The Female Gaze in Saudi Arabia

In the unforgiving eyes of the Western world, Saudi Arabia has represented oil, desert and “veiled, homebound, uneducated women.”[i] There is, of course, plenty of oil and plenty of desert. However, there are nowhere as many homebound, uneducated women as popular media might have led a Western audience to believe in the past. As female Saudi activists gain international voices through social media and international news coverage, the perception that Saudi women are agency-lacking, homebound, uneducated women loses critical ground.

            Nevertheless, popular representation of Saudi Arabia still tends to polarize images of Saudi women, now shifting focus to the female activist in addition to the repressed housewife. One major example in the news, the “driving dilemma,” poses a potential problem because it becomes a proxy, and not a very informative one at that, for all women’s problems in Saudi Arabia. News stories and op-eds about Saudi Arabia in popular western media outlets like the New York Times and CNN create a unique stereotype about the country by centering around the latest protest of a female Saudi driver.[ii] In these narratives, the feminist activist fights for abaya-covered women against a repressive hyper-patriarchal, hyper-religious society for the ability to drive.[iii] The voices of major non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch, who hope to play a massive role in influencing Western public opinion, contribute to this stereotype by focusing on protests around driving, although they also publish news about other human rights abuses.[iv] Even Al Jazeera, a greatly influential non-western news outlet gives a lot of clout to news stories about driving and women activists.{C}[v]{C}[vi] After hours of googling, I came across one exception to this trend, notable for its rarity, an article in an Israeli newspaper described women who stood by the driving ban.[vii]

            This kind of mass-reporting on one issue can mask other things that might better inform the Western public on what life is like for a Saudi woman. Holistic representations of Saudi Arabian women become eclipsed by these trimodal narratives about lack of women’s rights starring women activists, housewives and a patriarchy. Granted “the driving dilemma” is a major problem and one that the international community seems to be able to rally behind to further human rights, it still posits a reductive base for the Western public to understand what it means to be a Saudi woman. Not all Saudi women are activists, not all women are totally repressed and not all women are housewives. In this context, the 2012 release of Wadjda, the first film to be shot in Saudi Arabia by a female Saudi director has the potential to complicate, deepen and enrich existing representations of Saudi women.[viii]

            Wadjda, directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, tells the story of a 10-year old girl who wants to buy a bike. The titular protagonist, defends her agency by fighting (often subversively) for the ability to ride a bike with a neighborhood boy in a society where such behavior is frowned upon. Wadjda meets al-Mansour’s goal of “putting a human face on [Saudi] culture,” by complicating, enriching and deepening existing Western perceptions of Saudi women— albeit not without problems.[ix]

            The film makes critical leaps beyond “the driving dilemma” to get at other issues governing identity and rights for women in Saudi Arabia. The core themes that emerge from the film center around relationships between men and women (through an alternative portrayal of hyper-patriarchal rule), the relationships between Saudi women, the tension between feminism and faith, and most importantly, the unique agency that women do have in the society.

            al-Mansour portrays hyper-patriarchal rule in Saudi society through the relationships the main women have with the supporting male characters such as Wadjda’s father, Abdullah, the neighborhood boy, and the male shopkeepers. Wadjda’s mother’s major concern is that, after 11 years of marriage, her husband will re-marry to procure a male heir. Although she has a job, she struggles to get to it everyday because of issues with her impatient driver and she wishes to acquire a better job to support her and her daughter in the event that her husband’s income will be diverted to another woman. On the one hand, the power dynamic between men and women works against her; she loses economic agency by not being able to drive to work and she is dependent on her husband, whom she couldn’t publicly fault or divorce for getting another wife. Here, al-Mansour shows how men in this society might manufacture female dependence and how this might generate resentment among women.

            But on the other hand, the couple seem to love each other very much; they constantly express affections and the husband waited 11 years before arranging for another wife, only doing so because of societal norms and because he needs an heir. Interestingly, the theme of their affections is his love of her beauty, which she perpetuates by buying a dress with her savings to look good for him. She confides in Wadjda that they fell in love the moment they met; she was proud that of all the girls in the school, her husband thought she was the most beautiful. She also believes that her honor is retained by protecting her beauty from other men for her husband. In one scene at a dress shop, the shopkeeper’s comment about his ability to tailor her dress clearly embarrasses her, presumably over his knowledge of her size.[x] In another, she is horrified at her friend who works at a hospital without covering her face. She actually passes up the opportunity to work in the hospital even though it would be of economic benefit to her because she believes it would be too disgraceful to her husband. Thus, al-Mansour complicates the resentment with these romantic and loyal sentiments.

            Not to mention, the tension between feminism and faith fits neatly into al-Mansour’s plot line. Wadjda is a symbol of resistance; she hates her head scarf, constantly gets into trouble with the headmistress, jams to The Naked and the Famous, sells illegal bracelets and little favors, brazenly barters with shopkeepers and plays with the neighborhood boy. She’s the modern-day Persepolis. In the very first scene of the film, during prayer recitation she forgets the words and her teacher asks mockingly if she has lost her voice. Ironically, she eventually enters a Koran recitation competition to win prize money to buy her bike. Not only must she actually recite dense, obscure Arabic but she must understand it to be able to recite it with emotion. On competition day, she stuns everyone with a voice that is much sweeter and deeper than in fact her peers believed she had. Her words are filled with longing and aching that is genuine even if it is directed towards a bike rather than the real meaning of the passage. al-Mansour is cleverly, if a little heavy-handedly, showing how sometimes Saudi women might be able to regain their metaphorical voice through religious expression even if it is subversive.

            One reviewer points out that the erroneous “view among western feminism that “you can't be a proper feminist if you are a woman of faith.”[xi] This film complicates that perception; Wadjda and her mother have both internalized elements of their faith, whether it has to do with being cautious about being seen by men or the language in which it is spoken. In one scene where Wadjda and her mother are praying, they are deep in serene reflection while wearing colorful prayer veils; “their faith [is] a part of their femininity and not at odds with it.”[xii] In this way, the Western perceptions of the Saudi female activist and the housewife blur into each other.

            al-Mansour also shows how relationships between women at times compensate and help them adapt to their surroundings. Wadjda’s mother often gossips on the phone about other men; while her jokes are about the domestic sphere and drivers, they seem to offer real solace and help mitigate concerns that they have about their agency. In a poignant scene, Wadjda finds a family tree on which her father’s branch is devoid of leaves and places a piece of paper with her name on it. Later, she finds the crumpled slip ripped from the family tree and is deeply hurt when she realizes that as much as she loves her father and her father loves her, she will never be able to share certain things with him. At the end of the film, however, when her mother reveals that her father will be taking another wife, they come together in a heart-rending scene. Her mother, also feeling rejected by her husband, gives Wadjda the bike she has been yearning for and tells her that having each other is all they need. In this way, al-Mansour shows how things other than activism and human rights might rally women together and form bases for relationships that help Saudi women adapt to their world.

            al-Mansour also plays with unique cinematic ways to endow Saudi women with metaphorical agency. The fact that this is female-centered narrative itself gives a chance for Saudi women to be a cinematic and artistic focal point. Even the supporting females stand out; as one reviewer points out, “the black burkas [sic] may be oppressive in the heat, but they do look striking in a long shot of a group of women in the uniformly beige background of desert and dreary buildings, appearing like pen strokes on a sheet of paper.”[xiii] Additionally, the female protagonists take pride in their appearance and are colorful, even in private spaces. The headmistress, for instance, expects all of her pupils to wear the full abaya, yet in every scene she wears low-cut flowy blouses, is clearly wearing make-up and wears jewelry (Sasha Fierce might call that business-casual but relative to other Saudi women, she resembles 80s Madonna.) In fact, al-Mansour makes it a point to focus on this; she says, “outside, [women] are invisible, but when they go home, they inhabit the space, they sing, and they dance. That in-between is so interesting.”[xiv] al-Mansour celebrates resistance in Saudi women by reimagining the abaya as a metaphorical “pen mark” and suggesting that Saudi women might engage colorfully even with Western beauty, they just do so in the private sphere more so than the public sphere with the intention of protecting their appearance.

            Nevertheless, if you had any doubts about the depth of the breakthrough Wadjda makes, you would be right to be wary. Many would argue this is but a small step in critically reimagining Saudi women and it still poses many problems. The infantilization of the non-western world is a common problem in its representations; it reinforces this power dynamic between a “wise” adult West and a “naive” child (global) South. Therefore, one might argue that because this movie uses a child, a bike and her will to serve as a larger metaphor for women, cars and their need to drive to get to their jobs, it trivializes a grave human rights concern and plays into a perception that this is a child’s battle. As if women being able to drive in the West has made Western countries automatically superior. (Note: one of the few things Saudi Arabia and the United States share is their mutual disregard for the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.)[xv] However, Wadjda is not a film about victim children; on the contrary, as I have shown, the women in the film anything but passive victims.

            But Wadjda is also problematic because it has this Hollywood-friendly ending which makes it seem like it is trying to please a Western audience. And although this is a Saudi film, there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia.[xvi] In fact, let’s be real, this film was made through German funding, entered into international film competitions, where Western critics reacted to the film favorably and is now featuring in a liberal magazine in an elite college in the United States. Thus, the film can be accused of being unidirectional; it is a Saudi film for the rest of the world which Saudi women have minimal ability to criticize or acclaim. Furthermore, as much as we would like to believe Haifaa al-Mansour represents Saudi Arabian women, the truth is that she represents just one voice among many and a privileged, cultured, international one, at that. By her own admission, she did not grow up conservative, she studied abroad, eventually marrying an American which, to say the least, might have influenced her direction of Wadjda.[xvii] She described her father as “open-minded” saying, “I never felt I couldn't do anything because I was a girl.”[xviii]

            Nevertheless, this film is a still major breakthrough in representation of Saudi Arabian women. It gives agency to women, portrays real tensions women might face between feminism and faith, love and resentment towards men in their lives, and shows how they connect with other women to strategize, compensate and adapt to the obstacles they face. It also isn’t overly critical of the environment these women reside in but rather shows the many ways in which it has become a part of them and their identification. It also uses humor in a way that lightens the negative newscloud that hangs over Saudi Arabia with buzzwords like ‘human rights abuses.’ Ultimately, Wadjda is an alternative to the trimodal narratives of female Saudi activists, housewives and patriarchal authorities.


 

[i] Rabhani, Leila Nicolas. “Women in Arab Media: Present but Not Heard.” Lebanese International University. Draft Paper. Presented at Stanford. February 16th 2010. Page 7.

[ii] Jamjoon, Mohammed. “Why Saudi Arabia Can’t Ban Women From Driving Forever.” CNN. October 25th 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/25/world/meast/saudi-women-drivers-jamjoom/

[iii] Jamjoon, Mohammed. “Saudi Cleric Warns Driving could Damage Women’s ovaries.” CNN. September 30th 2013. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/29/world/meast/saudi-arabia-women-driving-cleric/index.html

[iv] http://www.hrw.org/by-issue/news-filter/237?date_filter%5Bvalue%5D%5Byear%5D=2013

[v] Naar, Ismaeel. “Shifting Gear: Saudi Women Defy Driving Ban” Al Jazeera. October 27th 2013. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/10/shifting-gear-saudi-women-defy-driving-ban-20131027132853713829.html

[vi] Naar, Ismaeel. “A Year of Risky Activism in Saudi Arabia.” Al Jazeera. December 30th 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/12/year-risky-activism-saudi-arabia-20131229142325294437.html

[vii] Bar’el, Zvi. “Saudi women back effort to keep female drivers off the road.” Hareetz. October 28th 2013. http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.554896

[viii] Wadjda. Dir. Haifaa al-Mansour. Sony Pictures Classics, 2012. Film.

[ix] Turan, Kenneth. “'Wadjda' a notable feat for Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour.” LA Times. September 12, 2013. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-wadjda-review,0,2465616.story?#axzz2rKsBthNq

[x] Xan Brooks and Henry Barnes. Interview with al-Mansour. The Guardian. July 16th 2013. Time = 0:20s. Film Interview. http://www.theguardian.com/film/video/2013/jul/16/wadjda-saudi-arabia-female-director-video

[xi] Shabi, Rachel. “Wadjda and the Saudi women fighting oppression from within.” The Guardian. August 7th 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/07/wadjda-saudi-women-fighting-oppression

[xii] ibid.

[xiii] Keough, Peter. “A kid bucks the system in beguiling ‘Wadjda’.” October 29th 2013. http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2013/10/28/movie-review-wadjda-kid-bucks-system/BGbGHBCEQdPWvS4mRQf4hM/story.html

[xiv] Bloom, Julie. “Where a Bicycle is Sweetly Subversive.” The New York Times. September 13th, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/movies/wadjda-by-haifaa-al-mansour-made-in-saudi-arabia.html

[xv] Baldez, Lisa. “US drops ball on women’s rights.” CNN. March 8th 2013. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/08/opinion/baldez-womens-equality-treaty/

[xvi] ibid.

[xvii] Hoggard, Liz. “Haifaa al-Mansour: 'It's very important to celebrate resistance’.” The Guardian. July 13th 2013. Interview. http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/jul/14/haifaa-mansour-wadjda-saudi-arabia

[xviii] ibid.