Wadjda: When Feminism Rides a Bicycle

20140828_WadjdaOver these past years of working on gender equality, I have often come across statements – usually accompanied by desolate sighs – like this: “The progress we have made on giving women equal opportunities has stalled.” Or even, “we are going backwards when it comes to gender equality”.

I will not go into an analysis of whether this is the case or not – it may well be true. And we are certainly far from where we ought to be. But today, I want to say a few words about perspective. About the fact that no matter how informed and empathic we are, our appreciation will always be skewed by our standpoint. Whether we are a man, or a woman. Whether we were born in Switzerland, or in Saudi Arabia.

And sometimes we come across a work of art that opens the doors to another woman’s life and heart, ever-expanding our perspective. In her film Wadjda, Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour splendidly tells the story of a young girl who challenges her country’s traditions in her determination to ride a bicycle. The director leaves no doubt regarding the daily reality of women in her country – accentuated by the fact that she had to shoot the movie mostly from within the enclosed walls of a truck, to ensure no one would see her interacting with the men on the crew. And yet, the movie unfolds with a subtlety and gentleness that is refreshing and rare in the treatment of such a delicate topic.

It is worthy to note that in late 19th century Europe, as women began embracing cycling – which started out as a male activity – their doing so coincided with an expansion of their spatial freedom outside the confines of their homes, thus breaking open new pathways into the public sphere.

As we contemplate these different perspectives, past and present, local and global, we are called to hold in our hearts the living reality of every woman on the planet. All the while recognizing progress and continuing to speak up on the inequities in our immediate local context – however trivial they may appear in comparison. For at their core, the fact that a girl is not allowed to ride a bicycle, and the fact that a woman is passed up for a promotion because of her gender, stem from the same underlying belief system.

And thus, it is not enough to ask: How far have we come externally? For the external is nothing but a reflection of what we hold in our minds. The real question, for which there are no global reports and rankings, is: How far have we come internally, in the implicit worth we give to everything female and feminine?

That is a question each of us must ask him or herself, and the more we dig within, open to whatever we may find, the more we will come to understand how our collective beliefs give rise to the world around us.

And how they can be changed.

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