Wadjda – Less Islam , More Sexism

While most movies come and go every year, fewer and fewer get recognized for their concept or theme. Especially those that focus on the opposite sex, or more appropriately women. While many read the synopsis and peg the movie as another “chick flick,” its much deeper than that. Firstly You have to understand the film’s background.

The movie was directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, a woman who grew up in Saudi Arabia. The country technically has no movie directors, before that they didn’t even have movie theaters. Unlike most Saudi women Haifaa went to a university and eventually studied cinematography. She proceeded to make various short films. Wadjda was birthed from a story she was told about a friend’s niece, as well as her own experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia, and through various revisions she made to the intangible plot that would later become her movie. She had great difficulty procuring funds for the movie, which was another obstacle she was able to conqueror through perseverance. Then through a gutsy move Haifa actually filmed the movie on location in Saudi Arabia, to which she likely could have faced jail time if caught. Therefore everything was essentially shot in secret with most people in the area either largely unaware of what was going on or kept a reluctant silence.

As filming was done, it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2012. Although with a slightly different ending. However by this point Wadjda had already accomplished many feats. It made Haifaa al-Mansour Saudi Arabia’s first (female) director, that technically means that Saudi Arabia’s has the highest percentage of female director’s, its the first movie filmed in Saudi Arabia, its cast is of Saudi origin, and of course its the first film out of Saudi Arabia to win various awards.

Wadjda of course didn’t just win awards for various political reasons. The film has a strong commentary on sexism in Saudi Arabia and how its causes can be traced from the culture. However its not an outright condemnation of Sunni Islam, as some might jump the gun and assume that. It instead tries to empower females, and likewise challenges de facto norms.

Wadjda focuses on the girl of the same name. She seems have very Western views as throughout the movie she can be seen not fully wearing her hijab, hanging out with a boy her age, listening to American music, wearing Converse All Star Chuck Taylors, and of course questioning the social norms shes confronted with throughout the film. However the main focus of the movie is Wadjda trying to earn enough money to buy a bicycle so she can race and beat the local neighbor boy. At every turn she is constantly stonewalled by people who feel that “good Muslim women” should not ride bikes. Regardless Wadjda struggles on to fulfill her goal. The bike of course serves as her great escape from the system of whats right in the eyes of her culture. She ultimately doesn’t want to conform to the society and even though she can’t change it, she can at least be different than everyone else.

Alongside Wadjdas’s main goal, the audience is exposed to people that are also affected by the Saudi Arabian culture. Her mother is very concerned with combating her husband’s insecurities and maintaining a job as well as keeping him from leaving her. While her father is under pressure from his own mother into marrying another woman, and struggles to stay committed to Wadjda’s mom. Various women are confronted with childhood marriage, not being able to hangout with the opposite sex, or to use makeup, not being able to go out without a male relative, sexual slurs, and the overall downside of being a woman as opposed to being a man in Saudi Arabia.

Originally the movie closed with Wadjda winning prize money from a contest, buying her bicycle, and her mother dying. An ending which is maybe too sad, but one which would likely have instilled a sense of creed within Wadjda to be strong in the face of death and continue to defy the de facto laws around her. In the updated ending, which was  changed after its initial release. Wadjda wins the contest, but her money is given away to Palestine once she reveals her intentions to buy a bike and later discovers the bicycle she wanted has already been sold. Her mother is not dead, but painstakingly informs Wadjda that her father has given into his family’s wishes and chosen to marry another woman so he can hopefully birth a son. However her mother reveals that she in fact bought the bike Wadjda had been saving up for, and encourages her to continue being a strong young woman. And finally beats the local neighbor boy in a race.

While the movie has subtle commentary on the Muslim culture in Saudi Arabia, it shouldn’t be seen as the main theme of Wadjda. Instead it should be seen as more of a film which is trying to combat sexism against women. There hasn’t been a movie that tackled such issues on women that has gained this much attention in awhile. So it should be seen as a big deal, as movies such as Wadjda hardly get the attention or praise that their genre sorely deserve.

Beginning in April 2013 Women are now allowed by the religious police to ride bicycles in designated areas of Saudi Arabia.

US Poster.

 Wadjda Director Haifaa al-Monsour

Actor Waad Mohammed who played Wadjda.

Wadjda’s Chuck Taylor’s serve as her ultimate symbol of defiance in the film.

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