September 29, 2011


The first in a disturbing series of films by writer / director Nincenzo Natali came out during the late 1990’s. In “The Cube” Natali creates a Kafkaesque world where people find themselves trapped inside a giant receptacle. They have no idea how they got there and know even less about how to escape. The cube is constructed from a seemingly endless number of smaller cubes; its victims wander in this maze, trapped like flies in a bottle. They discover some cubes are benign while others pose deadly threats. A few prisoners are timid and make little progress in their quest for freedom. Others march forward with costly self-assurance. But whatever the attitude of the individuals, they remain trapped or get killed. In sum, their freedom of movement is an illusion. These people are going nowhere.


A similar cube exists for the women of Saudi Arabia. Their king has decreed that in 2015 they will be allowed to vote in municipal elections and for members of the king’s Shura advisory council. This is the same king who in 2009 promised to lift the oppressive “guardianship” of women. That rule empowers a man to make most of the decisions in a female’s life, including whether or not she may appear in public. If that restriction remains in place, the promise of a vote four years into the future means little. A woman will still be required to have a man’s permission to do so and must be accompanied to the polls by him.

Emancipation, seen in this light, remains largely illusory.  

Against the background of the Arab spring and the stirrings of a few Saudi women for the right to drive a car, the king appears to be buying time with an empty promise for the future. Until the guardianship rule is lifted, women are not free but subject to the moods and whims of men, even the sons they carried in their wombs. It is absurd that the child who suckled at his mother’s breast should have dominion over her by virtue of his genitals. If she is competent to raise the boy, she is competent enough to vote without his permission.

Some will see the king’s decision as a small step forward. I see it as a cube born of false hope.