Taking to the open road–Saudi Arabian women

Sometimes all it takes is a movie to open our eyes to some basic injustices. Yesterday I saw the Saudi Arabian movie Wadjda about a determined young girl—ten or eleven years old—who wants to have a bicycle so she can race with a boy who is her friend and neighbor.

two Saudi girls in school

Saudi girls memorizing verses from the Koran.

The movie gives us an intimate glimpse into the life of a lively Saudi girl. She has a quiet family life as the only child of a warm, caring mother and father, although the father is only with the family on weekends.

Gradually we glimpse the stringent and seemingly meaningless restrictions on the lives of both Wadjda and her mother. In the girls’ school that Wadjda attends, the children are not allowed to play in the schoolyard when construction workers are working in the distance—the men might catch a glimpse of them. They cannot laugh or talk loudly because “a woman’s voice is her nakedness” and must never be heard by men outside of her family. Wadjda’s mother goes to work every day, but has to travel in a van with a male driver because women are not allowed to drive nor to walk on the streets. She and her daughter cannot even go shopping without asking the driver to take them to the store.

Although pre-pubescent Wadjda is allowed to walk through the sandy lots of the city and to have her face uncovered (although her hair must remain hidden), we leave the theater knowing that far more restrictions await her when she grows older.

Saudi woman at a mall

Saudi woman at a mall

Surely every American woman who walks out of the movie must wonder why Saudi women continue to submit to the stringent rules that limit their lives so drastically.

There are a few far-off glimmers of hope for women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia. The king has proclaimed that starting in 2015 women will be allowed to vote and to run in local elections. That is a start. Most women, however, long for the freedom of driving more than they long for the vote. BBC World News reports that a new campaign asking for the right of women to drive has attracted more than 11,000 signatures. The day on which Saudi women are planning to take to the roads is October 26, 2013. To some activists, the right to drive seems trivial, but if you think about what it would mean to be unable to leave the house until some man can be found to drive you on any errand or visit, it’s easy to understand. Day after day women suffer the embarrassment, expense, and humiliation of being totally dependent on the wishes of a male who has the key to a car.

Even though the number of Saudi women who have learned to drive must be tiny—only the educated members of a wealthy family would ever be able to learn—it is at least a start. When women have the ability to travel locally and to visit one another without supervision, who knows what independent plans they may foster? Those of us who live in the West should all support the Saudi women in their efforts. Let’s join together to hope that someday Wadjda could have not only a bicycle, but the keys to a car so she can grow into the kind of strong, independent woman that is needed in Saudi Arabia and the world.

Does history have to be true?

Millions of viewers saw the Academy Awards on Sunday evening as Argo won the award for best film. People who have seen the movie mostly agree that it’s a fine adventure film based on the story of the American hostages who escaped from captivity in Iran in 1979. Everyone seemed happy with the award except for the Canadians who were chiefly responsible for the escape. Somehow the adventure had turned into a CIA caper instead of an appreciation of the help of Canadians, and especially ambassador Ken Taylor, who had planned and carried out most of the successful escape.

Does it matter that a movie gives credit to the wrong people in a film based on real history? It certainly matters to Canadians, especially to those who know and respect Ken Taylor, the former ambassador who was central to the story. Former president Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time of the escape, was one of the few Americans who tried to set things straight. He credited Canadians with being responsible for 90% of the planning and execution of the escape.

In an unusual happy ending, producer and director Ben Affleck worked to set the matter straight by changing a final line in the film to credit the Canadian contribution as an “example of international cooperation” according to newspaper reports. Ambassador Taylor was flown to LA for the Academy Awards ceremony and the story ended with smiles all around.

But did it matter that history was distorted in the first version? It seems to me it does. As most of us are aware, we often get of information about history from movies, television, and fiction. If entertaining stories are based on history, the least their authors can try to do is get the facts straight. The Argo story was corrected because there are many people still around who remember the events. Many other historical events are distorted in films for the sake of building tension or glorifying a hero or some other motive, but those of us who care about understanding the world ought to protest. While we will never know all the facts of history, at least we can try to present honestly the ones that are verified.