Bikes on Reels: The Personal is Political in Wadjda

For more than 100 years we’ve been riding bikes and going to the movies. In this new dandy series we examine how two of the world’s most noted pastimes intersect. When and how have two wheels been caught on film? Over the next six months I’ll be examining cycling in films. It’s one part film review and one part bike nerd exploration. From coming of age nostalgia, to surreal escapism, to film noir and everything in between, here is the fifth story in the series. You can read parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 by clicking here.

  Image Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

Bikes on Reels 5: The Personal is Political in Wadjda

Story by Cayley James

When you type the words "women's liberation and bicycles" into Google you get a barrage of articles recounting the exploits of 19th and early 20th century suffragettes using pedal power to get their voices heard. Yet, the freedom of movement and representation that western suffragettes and subsequent generations of activists fought for is a battle that is still ongoing around the world. There have been just a handful of protests in the Middle East that have used bikes as a vehicle for protest over the past couple of years.

In both 2013 and 2016 Egyptian women organized bike riding campaigns that sought to stand up against street harassment and break down toxic conventions. In Yemen there was the Yemeni Women's Bike Group founded in 2015 that promotes women's cycling in the face of fuel shortages in the civil war addled country. Just this past September Iranian women rallied via social media to defy a fatwa forbidding them from cycling in public by using the hashtag #IranianWomenLoveCycling. In Iraq, a country that has been exhausted by war for nearly 15 years, has a cycling activist in the form of artist Marina Jabar. She has started organizing rides throughout Bagdad as, "a way of challenging ISIS and extremist thought." While in Saudi Arabia, the ban on women's cycling  was lifted in 2013, but it was simply lip-service to critics as they must still be accompanied by a guardian.

People power can work to create positive change and it can galvanize those who would otherwise be hesitant to weigh in on politics. Populist mediums like film have the same ability and they have a responsibility to champion underheard voices and experiences. Which is why Wadjda is such a fascinating example of how the personal is political and vice versa. When Wadjda was released in 2013 it made headlines as the first film out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be directed by a woman. It was Haifaa Al Mansour’s first feature film, and with a ten-year-old girl at its centre and a nearly all-female cast, it far surpassed the Bechdel test and charmed audiences and critics around the world. The limitations on women's rights in Saudi Arabia are legion. Human Rights Watch summarizes the Saudi Arabian Male Guardianship system as such: 

Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, marry, or exit prison. They may be required to provide guardian consent in order to work or access healthcare. Women regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims.

Wadjda is not just a critically successful independent film but a triumphant moment for artistic expression and women's rights in the Middle East.

Image Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

We first meet Wadjda (played with effusive charm by Waad Mohammed) in Koran class fidgeting and forgetting the words. The camera focuses in on the feet of her classmates and her scuffed Converse stand out amongst the mary janes and ballet flats of her peers. Next we see her selling contraband football bracelets and mix-tapes of Western pop songs she's recorded off of pirate-radio to her school mates. She talks back and helps out her friends, but always for a price. She immediately struck me as a Mark Twain character transplanted from the American south of the 1800s to the Middle East of today. The film's villain is the school's headmistress Ms.Hussa, who's determined to mould her young pupils into god-fearing and modest women that will go on to become brides and mothers. At one point she warns the girls: "A woman's voice is her nakedness."

Image Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

One day our heroine, jealous of her neighbour Abdullah's bike, decides she needs to own her own. Unable to afford the price tag of the bike of her dreams she enters a Koran recitation competition and plans to use the winnings to buy a tasslled green cruiser. She is reminded by nearly every adult in her life that cycling is inappropriate for young women, but she persists, getting Abdullah to teach her how to ride a bike in secret and mustering the bare minimum of enthusiasm to practice the Koran -  eventually winning the competition. When asked what she'll do with the winnings she tearfully announces to the school: "I'm going to buy a bike!" Disappointed that her success is not precipitated by a theological epiphany the headmistress donates Wadjda's winnings to Palestine. She still gets the bike though - her mother having experienced her own kind of emancipation (which we don’t want to elaborate on here to avoid spoiling the entire film) surprises her with the green cruiser. The final shot of the film is her riding into the sunset in the suburbs of Riyadh. As a free and liberated young woman with allies and dreams and a whole life of subverting expectations ahead of her.

Image Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

So much of the film is about the silencing and the elimination of women from their own lives. The hard social commentary occurs in the margins around Wadjda's hero's journey. They are throwaway scenes that highlight an unsettling number of inequalities. From street harassment to child marriage, women's inability to travel unaccompanied, tribal politics, suicide bombings and the preservation of virginity. At one point she falls off her neighbour's bike after her mother startles her during one of her clandestine cycling lessons. She sits holding her knee and yells: "I'm bleeding!" Her mother responds, "Where's the blood coming from? Your virginity?" Annoyed she yells back, "From my knee!" 

Image Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

What is so remarkable about the film is its ability to frame the prejudices and the infringements on everyday life without sensation. It is an honest depiction of women who are unable to live for themselves.  In one scene Wadjda finds her father's family tree in the living room. There are no women's names and she tacks on a piece of paper with her own. The following day she returns to see that someone has taken it off. A quiet reminder that she exists in a society that can and will forget her if she doesn't fight.

Women's bodies, their voices and their day to day struggle divorced from their male counter parts is not the narrative that people focus on in the media coming out of the Middle East. Despite it being a rich (femin)history with dozens of artists, writers, filmmakers and activists that I implore you to discover. The struggles in Wadjda are not framed within the context of war or physical violence. Rather the violence is a psychological nightmare that has them caught between being under and over valued in the exact same exasperating breath. Much of this balancing act is personified in Wadjda's mother. Whose relationship with her daughter is a complex and honest one. That sees her  wanting the most for her child but knowing full well the compromises that she will one day have to face and confused by her rebellious streak.

Image Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

is profound in its simplicity and its use of metaphor. A carefully balanced coming of age story that manages to convey the tumult of growing up without histrionics. It is effusive and energetic and I was cheering with joy at the end of the film wishing I hadn't been as deferential to authority as a kid. Wishing I had been more like Wadjda.

Since its theatrical release in 2013 it was nominated for a laundry list of awards and topped a number of best-of lists. Director Haifaa Al Mansour's follow up is a splashy historic biopic of Mary Shelley, famed author of Frankenstein and daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstencraft, that is set to be released this spring. And most importantly there's a growing generation of Saudi women uninterested in participating in a game designed for them to fail. If the recent viral sensation 'Hwages' is any indication there are very loud, clever and articulate voices of dissent amongst the ranks.

Related on

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Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance - for women

Bike courier delivers bikes to Middle East refugee camp


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