Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures
As a Nigerian feminist, I have always been curious about how feminism has evolved in my country and culture. So naturally I was curious to see The female kingthe new film about an all-female warrior troop in a 19th-century West African kingdom.
Would this movie, starring the amazing Viola Davis as General Nanisca, talk about the issues facing West African women like me? What challenges did they face and how do they relate to today’s world?
I’m not surprised by what I saw. But I am sad to report that the inequalities faced by women in film do indeed reflect the struggles women face today in many parts of the world, including West Africa.
The female king tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female troop of warriors from the true West African kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Republic of Benin. “Agojie” was another name for the Amazons of Dahomey, known for their bravery.
By exploring the lives of these daring women, the film illustrates how the lack of equal rights for women has been a centuries-old problem. While I was deeply inspired to see an all-female army led by a strong woman, I was also appalled at the inequalities these soldiers had to endure. Unlike their male counterparts, Agojie women were not allowed to marry or become parents because in theory they belonged to the king.
Even today, women around the world often have to choose between fast-paced progressive careers or slowing down to start a family. I hope the film inspires more people to recognize the strength of women and create opportunities that allow them to build their careers while starting a family – or frankly embrace whatever choice they prefer to make. And to be honored to have charted their own path.
In one scene, a male member of the King’s Cabinet expresses his anger at Viola Davis’ character for attracting the King’s attention and influencing his decision to go to war against the opposing Oyo Empire. She said, “If the king respects me, it’s because I’ve deserved it.” More women need to get the respect they have earned.
Nawi, a character played by Thuso Mbedu, is equally inspiring. She reminds me of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie’s comments in her famous TEDx talk “We should all be feminists”. In her speech, Adichie summarizes how the world treats women: “We tell them [girls] you can have ambition but not too much otherwise you will threaten the man.” Nawi was happy to threaten the men.
Nawi is a strong-willed and intelligent character, refusing to give in to the pressure of being married early. In one scene, she dares to meet an old man who wants to marry her. He punches her – then she retaliates, shoving this husband-to-be.
Her father sees her as a threat to potential suitors and gives her away to serve the king.
Nawi is presented with the choice of joining the Agojie and remaining celibate or serving the palace in some other way. She chooses the path of becoming an Agojie and has proven to be one of his best soldiers.
She frees herself from the gendered shackles that society typically places on women, young and old.
Like Nawi, today’s strong women are often mocked. They are told that their feistiness will make them unattractive to “real men”. Personally, male acquaintances have told me that buying a car or getting a PhD while single would make me less attractive to men.
There’s a deep struggle with not being the “angry black woman” for many of us who are struggling with what’s wrong. The film feels like a much-needed reminder to never stop talking about the inequalities women face. If we don’t continue to talk about the challenges we face every day, society will never be fair to women. As Nawi states when confronted for standing up to Viola Davis’ powerful General Nanisca, “If I don’t talk, she won’t see me.”
Another inspiration in this film comes from King Ghezo, the role played by John Boyega. Although young and inexperienced, King Ghezo rules with humility. He listens to General Nanisca’s advice, which arouses some jealousy among the male members of his cabinet.
It doesn’t bother him. In fact, his cabinet includes other women besides General Nanisca. He did not engage in symbolism.
I approve of its opening. I strongly believe that women should have a place at the table, whether it’s discussing politics and governance or health and development issues like what I do as a policy and partnerships officer in a global health.
This type of representation does not mean that only one or two women are selected for a conference as we usually see today, but a deliberate attempt to hear from women. Whether in traditional settings or in the workplace, more women are desperately needed as leaders and advisors. I need only look to my own country to see what bias we face: in the history of Nigeria, no woman has ever been appointed to head any of the three military branches.
I am happy that more stories are being told about West Africa for a global audience. I left theater deeply reflecting the challenges faced by Africans in the colonial era, but also deeply inspired by the role of female armies like the Agojie. The next time someone tells me that being a feminist is a “new generation”, I’ll tell them the story of the Agojie, our warriors of the 19th century.
Oyeronke Oyebanji is a Nigerian public health professional and senior researcher at the Aspen Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Oyeronke_