I just finished watching Wadjda after listening to the director's interview with Jon Stewart. I seriously have all the feels. This is the first movie made in Saudi Arabia. And it's written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. It follows a 10 year old girl in a suburb of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, through her daily rebellions in an overtly anti-woman atmosphere as she chases her dream to be able to own a bike of her own.
FROM THIS POINT ON...
What really stuns me is the few male characters who seem completely on Wadjda's side, including her best friend Abdalla and the kindly shopkeeper who owns the toy store where Wadjda's heart's desire is for sale, while at the same time the number of female characters who stringently enforce the status quo.
This image of Saudi presented by a Saudi woman, a world in which she lives and grew up, presents a much more vivid and whole picture of a society, culture, and religion (all of which contain amazing beauty and true acts of kindness) is exceedingly important as a voice in the dialogue which too often seems to have only two, both Westerncentric, sides to it. Either neoconservative Christian evangelicals whose Islamphobia and racism are barely masked or non-intersectional feminists who want to "save the Islamic women" instead of listening to the women they claim to support.
The movie is supported by the authorities and has been entered as the Saudi entry to the Academy Awards. This is all the more surprising when you realise just how subversive the content is as you watch the movie. Abdalla and Wadjda have a strictly forbidden friendship, as they are unrelated, but they are also clearly best friends. Abdalla's behavior wavers between an adolescent crush on Wadjda and treatment of her as an equal in their friendship for which he resents society's interference in their leisure activities and the state's restriction of Wadjda's autonomy and movement. I see Abdalla as soon reaching a fork in the road. I could see him easily developing into a feminist man based on the simple concept that he sees Wadjda as a person, if he had the space and support to do so. But I also see his romantic feelings for Wadjda, in a society where marriages can be arranged that young, turning to feelings of control and possession over Wadjda as they grow older. For if Wadjda is a person with agency, then she can always choose to go away.
Added background is her mother's wavering attitudes as Wadjda's father seeks to take on a second wife because her mother has not provided a male heir. Ultimately, no amount of appeasement can save the marriage, and the idea that Wadjda's gender makes her less valuable than a potential son to the point of destroying her parents' marriage weighs heavily upon her.
My favorite part of the film is when Wadjda notices a beautiful painting of her father's family tree and her mother informs her that whether she likes it or not is really irrelevant, because only men are included on it. In an act which declares her personhood, she writes her name on a post it note and sticks it on the family tree.
In the end, Wadjda gets her bike, and while the bike represents her hopes and dreams of equality as she races along the streets with Abdalla as an equal in their friendship, the wider question of recognition of her personhood declaration goes unanswered—as it does for so many in Saudi Arabia she represents.