Thanks to all who came on Wednesday to see our Screening of Wadjda, eat some glorious cake and participate in our discussion. Also thank you so Dr. Keya Anjaria from SOAS, university of London for coming to lead the discussion. Here’s her university profile for more info on her work.
Wadjda, a Saudi Arabian-German film, written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director.
The film’s story focuses on the life of Wadjda, a young girl living in Riyadh with her mother and an essentially absent father. The noticeable absence of any male lead characters in the film is interesting and Dr. Anjaria suggested that this enabled us to perceive patriarchy as pervasive rather than as confined to a particular character.
Our post-film discussion explored ideas about whether the film could be seen as pejorative of the Middle East, reinforcing western ideas about oppressive Islamic countries and women as victims. Rachel Shabi wrote for the Guardian that the film ‘exposes the country’s denial of women’s rights while giving Muslim feminism a voice’. I can see where Shabi is coming from: the film doesn’t lecture but draws attention to some of the aspects of female oppression specifically experienced in Saudi Arabia: e.g. women not being allowed to drive cars. But I found personally many of the codes were recognisable and experiences universal of just being a girl growing up.
The central storyline wasn’t too explicitly concerned with exposing structures of Saudi Arabian oppression, but detailed Wadjda’s friendships, negotiating a relationship with her mother, struggling with restrictive school rules, and coveting possessions for fun and pleasure – in Wadjda’s case a bicycle. This universality, Dr. Anjaria suggested could be a product of being a film made specifically for the international foreign film market. The film is therefore geared towards a general audience rather than a Saudi one. It raises the question: does it matter where the film was set at all, if the messages about girlhood, women and agency are so easily mapped elsewhere?
Professor Carol Dyhouses’ work Girl Trouble reminds us that there is a long history of girls perceived as troublemakers in Britain. From the suffragettes, to the flappers, to the 1970s feminists and ‘ladettes’ of the 1990s – girls are troubled, immoral, and rebellious when they don’t meet their gendered expectations and milestones willingly. When they resist, like Wadjda who would rather ride her bike with her friend Abdullah instead of wearing her veil and reading the Qur’an, the bike becomes symbolic of her deviance, danger and lack of femininity. The film also prompted me to remember Adiche’s We Should All Be Feminists from our last reading group, in which she talks about how we teach girls and boys differently as they grow up. Girls should learn to be constantly mindful of their bodies, monitor how much space they take up, be aware of how men might be observing them at all times. The school mistress and Wadjda’s mother who constantly berate Wadjda for not covering her hair in public are the authority figures who provide this message.
Wadjda resists from within: in order to make enough money to buy her bicycle she enters a Qur’an recitation competition at school. First place and cash prize goes to the girl who performs the best recital as it shows that she has taken the words into her heart. Critics of the film suggested that this inevitably demonstrates Wadjda’s lack of agency by having to conform and submit to the school and religious expectations. But I read the act in another way, particularly thinking about Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘The author as producer’. Wadjda changes the meaning of the text not through the words but through the format in which she delivers it: firstly, because her objective is material not spiritual, secondly, because the process through which Wadjda learnt the text (through a computer quiz games) indicates that there was no spiritual or emotional absorption in her learning process – in fact the gamification of the action suggests the exact opposite taking place.
I could see parallels with the film Little Miss Sunshine, which also peaks with a young girls’ subversive on-stage performance. Both films show that there are opportunities for agency even in supposed un-feminist or oppressive spaces whether that is the beauty pageant or a school/religious recital. Both films also end with the adult authority figures letting go of their inhibitions and anxieties about social expectations. Wadjda is as much about Wadjda’s mother’s transformation as it is about Wadjda herself, and her final acceptance and encouragement of her daughter’s rebellious nature I think signifies the importance of inter-generational female bonds and learning from each other.
 Rachel Shabi, ‘Wadjda and the Saudi women fighting oppression from within’ The Guardian 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/07/wadjda-saudi-women-fighting-oppression
 Carol Dyhouse, Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the history of young women (2013)
 Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, We Should All be Feminists (2015)
 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer” address delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, Paris 1934. http://yaleunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Walter_Benjamin_-_The_Author_as_Producer.pdf