Wadjda, by Haifaa al-Mansour, a Saudi woman director, is a remarkable film about a teenage girl and her green bicycle (an invention deemed a threat to feminine virtue), which shows us the mechanisms that weigh upon women in a radical Islamist society. The narration is soft, almost humorous at times, and obviously avoids all reference to the political regime that, stricto sensu, runs the system.
Instead of taking a narrow, purely anecdotal view, it enables us to follow minutely the all-embracing system of control and repression; that is, its implementation by means of norms, rituals and ingrained formulas of sanction. When two girl students are convicted as sinners, their teacher, a woman, says nothing. On the first occasion when one of them inadvertently brushes against another girl, the latter pushes her away angrily; she is impure. Then there is the well-known episode that happened in Riyadh 10 years ago, when fire broke out in a girls' school, and a number of the pupils burned to death because they could not step into the street without veils, while firemen could not enter the school because they were men.
Islamism is not Islam, though it does rely on the most intransigent elements of the sacred texts to impose a closed society, where the woman is the victim and symbol of theocratic masculine power. Hiding the body is no guarantee against verbal and physical aggression from men, and all exposure to the masculine gaze, let alone personal contact, means entering the kingdom of the devil. Anything as secular as purchasing a bicycle means turning your back on Allah. A woman can only be a woman within the bounds of a home dominated by the husband, who is a free being in the Hobbesian sense, with every right to seek another. Traditional feminine networks reinforce these usages, sanctioned by readings of the Koran where the accent is placed on verses that pronounce condemnation and impose submission.
Too frequently in history, in the face of a hell there is not a paradise, but just another hell
The Wahhabi social order takes every repressive passage of the Koran to its extreme, just as in Egypt the Salafist extremists would like to vandalize the pre-Islamic monuments, an aim not shared by the Muslim Brothers. Yet one year of government by The Brotherhood's Morsi was enough to show their intention to forge, by authoritarian means, a monopoly on power based on the sharia. Their every move in government gave unmistakable signs of this intention - which motivated a growing resistance, popular and secular, from moderate Islam, which saw in their direction a betrayal of what the Tahrir Square demonstrations had been all about.
Millions of Egyptians rejected the drift toward an order such as that described in Wadjda, which many of them, having spent time in Saudi Arabia, know all too well. The photos of those who supported General Sisi's coup is significant, as it includes both the imam of Al-Azhar University and the Coptic patriarch. The coup cannot be judged in black and white, for there is a right of resistance against an essentially dictatorial power. Too frequently in history, in the face of a hell there is not a paradise, but just another hell.
For the good of his flock, the Coptic patriarch was in a position to predict the coup, as was the US State Department, which quickly gave its support to the generals. However American policy in the region seems doomed to lurch one way and another in endless error. Which has tragic effects because, in the little cold war that is emerging there, its errors feed the rise of an adversary power, which can already be defined in terms of Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the main role of the US in the region is not a progressive but a conservative one. After all, it remains the great ally of the regime that inspired Wadjda.
Antonio Elorza is a professor of political science.