Thoughts on the film “Wadjda,” directed by Haifa al-Mansour

Refreshing is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the film “Wadjda.

As someone who has an academic background in Gender and Women’s Studies and who has studied and written about how people in the West should discuss women’s issues abroad, I was pleasantly surprised to find a film about a young girl in modern-day Saudi Arabia that didn’t feature horrific and gruesome violence against women.

Wadjda is a 12-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia who desperately wants to ride a bike, when her culture forbids it for women and girls for fear that they may “lose their virginity.” Throughout the film, she schemes to raise enough money to buy a bike she has her eye on, although it proves to be more difficult than she expects.

Wadjda’s fight to ride a bicycle, along with other restrictions on Saudi women (being forbidden from driving or being able to have multiple spouses like men), allows a glimpse into everyday life for Saudi women and girls. Their struggles, while not identical to women’s struggles around the world, are not completely unlike them either. Young girls in the U.S. also face gender stereotypes and restrictions that may hinder their hobbies and interests, just like Wadjda.

Watching this movie was a completely different experience than some other films of Muslim women I’ve seen recently.

The 2008 Swedish film “The Stoning of Soraya M.” shows the story of an Iranian woman in the 1980s accused of adultery. The rumors are started by her abusive, misogynist husband and little evidence is needed to find her guilty. She is sentenced to death by stoning as a result, and the film shows the entire scene of the stoning as she slowly dies.

I also recently watched a documentary titled “Banaz: A Love Story,” directed by Norwegian filmmaker Deeyah Khan. This film describes the victim of a so-called “honor killing”–a 19-year-old British woman of Iraqi descent, who was murdered by the hands of her family members for bringing “shame” on her family by leaving her abusive husband and later dating a young man. I was fortunate enough to attend an event hosting Deeyah Khan as a special guest speaker, and although the film was very difficult to watch, I appreciated her efforts in raising awareness of honor killings that happen far too often.

Both of these movies–while they highlight very real and serious issues–focus on the most gruesome aspects of violence in the lives of many Muslim women. It’s not to say that honor killings never happen–they absolutely do–but it becomes problematic if it is the only aspect of Muslim women’s lives we see portrayed in the media (in this case, the film industry).

If the media representations of Muslim women are unbalanced, stereotypes are reinforced and become more difficult to break. Not only do these stereotypes contribute to religious and cultural understandings of Muslims from many different backgrounds, but they also can ultimately bolster support for international military efforts to “save” Muslim women. Lila Abu-Lughod critiques the international media’s focus on the most brutal violence against women and challenges the idea that Muslim women need to be “saved” in her 2013 book. (Full discloure: still haven’t read it yet, but I did hear a sneak peek of it during a grad school seminar a few years ago!).

I hope to see more films like “Wadjda” in the future, and hope that they will receive as much attention as the graphic movies of Muslim women!

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