Haifaa Al Mansour

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour is the story of Wadjda, a precocious and enterprising eleven-year-old girl in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wadjda is a tom boy who refuses to conform to her culture’s expectations of what is considered appropriate behavior and mannerisms for girls. Her best friend and playmate is a young boy called Abdullah. When Wadjda sees a green bicycle in a toy store, she decides to earn the money to buy it so she can race with Abdullah. It is considered highly improper for girls to ride bicycles in Saudi Arabia, but Wadjda will not allow that obstacle to deter her.

Based on Al Mansour’s award-winning film, the novel explores gender roles and the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia. It provides a glimpse of the education system for girls, dress requirements for females, and the limitations imposed on a woman’s movement and speech. Wadjda challenges these restrictions with every aspect of her being. Eventually, her mother gets on board and launches her own rebellion.

Al Mansour captures the struggles of life in Saudi Arabia and the social expectations and traditions that place a burden on both men and women—with women shouldering the heavier burden. Wadjda’s father takes on a second wife since only sons are recognized in the family tree and Wadjda’s mother can no longer bear children. Al Mansour is careful to distinguish between the cultural prohibitions placed on women and the precepts of Islam, attributing prohibitions to tradition and dismissing many as superstitious in nature. For example, Wadjda is repeatedly warned that riding a bicycle will inhibit her ability to bear children—an admonition she dismisses as mere superstition.

Wadjda’s relationship with her mother is heartwarming and handled with sensitivity. Their bond is unbreakable, infused with love and understanding. One of the most touching scenes is of Wadjda’s mother teaching Wadjda to recite verses from the Qur’an. Wadjda is moved by her mother’s sonorous voice as she delivers the words with passion:

Gently, she clasped Wadjda’s hands in hers and placed their joined palms, fingers interlaced, over her own heart. Words spilled from her mouth, full of a sincerity and passion Wadjda had never seen before. A passion her mother had, up until that point, kept locked inside.

The connection between mother and daughter is unwavering. As the mother says to Wadjda when her husband takes on a second wife, “It’s all right,” she said softly. “He made his decision. It’ll be just the two of us now. We’ll be fine.”

And you know they will.

Recommended for children ages eleven and up—and for those young at heart.


AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review