Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013


A recent comment by Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan from Saudi Arabia drew outrage over the weekend as women in the country prepare for a campaign on October 26 to grant women the right to drive. The Saudi cleric said that women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.

There is no specific law in Saudi Arabia that bans women from driving, but women have been fined or detained and put on trial for doing so and only men are granted driving licenses. It is also important to note that Lohaidan’s comments may not be as influential as a political leader or figure’s words might. The cleric is a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists and it is uncertain how much weight his position carries in Saudi society. Still, Lohaidan’s comments point to an important discussion taking place in Saudi Arabia that may take a crucial turn on October 26.

This weekend’s events play out only a week after I hit the theaters in Washington, DC to catch a movie drawing critical acclaim and attention. The film, “Wadjda,” is slowly being rolled out in cinemas across the country and carries many “firsts”: it is the first movie to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia; the first Saudi Arabian submission that will compete for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars; and the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director, Haifaa Al Mansour.

The movie’s premise bears striking similarities to the controversy and campaign in Saudi Arabia to let women drive, although on a much smaller and relatable scale. Wadjda, an ambitious young girl, wants so badly to ride a bicycle but is faced with the challenges of meeting such a seemingly mundane goal. She humorously and intelligently goes through numerous hurdles, both societal and personal, to try to purchase the green bicycle she sets her sights on, and in doing so, discovers more about herself.

The simple and extremely effective story is weaved in with other narratives. Wadjda’s mother, whose marriage is falling apart, struggles to find a driver who will accommodate her schedule and tardiness; Wadjda’s friend, a young boy named Abdullah, is preparing for his father’s political campaign; and Wadjda’s school is hosting a Quran competition. In addition, contradictions emerge between liberal lifestyles at home and conservative appearances in the public eye.

Wadjda’s mother and Abdullah’s reservations about the bicycle throughout the film echo Sheikh Lohaidan’s words over the weekend. Lohaidan said Saudi women should put “reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions.” Yet Wadjda, with her Converse sneakers and mixtapes, won’t accept this logic and does not view her goal as unreasonable in any sense. While acutely aware of the cultural pressures permeating throughout Saudi society, she is aloof and willingly naive to the reasons why they should hold her back.

“Wadjda” was ultimately effective for its understated tone and lack of grand political statements or agenda. Instead, Al Mansour said she hoped to “make a film that is happy” and “a film that when I see it, I feel powerful.” She said, “a lot of people who make films from the Middle East, [they are] almost like a horror movie when you go.”

What results is a thoughtful and touching portrait of the direct daily impact Saudi politics and society can have on a family. The movie is laced with humorous, entertaining moments as well as moving and emotional scenes, and while it cannot be the only lens with which to view Saudi Arabia, “Wadjda” stands as a vital addition to the discussion and a great film.

One month separates today and what could be a “Wadjda moment” on October 26 when Saudi women plan to defy the ban and drive. Until then, for Americans, it would be well worth taking a trip to the movie theater – maybe behind the wheel of a bike or car – to catch “Wadjda.”

Watch the trailer for "Wadjda" below:

comments powered by Disqus