Title: The Green Bicycle
Author: Haifia Al Mansour
Publisher: Dial Books for young Readers, 2015
Themes: family, dreams, life in Saudi Arabia as a girl, coming of age, role of women/girls
Wadjda wasn’t thinking about her ticket to heaven. You could see it on her face.
Spunky eleven-year-old Wadjda lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with her parents. She desperately wants a bicycle so that she can race her friend Abdullah, even though it is considered improper for girls to ride bikes (and hang with boys). Her parents will never buy her one because of these religious principles. So Wadjda sets about earning money for her dream bike so she can win races against her friend and enjoy the rebelliousness, by selling homemade bracelets and mix-tapes of banned music to her classmates. But after she’s caught, she’s forced to at least pretend to mend her ways, or risk expulsion from her all-girls school. She commits to go to an extra Koranic class for a competition. In reality, this is part of her constant scheming to get what she wants.
Why I like this book:
Set in Saudi Arabia against shifting social and political attitudes, The Green Bicycle is an exploration of gender roles and family dynamics for tweens and adults in this Middle Eastern nation. It addresses conformity, and the importance of family solidarity. Wadjda is funny, cheeky, courageous, and full of heart. She can’t help but question and challenge the status quo, which puts so many restrictions on her, her girlfriends, her mother and all women. She stands up to her best friend, who unusually is a boy her age, though the attraction is also beautifully obvious to the reader. She is ready to go to great lengths to grasp her dream, which is not just a mode of transportation but a symbol of emancipation!
The discussion of gender roles in a strict Muslim nation is approached with maturity and yet the authentic eyes of a somewhat feministic eleven year-old. Wadjda secretly loves Western music and wears scuffed sneakers under her school uniform. The daily life in Riyad is brought to life by much sensorial imagery and details: the spices in the morning tea, Wadjda’s mother forced to teach at a school two hours away from home because teaching in an all-girls school is one of the only acceptable professions for a woman. She and other completely-covered female teachers endure a dangerous drive to work in a van with no A/C, driven by a surly, uneducated Pakistani man who feels he can berate the women based on their gender. The mother is a wonderful mix of modern and traditional views, secretly smoking on the roof, plotting to prevent her husband taking another wife and citing the superstition that Wadjda can’t ride a bike because she might damage her reproductive parts doing this.
This novel while challenging the role of women does not explicitly attack the authority of the Koran’s teaching. The author manages to honor the holy tenets of Islam while exposing the out-datedness of many of the religious attitudes. The bond between the mother, who secretly wants herself to break free of some of the restrictions, and the cheekily rebellious daughter is developed through the chapters, and really is the heart of the story. This is a great middle grade coming of age story, and an introduction to life in the conservative yet changing religious milieu of Riyad; it offers deep insights into Saudi life beyond the oil sheiks and Islamic extremists that tend to be the stereotypes promoted in western media.
This book is also a movie, under the name WAD JDA
Also, if you missed my January post on the We Need Diverse Books site in the Looking Back series I am curating, you can find it here!