The Societal and Familial Realities of Women in the Middle East, in film

The Societal and Familial Realities of Women in the Middle East, in film

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

In different places and religions, women have different roles and rules which they must follow to be accepted by society and their families. In the film, In Between directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, one of the main characters, Salma, is a lesbian DJ from Israel, with Christian parents who try repeatedly to set her up with men, telling them that she is a music teacher, since being a DJ is frowned upon. On the other hand, in the film, Wadjda directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the main character, Wadjda, is a Muslim girl living in Saudi Arabia whose goal is to get a bike so that she can ride and race with her friend. Riding a bike is not something that a girl in Saudi Arabia is supposed to do so she has to prove that she deserves a bike, as her mother is cautious of what others think of them. In both films, In Between and Wadjda, Salma and Wadjda are two characters from different places and of different religious backgrounds, yet both struggle to find a sense of freedom within their gender roles.

The director of the film In Between, Maysaloun Hamoud, is a Palestinian filmmaker, living in Tel Aviv. She was born in Budapest and is an Arab citizen of Israel, while also being part of Tel Aviv’s Palestinian underground. In the interview “Film Movement Presents In Between” by Kaid Abu Latif, Maysaloun Hamoud discusses how the characters being part of this scene connected to her, stating “What the protagonists perceive as normal – the pubs they hang out at, the dress code, the way they talk – is actually Tel Aviv’s Palestinian underground scene. And since I’m part of the scene, you could say I captured my life in the film” (Kaid Aby Latif, “Fim Movements Presents In Between”). This quote shows how the director is connected to the main characters in this film, including Salma.

The director of the film Wadjda, Haifaa Al-Mansour, is a Saudi woman, born in Saudi Arabia and still living there today, but went to college in Sydney, Australia. Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first female Saudi filmmaker, playing a significant role in what Saudi women are and aren’t allowed to do. In the interview “Wadjda director Haifaa Al-Mansour” by Andrew Lapin, Haifaa Al-Mansour described her experience being the first female Saudi filmmaker stating, “I wasn’t able to shoot outside, I was in a van, I was segregated” (Andrew Lapin, “Wadjda director Haifaa Al-Mansour”). This quote shows that even though she was able to go to school to become a filmmaker, she is still not an equal filmmaker to the Saudi men, as they don’t have to stay in a van and direct from there. This experience is similar to the one of Wadjda since she couldn’t do specific things, like ride a bike, due to the fact that she is a Saudi girl who had societal norms to follow.

Maysaloun Hamoud is very similar to Salma since they are both citizens of Israel that take part in Tel Aviv’s Palestinian underground scene, while Haifaa Al-Mansour is similar to Wadjda since they are both females doing something that a traditional Saudi female would not be able to do. Due to these strong connections, these directors are able to see themselves in the characters of Salma and Wadjda, helping to make a more realistic film depiction of their areas and religious backgrounds. Even with these two characters living in different locations and having different religious backgrounds, they are also very similar as they feel restricted by the gender norms forced upon them, making their actions crucial to their character development.

Salma has a difficult relationship with both of her parents because they are Christian and are extremely opposed to lgbtqia+ relationships because of how they grew up. Most of the problems that Salma faces as a lesbian come from her parents since she openly has relationships anywhere else other than around her parents, including within the Palestinian underground scene. During the course of the film, the audience sees Salma set up with a few men by her parents as they want her to be married to a “good Christian man.” There is a specific scene in the film where Salma is invited to her parents’ house for dinner so she makes the decision to bring her girlfriend for some laughs and giggles. Salma’s mother finds the two women kissing in private and informs Salma’s father, who kicks her girlfriend out and proceeds to yell at Salma and slaps her (Maysaloun Hamoud, In Between). Her father, while yelling at Salma, threatens to send Salma to the “madhouse” because she has an illness (Maysaloun Hamoud, In Between).

In this scene, the audience understands the power that Salma’s family is grasping over Salma but also sees that she will not let what her parents say or do stop her from achieving her goals. As a Christian woman, Salma is expected to have a respectable job and hope for a “good Christian husband” but this is the opposite of what Salma has, or ever wants. Salma is a DJ and a bartender while her parents claim to potential suitors that she is a music teacher, plus Salma has no interest in any of the men that her parents set her up with. Salma’s ultimate fate is pursued when she decides to move away from Tel Aviv, in order to be a DJ in Berlin, where they are accepting of lgbtqia+ people. When Maysaloun Hamoud was asked about Salma moving to Berlin, she said “The point is that each one can free herself in her own way and she doesn’t have to be liberal or secular to be freed” (Kaid Aby Latif, “Fim Movements Presents In Between”). This quote shows that Salma is able to be freed from the burden of her familial expectations of being a Christian woman by moving to Berlin to be an openly queer DJ.

Wadjda has a different, but similar, experience of being a Muslim girl in Saudi Arabia, since she also has roles to follow. Unlike Salma who has familial expectations keeping her from freedom, Wadjda has societal expectations keeping her from freedom. Plus, both girls’ freedoms look slightly different since Salma’s way to freedom was to move to Berlin while Wadjda’s way to freedom was getting a green bike to ride and race with her friend.

Wadjda’s relationship with society is difficult because she wants to do the same things that her male friend, Abdullah, can do. Both Abdullah and Wadjda race throughout the film, but Wadjda never wins because she is on foot while Abdullah rides his bike in the races (Haifaa Al-Mansour, Wadjda). This inequality of running versus biking can easily represent the inequality between genders in Saudi Arabia, as women have a certain set of expectations to follow while men have less expected of them. Wadjda ends up entering a Quran recitation competition where she plans to win the competition and use the prize money to buy a green bike. In the scene of the actual competition, Wadjda wins the competition. When asked about what she will do with the prize money, she says “I’m going to buy a bike from the shop down the street” (Haifaa Al-Mansour, Wadjda). At this moment, Ms. Hussaa looks at Wadjda disgusted and replies, “wouldn’t it be better if we donated the money to our brethren in Palestine, for example?” (Haifaa Al-Mansour, Wadjda). Wadjda did end up receiving the green bike as a gift from her mother, but in the end, her hard work was not what helped her win a well-deserved bike.

Wadjda wanted a bike so she could be as free as Abdullah, which was difficult due to the societal norm of women not being allowed to ride a bike. When Haifaa Al-Mansour was asked about this gender difference between Saudi males and females, she said “Saudi is very segregated, so women and men have different societies” (Andrew Lapin, “Wadjda director Haifaa Al-Mansour”). As depicted in the film and described by the director in the interview, there is a segregation between men and women in Saudi Arabia, shown repeatedly throughout Wadjda. But these segregations and gendered expectations did not stop Wadjda from achieving her goal of owning a bike that she could race Abdullah with, being equals within their friendly races. Wadjda’s ultimate fate at the end of the film is her receiving a bike and in the last scene, beating Abdullah in a bike race, showing her achieving her goals and reaching freedom.

All in all, both Salma and Wadjda face significant societal and familial realities of women in the Middle East. Salma faces more expectations from her Christian parents who want her to have a respectable career as a music teacher and marry a “good Christian husband.” In reality, Salma is a bartender and DJ in Tel Aviv’s Palestinian underground scene, plus she is a lesbian which is an illness through her parents’ eyes. Wadjda faces societal expectations more than familial expectations as she is a Saudi girl who is repeatedly told that females do not ride bikes, as women and men are not seen as equals. In the end, both girls reach the freedom they had been reaching for throughout each film, but at what cost did they achieve freedom. One could say that Salma didn’t even achieve freedom on her own, as she didn’t pay for the bike with prize money and the bike was gifted to her by her mother. On the other hand, Salma fought as much as she could through the Palestinian underground scene for years but in the end, the only way for her to reach full freedom and potential was to move to Berlin, where she could DJ and live as an openly queer person without worrying about her safety. To wrap up, Both characters lived very different lives but in the end, they were both fighting for the same cause, against the familial and societal roles of women within different locations and religious backgrounds.

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