Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), to the left, is not your typical feminist. She is a lanky 10-year-old with long dark hair, a loosely-hanging scarf, big eyes and a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. She memorizes the Koran and wins the prize for best recitation at her school.
Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al-Gohani ), to the left, is definitely not a feminist. He, also a 10-year-old lad, wears the traditional Saudi outfit and head cover, considers the long twirled mustache as a symbol of manhood, and laughs at Wadjda’s dreams of ever riding a bicycle in Saudi Arabia. Abdullah is nothing but a young innocent boy who may simply has a crush on Wadjda. He could care less about the structural violence that his female peers might face and the repression they encounter daily at schools.
Wadjda and Abdullah are not feminists, but they are the most inspiring and competent advocates for women rights and gender equality you may ever encounter. They may be fictional characters in an inspirational motion picture, but they are nonetheless depictions of human realities and individuals.
In case you are not aware, I am talking about the two toddlers from the first Saudi film to be directed by a woman. Wadjda is Saudi Arabia’s first feature film directed by Haifaa Al Mansour and Saudi Arabia’s first submission to the Oscars. If you live in a country where the film is prohibited, click here for entire movie (author endorses link only in countries where film is prohibited).
A lot has been said about Haifaa’s achievement and Wadjda’s character and what they represent for gender equality in general, and women rights in Saudi Arabia to be more specific.
In this article, I would like to highlight a much-neglected factor, a character that has not been recognized and pushed forward as a role model for Arab young men. I am talking about the character of Abdullah.
If it were not for Abdullah, Wadjda would probably had not been able to ride the bike. This is not to say that females are incapable without men, but more so to highlight the power that could result in their collaboration rather than their separation. Throughout the film, Wadjda wins over two male characters who play a crucial role in making her dream of riding a bicycle eventually come true. The first, although minimal, is the shopkeeper who saves the bike for her even when she clearly has no way of ensuring she can pay for it. The second, playing a much more significant role, is Abdullah.
Abdullah is her friend, secret admirer, bodyguard, problem-solver and race contender. Wadjda recognizes that she lives in a male-dominated society where men, even young lads, have more influence in society and already have the upper hand in the equation. Instead of competing against those who can assist and challenge their own authority, Wadjda appeals to them using her mesmerizing smile, her charisma and her persuasive character. She wins them over and asks them to help her overcome the obstacles, instead of becoming the obstacles themselves.
Abdullah is the one who shows up when Wadjda is being harassed by the sexually repressed migrant worker at the construction site. Whereas Wadjda is looked down upon by other boys and peers, Abdullah shows admiration for Wadjda’s pluck and individuality. He applauds her personality traits not exactly encouraged by others around them. He acknowledges that Wadjda’s determination won’t be crushed, and that she will do everything in her power to achieve her goal, so he decides to be her ally, and her supporter. He tags along on her trip to intimidate the Taxi driver, and uses his male authority and privileged social status to threaten the immigrant worker so that her mother would be able to go to work. Abdullah agrees to bring his bike to the roof for Wadjda to learn discretely, after a smart manipulation on behalf of Wadjda of course. Abdullah is the one who installs the two additional bike tires for Wadjda to learn, and later removes them and holds Wadjda as she adjusts to the balance on two wheels. Abdullah helps Wadjda perfect her riding day after day on the roof. He even offers to give her his bike when Wadjda’s ambitions to buy her own bike shatter after she involuntarily donates the Koran recitation prize money to Palestine. In the end, Abdullah celebrates Wadjda’s victory and joins her on her first bike ride in public as they race on the streets.
In short, Abdullah is not threatened by Wadjda’s defiant character, but rather inspired by and appealed to it. Together they were able to overcome the obstacles that the society has put in front of Wadjda.
Abdullah is not supposed to steal the spotlights from Wadjda, but as I said earlier, his character has been much neglected. After all ,it is Wadjda’s determination and power of persuasion that enables Abdullah to play this role.
The story of Wadjda and Abdullah is not to be taken lightly, as that of two toddlers in love wanting to ride bicycles together. It is a symbolic example of what the fight for gender equality and women rights should be.
Think of what Haifaa Al Mansour was able to achieve. Would she have been able to achieve it in the Saudi society without relying on men who supported her vision and dreams, who believed in equal opportunities and rights for women. Haifaa Al Mansour knows very well that Saudi Arabia is segregated, that women are not supposed to be outside, especially mingling with men. She says:
“…whenever we would shoot our outdoor scenes, I would be in a van, and I would sit with a walkie-talkie and a monitor … It was tough; it was very frustrating to be in that confined space. .”
When asked why she did not work more publicly, as a statement of standing up for women rights, she confesses:
“It wasn’t part of the statement I was trying to make. I wasn’t trying to clash with people; I was trying to make a film. And I know people, if they see me, they will get offended, or people will come question [us] and try to stop us. I don’t want to provoke people. I’m making a film in Saudi Arabia — I’m a woman — about a young girl who wants a bicycle. That’s enough. I don’t have to push it.”
Haifaa Al Mansour, just like her juvenile character, recognizes that she needs allies and not additional foes. They both recognize that their success and progress depends on winning over their supporters from the other, not opposite, gender.
And this is where us, specifically Arab men, play a role in joining the ranks of advocates for gender equality and women rights.
Forget about the stereotypes of feminism, defiance of male authority, deconstruction of traditions, redefining gender roles and all that radical talk that most advocates for women rights and gender equality are opposed to in the first place.
We cannot fight for the women, but we can choose to be their allies. We should not be threatened by their defiance, subversive methods and struggle. Their liberation will only empower us to become stronger.
We are part of the equation, whether we like it or not. We do have some power in this system, whether we use it or not. Sitting on the sidelines, cheering from behind the benches, puts us on the side of the unjust system. The struggle for gender equality and equal rights for women, is part of our own struggle for social justice and equal opportunities in corrupt and feudal systems.
We as men have a role to play, and strategic female advocates for women rights should know this by now. Wadjda, the 10-year-old recognized this and so should every hardcore rebellious feminists out there.
Be a leader, not a follower! There is plenty of work to be done and positions to lead from.
In my country, women are dying in their own homes, on the hands of their own husbands, with the compliance of the society and the reluctance of the legislative powers in the parliament.
If I remain silent, I am a partner in crime.
On march 8, 2014 you have the opportunity to voice your support for women rights. KAFA, Lebanon’s leading advocate for the end of domestic violence, is organizing a peaceful march from the Museum to the Justice Palace in Beyrouth. You can start there, and do not be afraid to be labeled as a feminist, after all you cannot be a meninist without being a feminist. Feminism is only a synonym for masculinity.
In whatever country you reside in, I am sure there is a role for you to play.
If you want to read more about role of men in the advocacy for women rights and gender equality, check this list below.
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