Wadjda (Saudi Arabia, 2012)

Females in the wasteland

Females in the wasteland

This is an extraordinary film, less for its content, which is good, but for the fact that it’s directed by a woman in a society that treats women, almost, as non citizens in the public sphere. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature, she’d already made a documentary, follows the feisty Wadjda as she determines to get and ride a bike. This, of course, is such a basic desire for most children, but for a girl in Saudi it’s more like pie in the sky.

A simple narrative offering a slice of life, and concerning a bike, inevitably recalls Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948) but Al-Mansour cites Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) and Offside (Iran, 2006). The former follows the titular, determined young woman; the latter, young women trying to watch a football match in Tehran. The Day I Became a Woman (Iran, 2000) also springs to mind in its portrayal of women in a repressive society. Wadjda stands up well in comparison with all the contemporary films; few films, if any, can match De Sica’s classic. I live in Bradford and have been alarmed to see women increasingly wearing the niqab in recent years which, to my feminist western eyes, reeks of repression. There’s little doubt that the west’s ‘war on terror’ (i.e. Islamic fundamentalist) has stimulated a reactionary reaction. As Al-Mansour makes clear, in a Sight & Sound interview (August 2013), there’s nothing in the Koran that states women should wear the full veil, it’s an invention of the Wahabi sect that has medieval ideas of how women should be treated.

The film itself portrays this absurdity with wit: for example, the girls have to stop playing because they are in the eyeline of men working on a roof some distance away. Wadjda refuses to be put down by social mores and ploughs her own furrow, no doubt just as Al-Mansour has; she stated, in the same interview, that Saudi society will change. The fact this film was made is evidence of that, though there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia for it to be screened. The ruling class there clearly like to keep the populace in ignorance.

And just in case anyone thinks I believe the west treats women properly: we are a long way from a true equality. And just in case anyone thinks I believe we are fully informed by our governments: we aren’t.

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