Thursday, September 26, 2013

198: The Self-Empowered Woman: Wadjda

Dear Followers,

Today, instead of profiling a Self-Empowered Woman, I'd like to tell you about an inspiring new movie that deserves our support. Wadjda is the first full-length feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia and, more importantly, it's the first film directed by a female Saudi Arabian filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour.

As anyone who has watched my YouTube video knows, I'm a great fan of ten year old little girls. And this film tells the story of a ten year old girl who lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who dreams of owning a green bicycle. But in her culture--where women are constrained by custom, family "honor" and Islam--this becomes a complicated and challenging goal. As readers of this blog know, I've often lamented the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to drive, are discouraged from being seen in public unless a man is with them, laughing and talking in public is prohibited, travel is only permitted if a male relative allows it, and women are expected to all wear black abayas to maintain or honor chastity. Obviously, for a young girl to ride a bicycle would be considered a threat to her virtue.
The movie, which has been applauded by everyone from Gloria Steinem to the Tribeca Film Festival, introduces us to an assertive young girl who wants to find herself and enjoy life. In the photo above, where you can see Wadja's Converse trainers, those shoes serve as a symbol of her independence streak.
For al-Mansour to make this film was no easy feat. Because women are not supposed to be outside--and certainly not in positions of authority or power--she would have to stay in a parked van with a monitor and communicate with the film crew via walkie-talkie while filming. And unlike most of the films from the Middle East, this is actually a happy movie.
The star, Waad Mohammed, is perfect for the role, but it was challenging to cast an adolescent girl because so many parents were reluctant for their daughters to be in a groundbreaking movie. Fortunately, Mohammed had cooperative parents, wore jeans to the audition, and was able to sing (in English) a Justin Bieber song for the director.
What this movie really represents is the lengths that females in Saudi Arabia must take in order to cope with the political structure, protect themselves and invent strategies of subversion. The movie's heroine finds a creative way to blend obedience and rebellion, but the audience knows all too well that the walls of restriction are closing in on her a little bit more every day.
A few repressive rules against women have recently been lifted by King Abdullah, who approved the film. For example, women will be able to vote in municipal elections in the year 2015, Saudi female athletes competed in the London Olympics (for the first time), women are now allowed to work on supermarket checkout lines, at lingerie stores, as well as at cosmetic counters. And in July, the authorities announced that women could (finally) ride bicycles but a) they would have to be clothed head-to-toe, b) could only ride in restricted areas, c) bicycles could be used only for recreational activities, and d) riders would have to be accompanied by a male guardian.
Obviously, Wadjda's relationship with Abdullah, the little boy who is her friend, will soon be taboo, and she will have bigger problems than trying to find out a way to beat him in a race. But in the meantime, we--and our daughters--need to support this 97-minute movie as a way of saying thank you to Haifaa al-Mansour for both her bravery and her creative approach to a troublesome situation.
Looking forward to your comments... 

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