‘Wadjda’: Women’s Voices in Saudi Arabia

Editor’s note: See PopMatters’ interview with filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour.

“A woman’s voice shouldn’t be heard,” instructs the headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). Fixing her students with a disapproving glare, she continues, “A woman’s voice is her nakedness.”

And so the girls stop laughing, and instead bow their heads to show apposite embarrassment. Their silence, you see in careful close-ups of their faces during these early moments of Wadjda, is at once obedient and just a little bristling, their jaws set as they make their way to class, where they will learn… what? Even as they’re instructed to keep quiet and obey their elders, to avoid revealing themselves or otherwise draw men’s attentions. Ms. Hussa singles out one girl, 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohamnmed), for special reprimand, asking oh so sternly, “Where is your headscarf?”

You know where it is, because you’ve watched Wadjda make her way to school along the sidewalks of Riyadh’s suburbs. As she’s walked, with her book bag and her hightop sneakers, she’s teased and followed by Abdullah (Al Gohani), the neighbors’ boy with a crush on her. As he tries to steal her sandwich or pull at her headscarf, Wadjda is patient in the same way so many schoolgirls around the world are patient, putting up with the boy’s insolence, even smiling at some of the games he plays. When at last he bids her goodbye, riding away on his bicycle, along with a group of other boys on their bicycles, Wadjda stands and watches. She says nothing, but her feelings are unmistakable: Wadjda wants a bicycle.

In a series of brief, deft images, Wadjda, directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker, reveals that a woman’s voice needn’t be heard to be understood. Curious and confident, Wadjda pursues her desire practicall, without imagining she can’t have what she wants. When she spots the perfect bike at a local toy shop, a bike with tassels on the handlebars, she determines the cost and starts counting her savings, accumulated by selling homemade string bracelets to her classmates and finding ways to be paid for not quite licit favors; and when she hears that she might win a cash prize for reciting the Quran, Wadjda determines that she’ll take on this most difficult task.

It’s not long before you see that Wadjda’s poise and will are a testament to her mother (Reem Abdullah). Most often, you see her at home, in the kitchen preparing meals for Wadjda’s father, (Sultan Al Assaf), who comes by most evenings. His arrival makes both mother and daughter smile; he’s charming and warm, plays first person shooter games with Wadjda, and gently encourages her mother to keep on working outside the home during the day, an opportunity he makes possible by paying for the driver who must transport her. At the same time, Wadjda observes tensions developing between her parents, as his mother is pressuring him to find a more conventional wife, one who will stay home, bear sons, and wear a headscarf.

The irony for both Wadjda and her mother is that so many such pressures and desire for limits are voiced by people who don’t necessarily believe or abide by the same limits. Ms. Hussa, for all the tight rein she takes with her students, is disinclined to wear a headscarf herself, wears high heels and lipstick, and is rumored to have a lover who visits her late at night. And Wadjda’s father, for all the pleasure he plainly enjoys the meals he eats and games he plays at the apartment, is, at least off-screen, willing to follow a more traditional route, to assume the many privileges afforded to men who treat their women as inferiors.

That Wadjda and her mother find comfort and strength in one another, even when they might be arguing, even when money is short, and even when the mother feels she must — yet again — advise her formidable daughter to be less formidable, to accept the limits imposed on her not ride a bike, makes Wadjda unexpected and moving, sometimes quite thrilling. There are any number of moments where the two exchange positions, one looking after the other, one angry at the other, or one encouraging the other. Watching her mother try on a brilliant red dress, in hopes that her man might come back when he sees her in it, Wadjda is at once bothered by her mom’s desperation and also sympathetic and supportive.

As you share Wadjda’s view, see her mother in the mirror or hear her on the phone, flirting or negotiating, you see also how the girl might imagine her world differently, how even her mother’s relative autonomy might look too restrictive. When Wadjda finally has a chance to practice riding Abdullah’s bike, and he teaches her how, on a tiny patch of rooftop, the film offers images full of joy and tension and empathy, and practice sessions exemplify the film’s economy of style and art. A series of close and long shots follow as Wadjda rides and wobbles, as she grins broadly and gains momentum in this tiny space, as she shares her glee with Abdullah. Even without using their voices, they express so much.

RATING 8 / 10