Movie review: Wadjda (2012)

Wadjda is a “spunky little girl” in that prepubescent stage before the weight of society and the authority of higher ups has forced girls to follow established dictates. I found myself cheering her on but realizing that any victory she may have is temporary.

These pressures were made even more apparent because the film is placed in a radically different culture than my own. As with traveling or living elsewhere, through this film we can see things about our own culture in the stark contrast of the other culture.

Wadjda is growing up in a strict Islamic country, where women are veiled, prevented from being seen (and heard) by non-family males, and exist to provide male offspring. But none of this was critiqued, at least not directly.

Our heroine, Wadjda, is a girl negotiating this culture, watching what happens to others around her, herself the brunt of pressures and condemnation and the holder of dreams. Her current dream: to race a neighborhood boy on bikes. He has a bike. She doesn’t. She conducts business on the side to earn bits and pieces, saving up for the bike she sees delivered to a neighborhood store. It is to be her bike. Save it for her, she tells the storeowner.

A contest pops up at school. A religious contest. Suddenly, Wadjda needs to learn the Koran and Arabic well enough to be able to answer what different terms mean and to recite parts of the Koran with perfect pronunciation. A highly unlikely candidate, she throws herself into the task.

After winning, when asked what she will spend the reward money on, she responds honestly and receives laughs from students and a severe reprimand from the head of the school. The reward money is taken from her and given to the brethren in Palestine. Girls do not ride bikes. Period. That is not acceptable behavior. How could her parents even think of allowing that?

Cultural differences are stark and enlightening. The classmate in school who is passing around pictures of her wedding. Her wedding. She is a child. And the pronouncement that pictures are banned from school.

Or the two girls who hang out together. They are publicly thrown out of school due to supposedly lesbian behavior. And subsequent rules develop against flowers at school and holding hands. Both suspect now.

Wadjda’s family life at first left me befuddled. Her father popped up once in a while but was rarely seen. He just wasn’t present in the home. Was he working at a job far away? No. Had he abandoned Wadjda and her mother? Well, sort of. He was preparing to take a second wife. A wife that could provide him with a son. It was intriguing to see how family life really works in a country where polygamy is practiced.

Or where women are veiled from head to toe. What does that really mean? How does that play out? I was first confronted with this a couple of years ago when participating in an exchange program of sorts with women from the Middle East. It seemed odd to me (and other Americans on the program) that women who are veiled actually spend quite a lot of money on clothes, hair, and their appearance. Why if they are covered all the time?

Well, as the movie shows too, they aren’t. Just outside among strangers. In their homes or in family events or among other females, their heads are uncovered, they are unveiled, and they move around in makeup and everyday clothes just as Americans do inside and outside of the home. The clothes, makeup, and hair styles are for their husbands, to express themselves, and to indirectly show their rank vis-à-vis other women—just like in any society.

Wadjda’s victory at the end of the movie was bittersweet for me. She wasn’t allowing herself to be crushed. Yet. And neither was her mother, at least at this moment. But there will be repercussions. And life will bear down soon enough. Again and again. Until she conforms. The life of her mother awaits her.

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