Have you heard of the ‘bicycle face’? It was a disease made up in the late 19th century to dissuade women from riding bicycles. Women were made to believe that riding bicycles would cause their eyes to bulge and chins to protrude due to the strain taken to keep balance — they were told that exhausted faces didn’t do well for femininity. The real reason of course was that the bicycle gave them independence to travel alone, and therefore threatened men. But women did go out one after the other, giving a hoot about neither face nor hymen, and that set in motion a number of things we have today — including yoga pants.
Over a century later, today, it might sound bizarre but there still are girls in the world who are told they cannot ride bicycles. And that’s what the 2012 Saudi Arabian movie Wadjda is about. Eleven-year-old Wadjda dreams of owning a bicycle and racing her friend Abdullah. Set in Riyadh, the film captures the lives of different women and the things that they are denied — those that others take for granted. The film is about a little girl’s dream to ride a bicycle, as much as it is about her mother’s marriage, another woman’s job, nail polish, red dresses, affairs and short hair cuts. It is just as much about religion, customs, men and their hold on women’s lives.
When you watch the film, it will be apparent that the filmmaker who wrote about women chasing what they want, was chasing her own dream as well. With this film, Haifaa-al-Monsour became the first female Saudi Arabian director to make a full-length feature. A lot of the film’s scenes had to be shot from the back of a van as she couldn’t be seen publicly mixing with men. Monsour, like the characters of her film, did what she wasn’t supposed to and look where it got her —a BAFTA!
In Monsour and millions of others, including the first woman to ride a bicycle, the first to own one, the one who wants to ride one, the one who makes a film about one and each woman that breaks her own glass ceiling, wanting the impossible and chasing it with might, is a rebel girl.
And the stories of these rebel girls, who can rock electric guitars or ergonomics, drums or data sets, need to go far and wide for letting girls know they are their own Prince Charming, and they can save themselves by dreaming, and chasing that dream.
In the past, reading novels was a valid reason to admit women in an asylum. Today’s girls know that it will get them admitted into top schools. For each girl with a big dream is the perfect gift — the book called Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. If not the stories of nearly 100 women who made it, the first page will compel you to pick it up.
Here is what it reads: ‘To the rebel girls of the world — dream bigger, aim higher, fight harder, and when in doubt remember, you are right’.
(The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton)