Inside The Kingdom

09.12.134:45 AM ET

A Girl, A Bike, A Saudi Ban

In 'Wadjda,' the first full-length film to be shot in Saudi Arabia, director Haifaa Al Mansour depicts a little girl's quest to bike like the boys despite public restrictions.

From the minute we meet Wadjda, sporting converse sneakers beneath her long black robe in a suburban Riyadh classroom, it’s clear she’s not like the other girls. She spaces out while her peers recite the Quran, she waves to a passing friend, and when put on the spot she can’t recite a single verse. Most disastrous of all, she doesn’t seem to fear her superiors. It’s not that she doesn’t like them; she just can’t be bothered.

What she does care about is bicycles. Her best friend Abdullah has one, and when he snatches her hijab off her head and rides off down the street with it, she can’t keep up on foot.

“Did you really think you could catch up with me?” he asks, and the gauntlet of the movie is thrown: Can Saudi girls ever keep up with Saudi boys?

“If I had a bike,” Wadjda says. “We’ll see.”

While little girls dream of husbands, and boys dream of guns and brides, Wadjda dreams of the open road. Walking around the neighborhood, Abdullah points out the family home of a suicide bomber. One big “boom,” he explains, and it’s straight to heaven where 70 brides await.

“Boom!” Wadjda cries, “70 bikes!”

There’s just one thing standing in her way: Girls don’t ride bikes. In fact, bans on their public use have only recently been slackened for women in the country, and as in all things, social mores are slow to catch up. Her mom is decidedly not buying Wadjda a bike—and even warns that riding one could make her infertile.

As if the restrictions in Girl World weren’t bad enough, we soon learn why trouble in Mom World makes her say this. It turns out bringing Wadjda into the world cost her mother her fertility, and now dad is on the prowl for a second wife who can give him a son.

Wadjda breaks two barriers: It's the first full-length feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia, and it's written and directed by the country’s first female filmmaker, Haifaa Al Mansour. Due to public distaste for women working openly with men, she sometimes had to direct from inside a van via walkie-talkie.

If there’s any fault with the film, it’s the lack of subtlety with which the abundant restraints on Saudi females are placed in the foreground. However, as these restraints are all too real (and often worse than those portrayed in the film), too-obvious lines like, “You think I’m a little girl?,” said by a little girl, can be forgiven. When our protagonist sees her father’s family tree populated only by male names, she pens “Wadjda” on an extra leaf. Filmically, Al Mansour is making the same gesture to add her name to a tradition.

Not one to be hemmed in by her society, Wadjda sets out to acquire the coveted bicycle, first trying to make money by selling friendship bracelets at recess. The school principal, a sanctimonious woman who will be laid low later in the film, puts the kibosh on this micro-business. But another opportunity is around the corner: The school is sponsoring a Quran recitation contest, whose cash prize will cover the cost of the bike. Wadjda studies with a video game that promises to teach scripture “the easy way,” and in the mean time she gets riding lessons from Abdullah, out of sight on her rooftop. Let’s just say her pluck pays off—but not the way she planned.

Strange men lurk on the outskirts of Wadjda’s world, from catcallers on the street (“Come up and play with us! Let me touch those little apples,” one shouts) to her mother’s driver Iqbal, who’s grumpy and constantly threatening to quit but whom she relies on to keep her job—after all, she can’t drive herself to work.

Still, there’s promise of male evolution. The owner of the bike store admires Wadjda’s spunk. Aside from his search for a new bride, her father seems to be a gentle and caring man. And Abdullah, representative of the future, is ever impressed by his pal’s pluck: When her dream of owning a bike seems impossible, he offers her his own. “Then how will we race?” she asks. “Wadjda,” he replies, “I want to marry you when we’re older.”

Best of all, there’s hope that by the time such a marriage could take place, the Gulf might look a little different. At the end of the film, certain goals reached and others still ahead, Wadjda looks out on the highway at the cars speeding past. Surely a Toyota is within her reach?

'Wadjda,' the first full-length film to be shot in Saudi Arabia, depicts a little girl's brave quest to bike like the boys.