Riding uphill: the shifting symbolism of Wadjda's bicycle

In Objet d'Art, we take a look at the use of inanimate objects in film and music and their changing meanings, aesthetics and emotional purpose in different contexts.

The bicycle is a potent, versatile symbol of freedom. It’s a symbol of the freedom of unconfined, joyful movement – in The Muppet Movie, the miraculous freedom from puppet strings. In Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, it represents financial freedom, the opportunity to support one’s family, while for The Kid with a Bike, that bike promises the false freedom of autonomy. Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda has a bicycle as its focal symbol, but while it is indebted to De Sica’s neo-realist classic in imagery and aesthetic, the way it recontextualises the bicycle’s symbolism over the course of the film provides insight into the idea of freedom in modern Saudi Arabia.

When 11-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) first sees the bright green bicycle, it seems to be flying above the streets of Riyadh. It’s soon revealed to be strapped to the top of a hitherto unseen van, and it is taken down to be sold at a nearby store. As always, the bicycle represents freedom for Wadjda – freedom from a patriarchy that she struggles against daily. With a bicycle, she’ll be able to meet the boys who ride circles around her on her way to school as an equal. The plot is set in motion, with Wadjda searching for any opportunity to raise the needed funds.

Wadjda already strains against the strictures of her society; she’s more interested in mixtapes and Converse than the Qur’an, and she rankles against the notion of wearing a hijab as she comes of age. Her first attempts to raise money for the bike are entirely illicit: she establishes her own little black market, selling tapes and bracelets and doing forbidden favours. Still, these raise money too slowly, and when a Qur’an recital competition – with a substantial monetary prize for first place – is announced at her school, she sees an opportunity to make the bicycle hers.

The groundwork is here for a plucky, underdog-makes-good story – and, without looking beneath the surface, it’s easy to characterise the film as such. After all, the film concludes with Wadjda winning both the contest and the bicycle. But Al Mansour – Saudi Arabia’s first female director – has greater ambitions. Wadjda may be ultimately victorious in her goal to own the bicycle, but it is a victory defined by compromise. To win the recital contest she must work within the system, presenting herself as an obsequious, obedient and devout young woman. When that mask slips – when she answers honestly that she plans to spend her prize money on a bike – she is rebuked accordingly, her money donated to Palestine against her will.

Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) buys the bicycle for her daughter, and the film concludes with Wadjda riding joyfully along the street, beating Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani), one of the boys who hassled her earlier, in a race. There’s happiness here, but this is no unambiguous happy ending. Wadjda’s father has chosen to take a second wife – against Wadjda’s mother’s wishes – while the film suggests that Wadjda will one day be promised to Abdullah. She has won her bicycle, and won her race, but while that spark of rebellion in her eyes hasn’t vanished, it has faded.

It’s worth thinking about that bicycle again. Yes, the first time that we see the green bicycle, it’s an impossible symbol of hope, an escape from the patriarchy. But the first time we see a bicycle, it’s being ridden by the same boy that Wadjda rides alongside at the end. Her bicycle has transformed from an icon of freedom outside the system to one of freedom within the system. In order for Wadjda to succeed, she had to conform – to ride with the boys, rather than against the tide. It takes more than a bicycle to overcome millennia of ingrained inequality.

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