I started my journalism career working at “the female journalist” section in a local newspaper in Jeddah – the second biggest city in Saudi Arabia – where “the other sex” were not allowed to enter our editorial office. It was 2005 when I caught wind of a Saudi woman who began mastering the art of filmmaking in a country without movie theatres. It felt as if this female Saudi filmmaker started emerging out of the gender apartheid state and challenging the status quo.
The filmmaker was Haifaa Al-Mansour, who has recently received universal acclaim for directing the first Saudi feature film Wadjda or The Green Bicycle. She carries a unique signature as the first female filmmaker from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or rather “the Kingdom of Men” as a Saudi female activist dubbed it.
Al Mansour’s first feature film follows the story of the protagonist Wadjda, a 10-year-old girl. The movie was screened all over the world, but never in her homeland as there are no movie theatres in Saudi Arabia despite the fact that the movie was filmed in the Saudi capital.
Wadjda hopes to buy a bike for herself by winning a Quran recitation competition at school that offers a 200 Euro cash prize. Wadjda desperately wants a bike so she can beat her best friend, Abdullah in a race. It is the story of the harsh reality and cruelty of a segregated society, but it’s also a story of warmth, kindness, possibility as well as the desire for change. The general narrative captured my heart through the memories, feelings and questions it provoked.
The film’s opening sequences focus on the girls’ shoes: all black, plain and identical. Then they step aside to reveal Wadjda’s Converse All-Stars with purple laces, which set her apart from the other girls. I went to Saudi public schools that were similar to what is portrayed in the movie. There were many “Wadjda-like” characters in my school who broke the rules. I recall that we were the target of morning inspections by our teachers and principle. We had detailed rules on everything, from the uniform, hair bundle down to the colour of our shoes. Violating rules subjected you to punishment.
A Saudi writer told me that when he was 13 he used to play with his neighbour’s daughter. One day, she disappeared from the street and he missed her. He knocked on her family’s door to ask about her. “Amal is an adult now, she is no longer allowed to play on the street,” said the mother and shut the door. “Since then I fell in love with that girl and I felt it was unjustifiable that they denied our friendship,” the writer said.
In a similar situation, Wadjda’s best friend Abdullah has expressed in the movie that he will marry her when they get older. It was the only way for little Abdullah to overcome the heart-breaking fact that their companionship must soon come to an end in the segregated country.
Women find their way by creating new alternatives. Hiring drivers are one example. In the movie, Wadjda’s mother represents the daily struggle to appease the Asian driver so that she does not lose her only means of transportation.
Many of those working women spent half of their income or even more on private drivers. Technically they are working for the drivers, not the opposite. The warm relationship between Wadjda and her father proves that Saudi men are not inherently misogynist but patriarchy and gender norms force individuals into accepting the collective social norms.
There are a number of scenes where the director is trying to convey the bitter reality that males are not the only ones who are repressing women, but even women themselves internalize that oppression and play a role in reproducing the patriarchal system. That was the case with Wadjad’s teacher, mother and some of her classmates. This was also my personal account, as I have never met any males in Saudi Arabia other than my relatives, and my first experience with oppression came from fellow women, whether they were illiterate or educated women. A teacher once scolded me for working as a journalist and speaking with a male over the phone.
All in all, the film gives a very accurate and realistic portrayal of life in Saudi Arabia, which has never been shown to Western audiences. Before Wadjda, Al Mansour screened her short documentary Women without Shadows in 2005 at the residence of the French Consulate. That movie tackled the debate around hijab and the contradictory stances by leading religious scholars. Al Mansour produced two other short movies with almost no budget and with the help of her sisters. “I am inclined to social issues and I believe that cinema gives people an opportunity to reflect on their own reality,” said the filmmaker during my very first interview with her in 2006.
One should discuss Al Mansour’s claim that her movies only tackle social themes; hence they should not be given a political dimension. The current system of the Kingdom was a result of a theocratic marriage between the political elite and the religious establishment. The first accepted that the conservative Islamic branch, Wahhabism, became the dominant religious power in society, in exchange for the latter's support for the royal family’s claim for political power.
Hence, to call the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia a “social problem” is a total disregard for this historical division of power and that women have been central to both the religious and political projects. On the contrary, the royal family has actively supported the Wahhabi conservative movement, since its socially oppressive version of Islam coincided with a political regime that too relied on political oppression in order to stay in power. Disregarding these historical facts throws Al Mansour at the side of the state’s official narrative, which claims that what is happening in the country is due to the will of the people, not the will of the elite. Thus, the movie is against the society, not the state.
I met Al Mansour personally in 2010 and interviewed her twice. I followed the controversy that her movies caused within Saudi society. Despite the absence of actual theatres, Saudis watch movies on TV, DVD and through the internet. The views from her country about her work ranged from alarm and indignant rejection to sincere empathy.
Al Mansour’s plan to direct her first feature film was disclosed in an interview in 2010 and was scheduled to be released in 2011. However, they had to postpone the project as she faced difficulties in convincing producers to shoot the film in her homeland. After years of struggle, Wadjda and her green bicycle transcend continental boundaries in 2013. What makes this movie unique is that it was filmed in Riyadh, the birthplace of the conservatives.
How come a movie which tackles taboo issues such as the status of women could be supported by the same oppressors? The Saudi government has allowed the director to film inside the country, a wealthy prince has partially funded the film, and at last her film has been selected as the Saudi state official submission for Oscar’s foreign-language category 2014.
Paradoxically, the oppressors who constructed the segregation system are maintaining to oppress half of their population on the one hand while celebrating the movie internationally on the other. Al Mansour expressed several times that she didn’t want to rebel or harm her own people’s feelings. However, her fellow citizen, professor of anthropology and religion Madawi Al Rasheed, in her book A Most Masculine State, consider Al Mansour and other Saudi women as “part of the state-sponsored feminism, in order to fight political dissent and appease the west.”
The Saudi state strives to promote the movie as a story about society’s lifestyle, regardless of the state’s crucial role in constructing the patriarchal system. Al Mansour might be an excellent example of the rentier state’s production, where people are “subjects” not full citizens due to the absence of taxation. Hence, individuals become grateful for the royal family instead of being demanding citizens.
Therefore, it was not surprising to me to see a scene where the Saudi royal family was inserted into the narrative. Once Wadjda rides her bicycle, we see a bus with a large sticker that shows images of senior state figures.
The Green Bicycle or Wadjda is a close-up of a closed state. It offers a visual insight into life in Saudi Arabia. I encourage everyone to see it with critical eyes. In the public debate, especially in the west, Saudi women and Arab women, in general, have been trapped within the duality of being survivors which need to be saved or victims which need to be rescued.
It is important that the story of Wadjda will not be caught up by misconceptions and just plain ignorance. Let us keep a professional distance from Al Mansour’s work and not get overwhelmed with the title of “exceptional first female director from oppressive Saudi Arabia.” If we forced Al Mansour into this presumed image and duality, we in the west would also be projecting another form of negative discrimination against Saudi women.