Image by Mark Renney
WADJDA (2012) – Written and Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour
Wadjda is not only delightful but also an immensely interesting study of the role of women within Saudi Arabian society and the cultural issues which, in the most conservative and religious households, render them virtually voiceless. Indeed, they are constantly being reminded not to raise their voices so that men may hear them speak.
Wadjda is a young schoolgirl who is naturally rebellious – despite it being very much frowned upon she is friends with Abdullah, a boy of her own age whose admiration for Wadjda leads him to declare, toward the end of the film, his intention to marry her. Abdullah, being male, and I use the word advisedly, has all the advantages – he teases Wadjda but also gives her gifts. However, her real interest is that he has a bike and can use it to ‘get away quickly’ when he grabs her head scarf and which means Wadjda arrives at school inappropriately dressed., something which brings her the unwelcome attention of the Head Teacher.
One day, as she heads home, Wadjda sees a bike atop a van and she runs after it to the shop where it is on display with a sale price of 800 ryals. This becomes her goal – to find ways to earn money enough to purchase it. Wadjda visits frequently to ensure the bike is not sold and her persistence and cheek earn her enough respect from the shopkeeper so that he does in fact keep the bike for her. Her ambition is to not only challenge Abdullah to a race but to beat him and to show that, girl or not, she is equal to him.
Wadjda’s home life consists of her and her mother – Wadjda’s father visits perhaps fortnightly or monthly but he is under pressure from his mother to marry again (under Islamic Sharia law men may take four wives as long as they can prove they have the finances to manage more than one household). We learn that Wadjda’s mother, who follows the rules of society and religion obediently, nearly lost her life in childbirth and her husband wants a son, which she is unable to give him. Part of this obedience consists of her refusing to consider buying the bike for Wadjda because it is deemed that this may cause her to break her hymen and therefore lose her virginity, rendering Wadjda unmarriageable.
Her mother is in competition with the potential bride(s) to be and is determined to outshine all of them at a forthcoming family wedding and she shops for a glamorous gown which will, she hopes, show her husband that he does not need another wife. It is at this time that we learn Wadjda’s father declared his love for her when they were both young and this mirrors Abdullah’s declaration to Wadjda.
But how to earn the money for the bike? Wadjda scrapes together some money by acting as a ‘go-between’ for an older schoolgirl and her illicit boyfriend and manages to get paid twice over, once by the girl and once by the boy. However, this only adds 40 ryals to her savings of 47. Then, the Head Teacher announces that the prize money for the annual competition of learning sections of the Koran and reciting them in prayer, word perfect, together with a question and answer section on the meaning of various obscure phrases therein. Wadjda, who previously has not shown any active interest in being devotional sees this as the opportunity she needs. The prize money is to be 1,000 ryals and suddenly, the wayward child who is not particularly respectful (in the eyes of the obedient), appears to be maturing in the way society requires her to. No longer are her Converse type boots anathema to the teaching staff (other girls wear white socks and black Mary Jane shoes beneath the long tunics). Wadjda studies hard and manages to wrest the prize away from the girls one would expect to win. However, when asked what she will use the money for her response is not pleasing at all to the Head Teacher (who has what is an open secret of her own), who reiterates that riding a bike is not appropriate for a girl and that instead the prize money should be donated to Palestine. Wadjda makes her feelings known when she refers to the Head Teacher’s ‘handsome thief’ who it is conjectured is actually her boyfriend who visits her at night. When asked by Abdullah about the prize money Wadjda spits out ‘It is in Palestine’.
Returning home, she finds her father seated in the main living room – he has been trying to contact his wife all day but without success. She is not answering his phone calls and does not appear to be at home. As he leaves he asks Wadjda to tell her mother that he loves her. He is going to be take a second wife that night.
The gown her mother had planned to buy is no longer of any use and Wadjda’s mother uses the money instead to buy her the bike. She tells Wadjda that is now just the two of them and one hopes that this also means that the woman who has been so devout and obedient because of her husband’s demands that she be subservient, silent and covered will step out into the light at last. Perhaps now she will take a job at the local hospital where women do not have to cover their faces despite working alongside men.
The closing scene is that of Wadjda, who is equal to any son, on her beautiful green and white bike challenging and apparently beating Abdullah in a race. We watch as she speeds into the distance, toward the main road, and we hope that she is heading into a more enlightened space and that she will be one of the women who spearheads the fight for greater equality in a world where men rule absolutely.