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The Saudi Women Laughing in the Face of Inequality at Home and Ignorance Abroad

14/08/2013 17:48 | Updated 14 October 2013

"How wonderful that they've been allowed to protest." That was an English war reporter, a pioneering woman, talking about the women who led demonstrations during the revolutions in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. We were at a panel event and her comment prompted a sharp, insulted intake of breath amongst the Arab women onstage. The reporter didn't notice, ensconced in her cultural stereotypes, smiling around and adding, "They've all had female genital mutilation you know...."

Afterwards the critiques from the Arab speakers came thick and fast: "Why is it always that we're shown as victims, or as a woman in a veil searching through rubble or wailing at a funeral or crying over the body of her son?" "What is this Western obsession with veils? It's not women in veils who're causing all the problems in the world. They're using us as a symbol they want to destroy. It's just more objectification." "Don't they know anything about the women's movements in our countries? We've been going strong for years - generations - we haven't suddenly gained value just because the West or the media have noticed us."

The war reporter had made an incorrect assumption about Arab women's passivity, false consciousness, voiceless victimhood and absolute subjugation. She also assumed that it has always been this way, without resistance, without a fightback, without a murmur; and she made a blanket generalisation about a vast geographical distance - 'the Arab world' - which spans multiple countries, economies and histories.

This ignorance is depressing, but her analysis was only one out of many and I was pleased that an event about international issues drew such a large audience in London. A great deal of fascination with a vaguely defined 'Muslim world' and 'Muslim values' has been sparked by the Arab revolutions and, before that, by the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks. One can critique this interest as unsophisticated or reactive - 'Who are these strange brown foreign people and why are they angry?' - but I welcome any expression of unexploitative curiosity that stretches across borders, languages, religions, cultures.

Just as there has been a rise in xenophobic and jingoistic rhetoric in Western European and Anglo-American political debate, there has also been a counter-movement, a subtle flowering of interest which can only be for the good. In the last few years the most insightful art and literature I've encountered have come from the Arab world - if you're in London visit the wonderful Rose Issa Projects gallery or the Mosaic Rooms, or explore the work of the authors on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (ahem - IPAF people, could you please include women in equal numbers on your juries? We are not totally repulsive and we do support your entire industry from top to bottom after all) - and this year's Bird's Eye View film festival focused on several contemporary Arab women film-makers. Indeed, when we look at artistic output from the Arab world we see that a strong majority of the most interesting voices are those of women artists, women writers, women speakers.

The veiled woman is not silent, passive or uncreative. Yet she is turned into a symbol against her will and various forces are applied to her: oppression, disgust, pity, patronage, lust, judgements and presumptions of all kinds.

The Arab country which is subject to the most curiosity and stereotyping from the West is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It isn't undergoing a people's revolution but is in the public consciousness for a host of other reasons, all of them negative: women being banned from driving, women activists being persecuted for trying to help an abused woman, raped women being jailed, women not being allowed to ride bikes except for recreation and with a male guardian, women victims of male violence being persecuted as if they are perpetrators, women's segregation from men in educational and professional life and so on and so forth. While there are incremental shifts, such as the endorsement of some few Saudi women athletes at the 2012 Olympics, Saudi Arabia is generally represented as a place of intractable patriarchal dominance: wealthy, repressive, functional, claustrophobic, unbending. It puzzles the world by its combination of financial clout, forward-thrusting business and 'backward' values. There is an obsession with the misogynistic Saudi laws which perversely recast the physical and emotional violence done to women as a sign of our own wrongdoing. Yet this tendency, to punish women for what abusive men do to us, is endemic everywhere in the world.

The prevailing image of Saudi Arabia leaves no space for Saudi women's own voices. There is just the beautiful, suffering woman in a veil, eyes beseeching and fully made up (I love the sexist double bind: the erased, covered woman combined with the self-objectifying doll woman), on the cover of countless books written for a Western audience and subtitled Stolen From School, The Imam's Daughter or Married at The Age of Ten To My Father's Uncle's Camel.

The reality is that for as long as women have existed within the global patriarchy (5,000 years and counting), we have resisted, spoken out, survived, created and even joked and mocked. Two cultural projects brought this home to me recently: Wadjda and Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia.

Wadjda is the first feature film to be made in the Kingdom and also the first feature to be directed by a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour. Al-Mansour is a real inspiration, a strong spokeswoman for film, for women, for artistic freedom and for critical and creative approaches. Beautiful shot, written and acted, Wadjda tells the story of a schoolgirl who's determined to buy herself a bike so that she can race with her friend Abdullah. It has been universally described - with extreme patronage, I think - as heartwarming, as if the film is some kind of sop or fantasy consolation, a fairytale about a plucky girl in tough circumstances, achieving the unimaginable. As such, reactions to Wadjda remind me of those which followed the release of the similarly themed The Whale Rider a few years ago.

Wadjda is more cutting edge, trenchant and realistic than critics' condescension implies. I did not read it as having a happy ending, despite containing joy and triumph at times and immense wit throughout. As the writer Rachel Shabi has noted, it shows the variety of forms of resistance, subtle yet powerful, that Saudi girls and women enact every day. The attractiveness of Wadjda herself is in her universally admirable blitheness and courage and her personal sense of freedom, despite the restrictions and sexist admonishments she encounters every day. At school she mustn't be in sight of builders working nearby, nor must her voice be within earshot of men. Her face must be covered and she mustn't laugh or smile around men in public. When her father's cronies come round Wadjda and her mother must make them their food, deliver it outside their (closed) door then stay out of sight. A family tree on display in their house shows only the family's men's names.

Yet all the women in the film have an intense verbality and vitality which are protests in themselves. Wadjda is a hustler, making and selling friendship bracelets, befriending local shopkeepers, answering back, challenging, joking, teasing, acting as a go-between. She is a charming rascal, loveable and tough yet incredibly loving. Converse-sneakered and cool, she's rigged up an aerial on the roof so that she can listen to music radio and make mixtapes in her room. She experiences Saudi society not as a crushing wall of repression but a series of constant, petty irritations, trying to diminish her, piece by tiny piece.

Wadjda's mother is an able singer and an intelligent woman who suffers intensely and hopelessly under the impositions of society. It is painful to watch her isolation and humiliation within her disempowered relationship with her husband, who's about to marry a second wife. Kept literally and metaphorically in the half-dark, her energy is sublimated in gossiping with friends and trying to get Wadjda to obey rules that she herself is ambivalent about. She is caught between obligation, tradition, anger and sheer tactical survival, scandalised that her friend is working in a local hospital alongside men, yet tempted to do the same. Yet, in a key moment in the film, she symbolically relinquishes the money she would have used to purchase a demeaning item for herself to assist in her own daughter's rebellion.

The third major figure in the film, Wadjda's beautiful and cruel school principal, is similarly conflicted. Exquisitely dressed, carnal-eyed, Louboutin-heeled yet fiercely strict, she is the public face and loudly carping voice of the constant Saudi monitoring of female behaviour, the ultimate symbol of hypocritical women policing other women's virtue. She herself is rumoured to have a lover, whose visits are passed of euphemistically as 'a break-in by a burglar'. The more she transgresses, the more repressive she herself becomes towards the innocent girls in her care.

These three female characters are not passive and unambivalent recipients of patriarchal oppression. They are struggling energetically, their natural desires thwarted, their freedoms inhibited and their behaviour perverted and pathologised as a result. They are being forced into unnatural positions, physically, mentally and morally, by the hostile territory they are in.

The film is no fairytale where good is rewarded and bad is punished. Wadjda's schoolmate has already been married off to a man of twenty and more of their peers will follow. The school principal betrays Wadjda, whose pain and shock are heart-wrenching, not heart-warming, to witness. Wadjda's charming father, with his dimpled grin, betrays her mother. If there is any consolation to be had from this memorable, harsh, funny, beautiful film, it is the love shared between Wadjda and her mother and their fierce protection of each other.

Meanwhile, a one-woman show currently on at Edinburgh, Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia, presents a comic but sharp portrait of the women of Wadjda's mother's generation. Written and performed by Maisah Sobaihi (the first Saudi act ever to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe) with broadway bravado, British wit and Arab warmth, its various female characters hold forth amid an Old Town painted backdrop and a few furnishings which are Saudi in-jokes in themselves: the velvet fabric which is just this side of tacky, the landline phone with multiple buttons and lines, the shisha bubbling in the corner. It's a joke made from within, not without, and its women are full of fire, frustration, intelligence and ingenuity. They'll need it: underneath the laughs Head Over Heels depicts Saudi Arabia's unfairness, its sexual double standards ("This is what the man does: he steps on the gas. He steps on the gas, you step on the brakes. He steps on the gas, you step on the brakes and send him back to his wife and children.") and marginalisation of women. The dilemmas Soibaihi's characters face and the penalties they risk - such as having their children taken away from them if they are caught having a relationship after being divorced - are enamelled with humour but have a gritty core. As Sobaihi says in her introduction, "It is true that in Saudi Arabia a man can have four wives. What is not true is that women are happy and content that their husbands can have four wives." She even jokes about a character, Abdullah, who uses the well-worn justification that having four wives is actually a form of responsible public charity, a socially conscious outreach project: "Someone must marry up all these poor single and divorced women."

What to do when your husband gets a second wife and you find out they've already been married a year and she's had a load of cosmetic surgery done? What to do when you think you're in a mutually-advantageous temporary, secret or summer marriage, to use the going euphemisms, and are buying fancy underwear, only to find that you can be discarded like yesterday's tacky nylon G-string? What to do when you're 39 and haven't been touched sensually in seven years?

Sobaihi's women fight back with logic and wit: "I hope whatever [cosmetic surgery] she's had done pops at exactly the wrong moment and he sinks in collagen. Matching coffins, that would be romantic." Yet there is always the pull of reality. The women pass through rage, numbness, fragility and acute humiliation. Maryam, a betrayed wife, says, "I've been one of those women for a year, one of the women everyone looks at with their head tilted to the side because everyone thinks, Oh that poor woman doesn't know her husband has another wife."

Underlying the Saudi women characters' pain are misogynistic outrages which have been perpetrated and supported by laws, hypocrisies and institutions in some time, in some place, everywhere in the world. The trajectory is not always from 'backward' living to enlightened living; societies can change, advance, revert and change again. In the middle of her very funny skit about how to train your new driver ("First, rename him Mohammed."), Sobaihi reminds us that the Saudi Arabia of today has not always been as it is. She presents a subtler picture: there were drive-in cinemas until the 70s; the characters she portrays mention wanting to be painters and businesswomen; she herself is an eminent comedian, producer, stand-up performer and director; and she namechecks the women who founded the Kingdom's first children's library.

Go and see Wadjda and Head Over Heels In Saudi Arabia. You will see that the story is not just about patriarchal pressure. It's also about longstanding female resistance carried out in words and deeds. This is not to say that Saudi Arabia is secretly a great society. It is to show that the fighting spirit of Saudi women is no secret at all.

Wadjda is on selected release. Head Over Heels In Saudi Arabia is showing until 26th August at Spotlites at The Merchants' Hall, 22 Hanover St, Edinburgh. Click here to buy tickets.