Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour, 2012), is a coming of age story about a 10-year-old girl living in the suburb of Riyadh. The story of Wadjda expresses how people live their lives in Saudi Arabia through the experiences of a 10-year-old girl and how women have to cope with the patriarchal restrictions in society of Saudi Arabia. In this essay, I will be discussing how the social norms of Saudi Arabian society are subverted through the theme of rebellion. The theme of rebellion is demonstrated throughout the film in different areas by the use of cinematography, dialogue, clothing, relationships, and character traits. I will be discussing these aspects in reference to scenes in the film that I think explain and symbolise this.
The opening scene is a very important scene in the film as it is where we establish Wadjda’s rebellious character in contrast between her and the obedient girls in her class. In the scene, we are instantly drawn to Wadjda’s canvas shoes in contrast to the other girl’s black shoes which are used to portray a depiction of Wadjda’s individuality and aspects of her personality to the audience advocating that she is rebellious to the social norms of society and not following basic rules. The opening scene is important as it introduces her character and her personality to the audience, in order to a generate understanding for the audience when they see her perform more acts of rebellious behaviour against the social norms of society throughout the film.
The types of girls at Wadjda’s school differ to her massively. In the film, we establish that she has a selective group of friends that like to hang out behind the school and do rebellious actions such as paint their toenails. However, although these are seen as wrong doings, Wadjda is always one step further with her actions. Wadjda is more of a tomboyish character, whilst the other girls paint their toenails in secret, Wadjda, sells things to her fellow peers to earn money and doesn’t waste her time. Wadjda is Unique and has her own mind and view of things where as these girl’s rebel minimally simply trying to make their way through daily life. The paradoxes of Saudi Arabian society are displayed through the girl’s rebellious attributes, Including Wadjda. The role of women in Saudi Arabian Society is considered to be quite controversial. Saudi Arabian women are educated and told to participate in house hold roles such as taking care of the children, cooking and cleaning the house. The role of women is basic to maintaining the structure of the family due to the fact that women are controlled more by men, keeping their chastity and family honour making the family’s bonds stronger. Due to Islamic rules and society, women are to be covered and vailed around non-marital partners and non-family members.
Wadjda decorates her personality and individuality with her clothing, style of music and her independence. She rebels against the social norms of Saudi Arabian society to show people how different people embrace different concepts of Islam. Her small gestures of spirited individuality contrasted in a world that seems organized to suppress any such expression. In the film, we establish that the plot of the story suggests that people, children, in particular, should have some means to express themselves, especially when they have worked hard to achieve their goals. In the film Wadjda’s goal was to earn enough money to buy her bicycle, by winning the Quran completion at school. However, as she reveals what she will use the money for, the teachers disapprove and take her money and contribute it towards a charity. Wadjda is disheartened at this point as she worked so hard for something and it was taken away just because it wasn’t viewed as something a woman “should” do. Wadjda’s tomboyish behaviour goes against what is viewed as “right” in the Society of Saudi Arabia. The actions she does may be viewed by the western audience as normal actions, however, these specific rebellious acts that she does reflect on the issues that the women face in the society. Simple traits such as listening to western pop music, hanging out with Abdullah are examples of things that women shouldn’t do in this society and are considered to be frowned upon. Wadjda is determined to have her own bicycle which symbolises freedom. A woman riding a bike is widely frowned on and strongly discouraged in Saudi Arabian society. However, the reason she is so determined to buy this bicycle is because realises that she may be able to get away with it if she’s financially independent.
Throughout the film, we begin to see that Wadjda’s mother’s personality unfolds and we establish that she is a moderately liberal woman, comfortable enough to sing at home, but conservative enough to disapprove of the mixed tapes that Wadjda creates. We as the audience begin to understand more about Wadjda’s behaviour when we see life at home. Wadjda has a relatively close relationship with her mother. Her father on the hand seems very laid back and is not like a stereotypical Saudi Arabian father who is strict on their wives and children.
In the scene where Wadjda’s dad is sitting in the living room playing a video game, and tells him that she wants a bike and he barely raised an eyebrow. As the audience, we stereotypically expect a Saudi Arabian father to be angry and give her a lecture about how it is wrong and tell her how a woman “should” act. However, to our surprise, he doesn’t respond or seems as though he even acknowledged what she had said. In Saudi Arabian Society, the structure of the families is traditionally patriarchal, with the male being the head of the household and in charge of duties such as providing for his family.
From this, we establish that Wadjda has taken certain traits from her father such as being laid back and doing the opposite of what is expected in social norms of Saudi Arabian society. What is expected of Wadjda is not how she responds to certain situations. So, given the fact that her father didn’t really have much to say given the situation with the bicycle, her other behaviour such as her choice of clothing, and perhaps the loud music wouldn’t have bothered him, and for this reason we could say that perhaps because there was no “man of the house” to tell her otherwise off may be the reason why she acts so rebellious in the first place. Throughout the film we witness Wadjda get into trouble for numerous things, however not once does she get told off by her father which suggests that he is the least of her worries. In typical Saudi Arabian society, if the children particularly the child does something wrong, their father would be the one to set them straight.
According to Ceuterick “‘When the father or other male relatives are not present, Wadjda can sing with her mother, play subversively with her abaya and the two women can find a hiding spot on the roof. When the father is present the spatiality of the house changes. The house then appears as a divided space that determines gender roles, responsibilities and labour” (Ceuterick 189)
Another aspect which affects Wadjda, is the fact that only the men of the family appear on the family tree. Later on, in the film, we see Wadjda add herself to it only to find that she had been taken off. At the edge of adolescence, Wadjda discovers many limitations placed on herself and the women in society in the name of culture, Islam and family honour. However, all of these situations that she finds herself in is what pushes and made her more determined her to want the bicycle even more. As mentioned before, the bicycle is a symbol of freedom in the film and by her being able to buy the bike and riding it gives her freedom and a sense of liberation.
Us as the audience could say that Wadjda gets away with her behaviour because she doesn’t know better, the fact that the man of the house being her father is not strict there for lets her get away with a lot.
In the film, everyone around Wadjda thinks that she is just a child and doesn’t know any better, however as the film goes on you begin to establish the reactions of the elder people such as her teachers, parents and family friends, towards her. We discover later in the film that Wadjda’s rebellious traits symbolises her wisdom and intelligence towards the situation. Her personality sets an example for all women in Saudi Arabian society that if you want something you can get it if you are determined. It also symbolises that by you going for what you want for something such as a bicycle doesn’t make you any less of a Muslim. This is portrayed when Wadjda learns the Quran and strives to be the best in order to win the competition to get what she wants. She achieved both goals of her religious side as well as striving for what she wants and what she believes in.
The discussion on how the social norms of Saudi Arabian society are subverted through the theme of rebellion and represented throughout the film in different ways with many messages behind each scene. Each scene was well thought out and there are meanings to each part on relation to how women cope in Saudi Arabian Society.
Haifaa al-Mansour told the story about Saudi Arabian society without being bias or obvious political agenda. She also changed the ending of the film and originally the mother was going to die, instead, she changed it to her buying Wadjda the bicycle. This changed the whole meaning of the film as the two endings are the complete polar opposite. If the ending of the film had led to the mother dying, in a way it throws the whole message of the film out the window because then Wadjda would not have got her bike which we explained symbolises freedom and she would have then lost her mother and have to live with her father’s new family. On the other hand, by changing the ending to Wadjda’s mother buying her the bike this then shows that her mother accepted and agreed with Wadjda after her husband had left her for another woman, and the fact that it ended with them symbolised empowering women and the fact that she got her bike in the end also symbolised freedom and liberation. The two endings change the meaning very drastically and so the ending that Haifa changed it to fitted the story and the moral also.