Making the Grades
Culture is a funny thing. We live within our own like a fish in water, so accustomed to its presence we almost forget it is there. Yet, if we were taken out of our comfortable surroundings and dropped into a foreign world, we might be as inclined as a fish to thrash about while trying to get our bearings.
I felt a little that way while watching Wadjda. This story about a young girl growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is told in the Arabic language, with English subtitles—for people like me. It requires the viewer to learn a different set of social regulations in order to really appreciate the plot. Undoubtedly I have missed quite a few of these subtleties, but this is the story as I understand it.
At ten-years-old, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is beginning to feel a bit of a rebellious teenaged spirit. In a country where genders are kept at a distance, she hangs out with a local boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) while both are on their way to separate schools. Her mandatory headdress tends to fall off while she runs on the public streets. She wears tennis shoes and jeans under her traditional dress. And she listens to music on a pirated radio station. Yet the greatest desire of her heart is to own a bicycle - even though girls shouldn’t ride them because doing so could be “dangerous to her virtue.”
Meanwhile, her mother (Reem Abdullah) is too preoccupied with herself to pay much attention to Wadjda’s indiscretions. At first she appears just vain—taking hours to do her hair and make-up, and dressing in expensive clothes—only to cover up all her efforts with an abaya and Niqāb (black cloak and veil) before leaving the house. But as the story unfolds, we start to suspect this attention to her private appearance might have more to do with the fact her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is considering marrying a second wife.
With little parental attention, Wadjda is free to pursue her goal of buying a bike. And she has no scruples about her methods for raising the funds. Selling bracelets in football team colors and copies of popular music (both prohibited), collecting money for secretly passing documents and soliciting pity are all methods she employs. Still, the profits are meager. Then she hears about a contest at school with a cash prize. All the winner needs to do is answer some trivia questions and recite the Koran. When she signs up with the religion club, it becomes obvious how little she knows about the faith. All the same, her valiant attempt is noticed by the school’s principal Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who hopes Wadjda’s sudden interest is an outward expression of an inner conversion.
Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but feel writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour was trying to make a statement about the rights of women. And perhaps that is not too surprising considering she is Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker. Certainly my Western sympathies sorrowed at the portrayal of a society that permits children to be married before the age of puberty and rejects girls because male posterity has preeminence. Nor did I realize the fairer sex was not allowed to have a driver’s license. However, I wondered if Al-Mansour’s decision to paint the girl’s school principal as pious, unmerciful and intolerant was a bit of an exaggeration intended to press her point.
Then again, I am the floundering fish here. Without a doubt, Al-Mansour presents an interesting slice-of-life that will be novel for most North American audiences, even if it lags at times. Content concerns are minimal, and include a character that smokes, depictions of disobedience/disrespect for cultural rules, and mentions of female biological functions. Also, vague references to inappropriate sexual behaviors are made, along with a man shouting a sexual remark at a child. Still, the movie does make one thing abundantly clear: Women all over the globe have hopes and dreams, and a will indomitable enough to try to pursue their longings regardless of circumstances. Wadjda captures that spirit in the closing scene when she triumphantly calls out, “Catch me if you can!”
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Wadjda.
People in the Western world are often critical of the restrictions imposed in Muslim countries, while followers of that faith criticize the loose moral behavior of European and North American cultures. How do feel about the strict full-body coverings of the Arabic countries versus the scanty attire and sexual objectification of women in the west?
Is one better than the other, or do both societies have things they could do to improve their treatment of females?
How important is it for a man to have a son? Why is a male descendant so vital in many cultures? Despite recent changes of attitudes, how often do men still have an advantage over women, even in the Western world? Do you think men and women should be treated equally? Is there a difference between that, and treating both genders equitably?
Wadjda and her mother face various trials over the course of this movie. Do you think the events they go through will draw them closer or further away from their faith, culture and community? What do you predict is the future of the women depicted in this film?
Do you think writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s personal opinions are reflected in this script? Learn more about this groundbreaking woman here.