A Glimpse of Saudi Arabia

by Jennifer Bryce

Wadjda is the first Saudi Arabian feature film to be directed by a woman (Haifaa al-Mansour). It was shot entirely in Riyadh. Because of the strict rules of Islamic culture followed in that city sometimes the female director had to be secluded in a panel van or to communicate with the cast by walkie-talkie.

This film sharpened my own memories of Riyadh. I have been there twice for work – the last time was in 2012. During my two week stays in the Riyadh Hilton I could gain only a superficial idea of what it is like to be a woman in this city. Nevertheless, I had to wear an abaya wherever there might be men – this included outside my room in the hotel. And I had to wear a head scarf – for some reason this wasn’t necessary within the hotel. Women were forbidden to play tennis on the hotel tennis courts. Outside the hotel I had to be accompanied by a man until I had been delivered safely to the women’s university, where I was giving workshops.

As with this movie, I grappled with contrasts that I knew I didn’t fully understand. The women are suppressed, yet by having to build their own totally female worlds, they develop skills and succeed in areas that one might not expect. From a woman’s point of view, many aspects of life seem like European culture of at least two hundred years ago. However, at the women’s university the women do everything – there are no men on campus. If the IT breaks down, the technicians who come are female. There is at least one large women-only hospital – presumably there are female neurosurgeons.

The women in my workshop groups seemed to be articulate and intelligent. There was a language barrier because my Arabic doesn’t extend much beyond ‘Good morning’, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’. Most of the women had PhDs and they often asked penetrating questions (there was an interpreter although about a quarter of the women had English good enough to follow what I was saying).

Yet every morning these women arrived fully covered in black, delivered by their drivers. One time I was able to get to know a woman well enough to ask her how she felt about wearing an abaya and head scarf. Her answer was along the lines that underneath the abaya there was a precious jewel, just for the eyes of her husband. Was this a stock learned answer? Did she really believe this?

In the movie, Wadjda’s mother works, but although she has been married for at least twelve years and her husband is thinking of taking a second wife (which he does, near the end of the movie), she goes to great pains to be attractive for him and is devoted to pleasing him. When I was in Riyadh for work, I was invited to a private home for the evening meal. The woman of the house told me that I could remove my abaya once I was inside (I presume it was acceptable for her husband to see me in my ordinary clothes because I am a westerner). This woman was extremely sexy. She wore tight jeans, a low cut shirt and high-heeled sandals, her toenails painted bright red. I had intentionally worn very subdued clothes.

The women in my workshops removed their abayas and head scarves once they were within the university walls. So too at Wadjda’s school. The forty-something principal (who reprimands Wadjda for not covering her head on the way to school) clicks around the school in stilettos, is beautifully coiffed and attractively dressed. I remember being surprised that the women in my workshops enjoyed humour (and culture didn’t impose here the barrier one might expect). I love the humour in the film. The story of the film centres around Wadjda’s desire for a bicycle. (For a girl to ride a bike is presumably almost as bad as a woman driving a car.) A girl might lose her virginity riding a bike. Wadjda (superbly played by Waad Mohammed) is determined to have a bike. One way of getting hold of the large amount of money needed to buy one would be to win the Qur’an recital at school. We get the impression that Wadjda is not very interested in the Qur’an, but she joins the special study class at school, manages to acquire the appropriate intonation – and wins! Foolishly she announces to the school that she intends to buy a bicycle with the prize money – of course this can’t be allowed, so the money is sent by the school, on her behalf, to Palestine.

I found the end of the movie rather implausible, but it rounds off the story well. The mother has a seemingly abrupt change of heart, prompted, one assumes, by resentment at her husband taking a second wife. Pleased that Wadjda has won the prestigious competition (not appreciating her motive) she buys Wadjda the bike she has been craving. At the very end of the film we see Wadjda racing off on her bike with her young male friend Abdullah, suggesting that although freedom of the kind that we take for granted is still aeons away, there is a chink of hope.