Many look to oppressive governments and cultures as obstacles to freedom. As long as some people have the power to hurt those who disobey, the freedom of the rest is limited. But how much influence do these oppressive regimes really have? Is freedom defined by the degree to which external forces act against us? Or is freedom something more fundamental?
As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, “I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” This is an expression of freedom as an internal struggle, as an attitude, and as a belief.
I was reminded of this quotation as I watched the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda.
Wadjda is the story of a 10-year-old girl who symbolizes all that is great about humanity. Wadjda is, in many ways, an ordinary girl. She is happy, plays with her friends, listens to pop music, and doesn’t like school. She is determined, entrepreneurial, and has a healthy dose of pride and sass.
Early in the film, we see blue Converse sneakers with purple laces peeking from under her abaya. Combined with her love of Western pop music, it becomes clear that she is different from the other girls. As her mother and her principal tell her, proper, well-behaved girls wear black shoes and do not listen to “evil music.” Wadjda follows the rules to the extent that she has to, but always challenges the status quo and bends the rules to conform to how she wants to live. She pursues her goals and follows her dream to own a bike.
To Wadjda, her friend Abdullah’s bike is not just a frivolous possession. Technology in transportation has always been a freeing agent. Wadjda’s mother faces a grueling three-hour commute to “the ends of the Earth” every day in a car without air conditioning, driven by a nasty man. Wadjda walks everywhere. Her mother’s ability to travel is dependent on a man, and the boys on bikes leave Wadjda behind. A bike means freedom and equality. She sees a beautiful, green bike at the store and laughs off the salesman who tells her she will never be able to afford it. She is determined to have a bike and isn’t going to accept anyone telling her she can’t.
Wadjda is fiercely independent and knows who she is and what she is worth. She is different from the other girls, but not because of the virtuous traits she possesses. What makes Wadjda different and great is that she is not afraid to be free. She lives her life, she doesn’t hide who she is, and she never apologizes.
When she sets out to buy her bike, she first tries to earn the money by selling bracelets in the colors of national football teams to the girls at school. Soon, the principal discovers and shuts down her underground business because girls are not allowed to wear the bracelets. This obstacle does not stop Wadjda; she pursues other revenue streams. Her best chance comes when she learns that the first prize in a Koran-reading competition is more than enough money for the bike. She studies and trains hard for the competition, never losing sight of her goal.
Meanwhile, she makes a trade with Abdullah where she allows him to hang lights from her roof while she learns to ride his bike. Being alone with a boy on her roof and riding a bike break many rules, but she doesn’t care; she has to be ready to ride her new bike. Her mother, principal, and others repeatedly tell her, “Girls don’t ride bikes,” but she ignores them. Any time someone tells her that she can’t or shouldn’t do something because she is a girl, she ignores them or laughs and then proves them wrong.
Wadjda would be an amazing person in any setting, but her spirit shines even brighter against the oppressive backdrop of Saudi Arabia. Wadjda understands her worth in a culture that views women as inferior to men. She lives in a place that tries to deny her humanity and value in the world and simply ignores it. She knows her value in the world and demonstrates it to everyone around her. She engages in profound acts of defiance. If she can’t ignore a rule, she will go around it.
Wadjda does not set out to cause trouble. She is not actively trying to upset the status quo or change the system. She acts the way she does because that is how she wants to live. She sets the rules of her own life. Sometimes she can’t ignore or circumvent the external forces acting against her. But she doesn’t allow them to make her less free.