ThinkProgress has an interview with Haifaa al-Mansour, the director of a new movie called Wadjda, about “a young girl who decides to enter a Koran-recitation competition to win the money to buy a bicycle she wants to use to race a neighbor boy.” It’s apparently the first movie to actually be filmed in Saudi Arabia and al-Mansour has some interesting comments about men and women in that country. The questions are bolded.
Well that brings me to one thing that I thought was really interesting about the movie: you seem to be making the argument that this sort of obsessive focus on girls, sexual purity, actually ends up sexualizing them much earlier. I mean, if you skin your knee your mother’s reaction is “Oh my God, is it your virginity?” Or if you’re painting your nails and your headmistress accuses you of being a lesbian, that must just put much more pressure to be sort of sexually aware on girls at a much younger age.
Oh no, definitely, I think they see themselves, a lot of women in the Middle East, as sexual objects, and that is why they have to cover and all that, so as not to attract and not to attract anybody you have to be covered in a certain way, of course. And girls are aware, are being not maybe directly taught but exactly what you said, it is embedded in the culture and everyday life, and all the rules they start to observe since they are little….There is a lot of superstition even when it comes to the female body. Like, she is on a bicycle, and its like come on! There is a lot of, like, you know… ultimate fear of things, that does not allow them to see clearly, I feel like.
I was sort of curious about the range of attitudes in Wadjda and her classmates, the one who’s sort of getting married, and passing around pictures of her 20 year old husband. You know, Wadjda seems, I mean obviously she feels familiar to Western audiences because, you know, she wants to ride a bike; she has a sense of humor. But it was interesting to see the girls who were very comfortable, or relatively comfortable, with the idea that you’re getting married off at ten. I thought that was interesting to see her as the outlier rather than her as the norm.
Yes, definitely she is the outsider, but there are more girls like her now becoming in Saudi because there’s access to internet, access to the world. It’s not a closed society as before. But still, yeah, a lot of women are happy with the things how it is, and they are comfortable with it. Because it is segregated, they don’t have to do a lot of things, they don’t have to compete for work. Sometimes you get sucked into a life like that, and there’s always a man who will do things for you, do your paper. And it is—it takes a person like Wadjda who says “No, I want to be independent. I don’t want to be taken care of as a baby. I want to have my own thing and I have to want to do things my own way. And bringing Western culture, I always tell the story, Waad [Mohammed] when she came in to audition, I asked her to, because I wanted someone to sing and everything, and we liked her and everything, that was the last thing, we wanted to hear her voice. And I asked her if she can sing, so she started singing Justin Beiber. And she doesn’t speak English, only Justin Bieber songs, she will go if you ask her any song, she will go! But yeah, and that is because they are part of pop culture now, they understand, they know what it is and when. And maybe they are very much in, speak Arabic and have their own world, but still they are aware of what is happening in the world…
I wanted to ask about Wadjda’s father, who is sort of on the margins in the movie…waiting for him to come home, waiting for him to come for dinner if he feels like it. But he seems like a person who is denying himself a lot of things too. I mean he clearly, you know he kind of intermittently loves his daughter, but it’s clear that he feels pulled elsewhere, you know? That scene with him kind of playing video games and ignoring her, he seems very young in a lot of ways.
Yes, very childish, I know. I don’t know, I think the father is, for me, is a person in love. He loves the mother, he loves his daughter, but he is not strong enough to stand up to the social pressure….He’s a bad person, but he’s not evil…That is the complexity of the situation. And you hate exactly what he’s done, but he’s normal. And that is what makes the society very vicious, that [it] affects people who are maybe kind, but it forces them to take actions that are not kind…For me, men and women are trapped in a society that denies them a lot.
I think that last point is very interesting. Strongly patriarchal societies may seem like they’re great for men, who get almost all the power, but I don’t think they really are. I think men lose a great deal, mostly without knowing it, from societies that deny women the opportunity for education, advancement and equality. I would not want to live in such a culture and be denied the contributions of women in business, politics, intellectual pursuits, art, etc. Such a society is far poorer as a result of the lack of equality.