior Director of International Law and Policy Widney Brown said:
“There’s a stunning contrast between the extraordinarily severe sentence Bradley Manning could receive and the leniency or complete impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the types of grave human rights violations he exposed.
“It’s outrageous that the USA has failed to hold perpetrators criminally accountable despite credible allegations of torture, enforced disappearances and other crimes under international law in the context of counter-terror operations since September 11, 2001.
“While Manning could face more than a century behind bars, numerous high-level officials have never faced even the threat of investigations – in effect they have been let off scot-free. Even in cases where low-ranking soldiers have been convicted, they’ve received very light sentences.
“The US Attorney General is duty-bound to investigate these serious crimes under international law and bring those responsible to justice.
“The ongoing failure to do so is a festering injustice and a blight on the United States’ human rights record.”
Before handing down her sentence, the judge will hear Manning’s explanation of the motives for his actions. He was not able to present a public interest defence during the earlier phase of the trial, but he may be able to offer his reasons for the disclosures he made as a mitigating factor now. She will also hear the testimony of more than 40 witnesses brought by the prosecution and defence.
Amnesty will continue to monitor the sentencing phase of Manning’s trial in the coming days and weeks.
From Leigh Day & Co:
Lawyers vow to fight on after losing part of their battle on overturning the Government’s ‘Bedroom Tax’
Lawyers representing adults and children with disabilities who are challenging the Government’s ‘Bedroom Tax’ have vowed to fight on after today losing part of their High Court battle to halt the controversial new housing benefit regulations that came into force on 1st April this year.
Since 1 April 2013, persons deemed to have 1 spare bedroom have had their housing benefit reduced by 14% and persons deemed to have 2, or more, spare bedrooms have had their housing benefit reduced by 25%. The claimants all argued that these new Housing Benefit rules discriminate against people with disabilities.
The Court accepted that they are discriminatory, but decided that the discrimination was justified and therefore lawful – apart from in cases of disabled children unable to share a bedroom because of their disabilities.
Disabled Children and Bedroom Sharing
The Court found that the Secretary of State has been aware that the law must be changed to provide for disabled children since May 2012, and they were highly critical of his failure to make Regulations to provide for them. Lord Justice Laws said that the current state of affairs “cannot be allowed to continue”.
The Government must now make Regulations “very speedily” to show that there should be “no deduction of housing benefit where an extra bedroom is required for children who are unable to share because of their disabilities.”
The Wider Group
However the Court held that discrimination against adults with disabilities, even those in the same situation to children with disabilities who could not share a room, was justified. Lawyers for adults with disabilities today said that they believe this cannot be right.
They should be entitled to full Housing Benefit for the accommodation they actually need.
Lawyers for adults with disabilities today confirmed that they intend to appeal the ruling, arguing that the discriminatory impact of the measure on people with disabilities cannot be justified and is unlawful.
Disabled children and their families also intend to appeal as they are now left in a position where they do not know whether in fact they are entitled to full housing benefit to meet the costs of the homes that they need.
This is because the Government has declined to confirm that the new Regulations, which the Court says must be made, will cover their situations, or to provide a date by which the new Regulations will be made.
Since the new housing legislation was introduced it has had a devastating effect on many people across the country. Charities, Social Landlords and Advice Agencies have spoken out about the plight of people with disabilities who have been affected by the measure.
3 law firms are representing the Claimants: Hopkin Murray Beskine, Leigh Day and Public Law Solicitors.
Richard Stein from the Human Rights team at Leigh Day said:
“This is a most disappointing result. We will be seeking an urgent appeal to the Court of Appeal. Many people with disabilities including our clients may lose their homes unless the law is changed. Their lives are already difficult enough without the fear of losing their accommodation which has been provided specifically to meet their exceptional needs.”
The Guardian identifies some “puzzling anomalies” in the judgement.
Most important man in the Middle East? Perhaps no longer.
This article was published (4 July 2013) in the London Review of Books before recent events in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. The LRB is, in line with Guardianista bien pensant thinking, generally pro-Islamist (for other people, of course: not us, for heaven’s sake) … so this piece is quite significant, and also prescient:
The End of Islamism
By Hazem Kandil
Islamism was born in Egypt in 1928. And it was in Egypt, 85 years later, that the first successful uprising against an Islamist government occurred. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood is a momentous event: but to foreign observers, the army’s intervention overshadowed everything else.
In their state of shock and denial, the Brothers would certainly like to think that their unseating was purely a coup by the old regime. After an eight-decade cultural war to impose their unorthodox interpretation of Islam, they believed they had the hearts and minds of Egyptians safely tucked away in their pockets. Nothing could persuade them that ‘the people’ (or so many of them) would freely reject them. They were not alone in this belief. Over the years, dozens of news reports and academic studies have assured us that the ‘politics of piety’ would be the trump card in any power contest – at least if it were free. And once the rebellion unfolded, journalists and scholars found solace in the conviction that what was happening was no different from the Algerian, Turkish and Pakistani cases, where anti-Islamist coups repressed the pious majority.
But there is no reason to indulge their fantasy. It is true that without the support of the military and security forces, the revolt would have been aborted. And it is true that President Morsi’s failure to appease either the remnants of the old regime or the secular opposition threw them together in a tactical alliance against him. However, none of this can take away from the fact that 22 million Egyptians signed ‘rebellion petitions’ in the last three months, and this week 17 million of them, according to official figures (33 million according to the opposition), have marched against the chief representatives of Islamism.
For a president who paraded his democratic credentials at every opportunity, the viciousness of the religious rhetoric he deployed against his opponents was unnerving: demonstrators were collectively excommunicated; supporters said that the Archangel Gabriel prayed at the mosque where they were camped out; images of the Prophet’s epic battles against infidels, hypocrites and Jews were conjured. Islamist clerics openly declared jihad against protesters in front of television cameras, and presented themselves as ‘projects for martyrdom’ – so much for the Brotherhood’s advocacy of freedom and citizenship. And this was only the latest charge in the barrage of abusive language that Morsi’s supporters, drunk with power, had unleashed over the months. It all backfired. Millions of self-proclaimed Muslims refused to be either threatened or patronised; they refused to endorse the Brotherhood’s conflation of Islamism and Islam.
Certainly, the Brothers’ dismal performance in power brought about their downfall, rather than some elaborate debate on the legitimacy of Islamism. There was nothing Islamic about the movement’s policies. On the contrary, the moral image they projected was quickly comprised by the shabby deals they tried (and failed) to strike with old regime institutions, and foreign powers they had previously condemned. Once in power, Morsi praised the Interior Ministry so highly that he even claimed this most patriotic of institutions had been an essential partner in the 2011 revolt; and his aides spared no effort in imploring America to save his presidency. Egyptians became rapidly disillusioned with Islamist incompetence, paranoia, double-dealing and, above all, profound arrogance towards people they regarded as less religious than them.
It turns out that Morsi’s tenure was a blessing in disguise. If he had lost the presidency, Islamism would have remained the path not taken. But today, millions of Muslims have voted with their feet against Islamist rule. Those who grieve over this affront to ballot box democracy forget that Egypt, like any new democracy, has every right to seek popular consensus on the basic tenets of its future political system. Revolutionary France went through five republics before settling into the present order, and America needed a civil war to adjust its democratic path. It is not uncommon in the history of revolutions for coups to pave the way or seal the fate of popular uprisings. Those who see nothing beyond a military coup are simply blind. I asked the old, bearded man standing next to me in Tahrir Square why he joined the protests. ‘They promised us that Islam is the solution,’ he replied. ‘But under Muslim Brotherhood rule we saw neither Islam nor a solution.’ The country that invented Islamism may well be on its way to undoing the spell. – See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/07/04/hazem-kandil/the-end-of-islamism/#sthash.2afkV0LX.dpuf
Above: Ghada Karmi, on Press TV, looks forward to the destruction of Israel
Only an idiot or a hopeless optimist would predict success for the newly-announced Palestinian Authority /Israeli government talks about talks.
Even so, all persons of good will must surely hope against hope that something worthwhile comes of them.
On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, two commentators were introduced to discuss the talks: Lord Levy, introduced as “Tony Blair’s special envoy” and Dr Ghada Karmi, introduced as a “research fellow at the Institute for Islamic and Arab Studies at Exeter University.”
Dr Karmi came over – initially – as very reasonable, starting by saying that all discussions are “very welcome”… before moving on to her real agenda: it’s all a waste of time.
What most listeners would not have known is that Dr Karmi is an inveterate rejectionist who opposes the two states solution in principle, together with any other compromise that leaves Israel in existence: she is, in fact, someone who welcomes what she sees (wrongly in my view) as Israel’s evolution into an “apartheid state.” Her views have been expressed very frankly in many pieces for the Guardian, and very clearly here, where she states:
“Israel/Palestine is today one state. But it is an apartheid state which discriminates against non-Jews in favour of Jews. The Palestinian task now is to fight against this apartheid and mount a struggle, not for an impossible Palestinian state, but for equal rights under Israeli rule. They would need to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, which is now a liability that only camouflages the true situation, and then confront Israel, their actual ruler, directly. As stateless people under military occupation, they must demand equal civil and political rights with Israeli citizens, and apply for Israeli citizenship if necessary. That puts the onus on Israel to respond: either to ignore the five million Palestinians it rules, or vacate their land, or grant them equal rights.
“Israel will reject all of these, but whatever it does will be against its own interests. And Palestinians at one stroke will have broken up Israel’s hegemonic hold on the political discourse and changed the rules of the lethal game being played against them.
“This strategy will not be popular amongst Palestinians, nor will they want to become second-class Israeli citizens. But are their lives now under occupation any better? And is there another option given the present conditions? I would argue that by adopting this plan, they will lose nothing but their illusions, and at this serious juncture in Palestinian history, it may be the only way to avert the annihilation of their cause. It will be a hard road, but the one chance to build a democratic state that replaces apartheid Israel and eventually enables the refugees to return to their ancestral homeland.”
Note those final words: “ancestral homeland.” Pretty much “blood and soil”, eh?
Dr Karmi has every right to put her views forward, and the BBC should, indeed, broadcast what she has to say. But listeners have the right to be given at least some indication of her underlying politics.
Having read all about Alex Gibney’s film Wikileaks: We steal secrets I went to see it, and recommend that everyone does. It was also great seeing a documentary in the cinema where you can’t be distracted, as when you watch something on the telly or the I-player at home.
The film shapes itself round the story of two men, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. At the beginning Assange appears admirable. He’s a dedicated anti-establishment hacker and also a charmer, full of humour. You see him rising from smart-arse hacking in Australia – breaking into government systems because he can – to uncovering corrupt banking in Iceland. He and a couple of co-activists seem like heroes when they work together in a tiny house in Reykjavik to make a video of American soldiers killing Reuters journalists. (The event had already been documented but it was the video that made the public impact).
Meanwhile Bradley Manning, an American soldier roasting in Iraq, is a figure of pathos. In a civilian niche working with his considerable computing skills and hanging out with sympathetic friends he would have been fine. But he is a fish out of water, or as he says, “The CPU is not made for this motherboard”. He finds himself, an effeminate guy with a conscience, in a highly macho environment holding a job which gives him to access to the reality of the war that the USA is carrying out in Afghanistan and Iraq. His sense of isolation, working on his computer in the desert and being horrified at the revelations of civilian casualties, is painful to watch. He starts leaking the material and that increases his loneliness. So he confides in a soul mate he met on-line, Adrian Lamo, who shopped him.
Everyone knows how these stories have panned out, with Assange stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy dodging rape charges and Manning on trial in a military court for aiding the enemy. As for Adrian Lamo, type his name on Google and you’ll get “snitch”.
Assange’s story is a comedy of ironies. He, a hacker with monikers, became a media celebrity with his face on Time magazine. A transparency absolutist, he pressured his assistants to sign non-disclosure agreements. A pure anti-power activist began misusing his own power. He became an activist rock star who attracted groupies – and, it’s alleged, treated them as rock stars have often treated groupies.
Gibney got an interview with one of the women who made the rape allegations and of course like any woman who annoys males throughout the digital world, she was hideously targetted with rape threats and the usual vile stuff by some sites that would see themselves as progressive revolutionaries.
The most likable character to appear is James Ball, who volunteered to work for Wikileaks, got to know Assange’s modus operandi, and observes that Assange had the delusions of those working for a greater cause – that if they do wrong, it’s all right. If he tells a lie, something he’s prone to do, it’s a noble lie. One of his on-line names was “Mendax”.
Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets is a fascinating story that suggests various themes. It sets up a dozen signposts that could be followed, as distinct from the Adam Curtis style, which acts like a SatNav bossing you along the journey of the theory with your only view being billboards of footage selected to illustrate the point. When Gibney’s witnesses talk about their experiences of transparency, of the power of the state and the organisations that challenge the state, or the flow of information that can empower the small as well as the large, they point to ideas that all could be profitably explored and which are as complex and as in the shades of grey as Wikileaks itself – though some of the USA’s activities are as black as can be.
Gibney touches briefly on Anonymous, the vigilante/resistance (depending on what they have done to you) loose group of hackers who did a DDoS sabotage of PayPal, Visa and MasterCard when the US governemnt was leaning on them to block donations to WikiLeaks. Anonymous form a power base of their own, and though they were right enough to sabotage illegitimate force by the USA government, they can start chucking their digital grenades at any net organisation who has displeased them politically – and your only redress is in fact via the government. (They have now dumped Wikileaks since it became the Julian Assange show).
So this is the new world of the internet, where Assange was a warlord (or bandit, or outlaw) carrying out skirmishes against the empire. It’s only been in common use for about twenty years. The industrial revolution must have been like that. Suddenly there are new cities, and fast transport, whole different ways of working and whereas the average person once only knew their immediate neighbours, they could now seek out the like-minded. We have only just started to guess how the digital revolution is affecting political as well as cultural and personal life. For Manning of course it was a disaster. He made a friend online, and was betrayed online, and to those who don’t spend half their life online “friend” and “betrayal” where you have never met in the flesh may make no sense – but in fact they are emotional tangibilities in the digital world.
Assange knows the internet like a spy knows safe houses and the weak points of the fortress, and how a mechanic knows a car, and this specialized knowledge is one reason for his egomania. His life swimming in the digital world did give him a slightly fantastical way of engaging with the real world, and his superior knowledge of one system gave him an over-estimation of his political judgement, with a callousness about collateral damage as bad as a government’s. He had his own political view of the war in Afghanistan, and those Afghans who collaborated with the Coalition forms were traitors (to the Taliban?) so never mind if they were killed by careless redacting of the leaked cables.
In fact, a cruel and unusual punishment for Assange would not to be cooped up in a flat in Knightsbridge with wi-fi, but to be given freedom to roam the United Kingdom – with no internet access. That would be virtual, and real, banishment.
Most readers will know that the outrageous decision by the Labour leadership to refer Unite to the police has resulted in the police now stating that there is not enough evidence to even launch an investigation.
A comrade from United Left has drawn my attention to an interesting report on BBC iPlayer:
It’s very telling that the national Labour Party refused to take part in the BBC report, but on hearing the police decision issued a statement that they would pursue disciplinary action. It will be interesting to see how far that gets, as Unite insiders assure me that, at worst, any irregularities that took place in Falkirk were utterly trivial.
My United Left comrade adds:
“Also has anyone reminded Ed Miliband of his USDAW video? Oh and also that USDAW nominated his Blairite brother David for Labour Party leader. If you get USDAW to pay for you to join the Labour Party (a rule/policy that was introduced by Tony Blair) it appears to be OK and is fully supported by Ed, but not OK if you are in Unite.”
Paradoxically, the ‘Falkirk’ business seems to me to have demonstrated just how politically important and potentially powerful the unions’ Labour link can be. But some dunderheaded sectarians just don’t get it: ‘TUSC‘ and its ideological sponsor, The Socialist Party, are now stepping up their campaign to get Unite to disaffiliate (spelled out bluntly here). This madness needs to be knocked on the head very, very firmly.
And it’s not true that “Unite is at a turning point in its relationship with the Labour Party” (as you may have read elsewhere), if what is being suggested is that disaffiliation is now on McCluskey’s agenda. What is happening is that the Unite leadership, together with a wide-ranging group of left wing thinkers (bringing together some unlikely allies) is working on a proposal to put forward at Labour’s special conference. The proposal will address any legitimate concerns raised by the Falkirk affair, but will clearly reaffirm the right of affiliated trade unions to use the structures of the Labour Party to promote their policies and support union members seeking selection as elected representatives of the Party.
More on this shortly…
For many years the writer Michael Rosen has been a fairly uncritical fellow-traveller of the SWP. Now, he’s broken with them over the ‘Comrade Delta’ affair, and has had this exchange with SWP loyalist John Rose and others:
Michael Rosen (above) writes
My old friend John Rose has asked me to put this letter up on my blog. Here it is:
You and I have been good friends for years – more or less since that great year of ’68. You have not only been a trusted friend – but a trusted comrade as well, even if your disagreement with our ‘Leninist’ model of organising inhibited you from joining us. Your close and critical reading of all of the chapters before publication for my book The Myths of Zionism helped guarantee its success.We recently spoke together at the Bookmarks Holocaust Day event at Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop on the subject of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Bookmarks tell me that you have kindly offered to help promote the new 70th anniversary edition The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman which I/we launched at our Marxism Festival last week. Over the last few months you and I have had furious e mail and text exchanges about the swp’s internal developments. More recently in the light of important changes that are now underway in the organisation which address all the issues that you raise, I offered to meet you and discuss them. I pointed out to you that only a face to face discussion can clarify matters in a way that is simply not possible by relying on e mail and text exchanges, given the proper necessity of respecting principles of confidentiality. For reasons best known to yourself, you have felt unable to do so, but I be obliged if you would let readers of your blog know that that my offer remains open. Many thanks John
My reply: Hi John
Thanks for this.
The problem here is that I’ve become the story. I’m not the story. The story is a) the mishandling of a dispute b) the mishandling of the mishandling c) the lack of an open approach to your friends and allies in what we call the ‘movement’.
As you’ve asked for this letter to be made public, I can only think that you feel that some part of it makes a point to the outside world. I’m guessing that this is the part where you ask me, in effect, why I haven’t discussed this matter whilst ‘respecting principles of confidentiality’. Aha – surely this shows that Rosen has not been totally honest in his open letters…he could have heard the whole truth…he would then have not needed to go public about all this…etc etc.
I can explain. It is precisely because you wanted to have a ‘confidential’ talk about this that I found myself resisting your suggestion. I’ll be blunt, I don’t want to be the recipient or owner of any confidences in this matter. That’s the last thing in the world I want. The dispute has been played out in various kinds of public forums. The consequence is that many of us who’ve been involved in eg Marxism, LMHR, UAF, Respect, ANL, Stop the War etc etc feel that we are entitled to be told what’s going on – but not in terms of confidences – only in terms of why a proper procedure wasn’t followed, why the SWP couldn’t have admitted that it should have followed a proper procedure, why it couldn’t have admitted that its committees were the inappropriate means by which this dispute was heard, why it hasn’t hurried to put a proper procedure in place and why the person we call Delta went on being involved in LMHR and UAF long after the dispute was underway. And, I hasten to add, this is not because I am prejudging him as guilty. I repeat: I am not prejudging him as guilty. It is because this would have been the right way to proceed – for the benefit of all parties: the accusers, the accused, the SWP and the rest of us on the outside. I repeat, the SWP has set out its stall in relation to sexual oppression, liberation and equality. It can hardly complain if people on the outside ask how this dispute matches the principles and analysis that the SWP has put before us.
You mention ‘The Ghetto Fights’. In fact, my offer was more than the one you mention. I said to Bookmarks that if they wrote an appeal I would kick off some crowd-funding with a contribution.
If this is true it should be more widely publicised:
Profit behind Galician train crash?
From the Basque newspaper Gara:
The disaster took place on a curve where a new high speed rail line was connected to a slow one – to save money. Drivers were supposed to slow from 220 km to 80 km. There was nearly an accident during the inauguration run.
There was no automatic braking system -to save money… Drivers had to be punctual to avoid passengers claiming compensation (and save money.) The accident train was running late.
…But of course, it’ll be the driver who carries the can.
Is justice really blind?
In theory, all forms of legally recognised discrimination (ie discrimination arising from one of the six “protected characteristics”) are equally serious. Many of us have long suspected that in reality, that isn’t the case and that certain forms of discrimination tend to be taken less seriously than others. For instance, while racism is (thankfully) a complete no-no in the media and in most workplaces, sexism (especially in the form of jokes) is still widely tolerated.
In this context, a look at employment tribunal awards for the various forms of discrimination, makes informative and – for me, at least – quite surprising, reading.
Britain’s leading discrimination law specialist Michael Rubenstein, has just published an analysis (by employment lawyer Innes Clark ) of the Equal Opportunities Review (the ‘EOR‘) annual survey of compensation awards made in discrimination cases, and with their “kind permission” he’s set out the main points, as follows:
By Innes Clarke
The statistics are based on 422 cases either filed by the Employment Tribunal Service in Bury St Edmunds or sent to the EOR by individual lawyers.
The total compensation awarded in the 422 cases was £5,268,597. Discrimination awards are uncapped and the highest award made was £235,825 in the disability discrimination case of Wilebore v Cable & Wireless Worldwide Services Ltd, in which reasonable adjustments were not made for an employee who was returning to work after having treatment for cancer.
The only other award in excess of £100,000 was for £136,592 in an age discrimination case – Dixon v The Croglin Estate Co Limited.
Breakdown of Awards
Of the total amount awarded (£5,268,597), 47% is attributable to awards made for injury to feelings (£2,469,566) with the rest made up of, predominantly, financial loss (i.e. loss of earnings).
The highest awards made for the various categories of discrimination were as follows:-
Protected Characteristic Highest Award
|Religion & belief||£18,600|
I have set out below the median awards for the various strands of discrimination with the 2011 and 2010 figures for comparison purposes.
|Protected Characteristic||Median Award (2012)||Median Award (2011)||Median Award (2010)|
|Religion & belief||£3,000▲||£1,000||£6,976|
|All discrimination awards||£7,500▼||£7,518||£8,000|
An Employment Tribunal can make recommendations as to the steps that the respondent should take to reduce the adverse effect of the discrimination on the claimant. The Tribunal can also make recommendations for the benefit of the wider workforce and not just the particular claimant. In 2012 the Employment Tribunal made recommendations in 30 cases. Of these, 19 included wider recommendations to promote equality in the workplace. The most common wider recommendation was for training to be implemented either on equality or diversity.
It is worth noting that the Government is intending to remove the power of Employment Tribunals to make these wider recommendations which, in my view, is regrettable and appears to be something of a retrograde step.
It should be borne in mind that the statistics relate to a selection of cases which were decided by the Employment Tribunal and do not take into account the many claims that do not reach a full hearing and which, instead, conclude by way of agreed settlement for undisclosed sums.
Clarke notes that the EOR’s report also contains “some very interesting statistics” on the ‘injury to feelings’ element of discrimination awards and promises a further blog on that, shortly. Look out for it at ‘Michael Rubenstein Presents…’
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.