‘It’s an Old Story of Feminism’s Heroism’: The Truth Behind The Woman King | Movies

wooHen French soldiers trying to colonize the West African kingdom of Dahomey faced an enemy similar to the one they had faced before. agozi They were known for raiding villages, taking captives and beheading those who protested. And they were made entirely of women.

“The French were shocked,” Professor Leonard Vancheon, a leading Egozi scholar, says by phone from Princeton University in New Jersey. “They already knew about him but they didn’t know that he was such an effective soldier, so brave, so strong.”

France, believed to be the cradle of the Enlightenment, was lagging behind in its essential notions of gender, one of the only political strikes that have landed. lady kingA new $50m historical epic that tells the story of Egoji, although most of the characters are fictional.

The film is largely made by women and has an almost entirely black cast. It is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and stars Oscar winner Viola Davis as a general who trains the next generation of fighters. Davis told Reuters news agency: “This is our story. There is no white savior in the film. There is none. We save ourselves.”

The Dahomey Kingdom, West African territory in what is now Benin, was established around 1600 and strengthened by both its military power and Capture and sell hundreds of thousands From neighboring tribes and nations to the transatlantic slave trade. Its final colonization took place after the war with France in 1894.

All official roles in Dahomey culture – from financial advisors to religious leaders to military generals – were balanced by both a male and female leader. The king would confer the title of coposito, or Woman King, to a female governing partner.

Vancheon, born and raised in . Happened in Benin and served as historical advisor in the film, saying: “What is unique is that social norms in Dahomey were very gender inclusive. Girls played with boys and participated in any activity that involved boys. such as farming and trade, cultural activities. There has always been a strong sense of equal gender norms and representation of women in government.”

The Agoji is believed to be one of the first all-female military units in history to be queen hongbe, daughter of King Haugbja. She came to power in the early 18th century after her twin brother Aqaba died under mysterious circumstances. A 100-foot statue of Hangbe was erected in Benin earlier this year.

For a long time women constituted only 5% or 10% of the army, but this changed under King Gezzo (played by John Boyega). He increased the Egoji from about 600 to about 6,000.

Wancheon continues: “In 1818 it was institutionalized with a systematic process of recruitment, training and representation in governmental decision-making, where during most of King Ghezo’s 40-year reign, anywhere from 30% to 35% The armed forces were women.

“At the same time, major positions in government such as prime minister, justice minister, interior minister were gender balanced: you would have a female office and a male office. Also there was very strong representation of women in traditional religions.”

Women proved their strength on the battlefield against domestic and foreign enemies. Europeans dubbed them the “Amazon”, referring to warrior women. greek myth, A British traveler, scrambling on the thorns of acacia, was watching a women’s training, wrote: “I could not persuade myself that no human being, without shoes or boots, would, under any circumstances, attempt to cross such a dangerous collection of the most skillfully armed plants I have ever seen. “

Group of Dahomey Amazons retired in 1908
A group of Dahomey Amazons retired in 1908. Photograph: CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alami

Vantcheon comments: “The training process was very rigorous. They were physically imposing. They selected women known for their courage, level of independence and bravery. The women were very active but they came from nowhere.

“This institution is the result of social norms” Africa, This is because women in those communities were raised to be independent, to be brave, to be strong. Which made it possible for this situation to arise. And also, you needed some degree of institutional sophistication to be able to take it to this level.

“Any picture you see of those women, what they wore, how they were trained, what they achieved; it’s a combination of strong social norms that are gender inclusive and the way they built the military. , are highly sophisticated in the way they trained their soldiers.”

Vanchekone, who was a member of the Egoji in his extended family, explains that they are not as historically distant as they seem – Navi, the last known surviving Egoji with battlefield experience, died in 1979 over a hundred years old. “In the 1970s, some of the women who are considered by many to be mythical figures were still alive.”

Before being called Hollywood, Vancheon was already working on 51 biographies of warrior women, visiting the places where they lived and died and talking to their descendants. He plans to write a book and make a documentary that will keep his memory alive and remind Benin and the world what is possible outside the prison of the patriarchy.

“It’s important to emphasize how unique it was,” he reflects. “Even now, it’s hard to imagine a situation like this anywhere: people relied on women at that level and society actually prepared women to take on the role that was most dangerous, riskiest, and most dangerous in society. The most important task was time. Such a high level of women’s participation, up to 35%, is extraordinary.

“But one of the tragedies is that when the French took over the kingdom, when they defeated the Dahomey, they not only banned the agony, but they basically allowed women to be in public service, in government, in educational opportunities. As a result, not only Agoji but also the status of women in that area has declined. This is really the tragedy of the whole situation.”

A still from The Woman King
A still from The Woman King. Photograph: Ilz Kitschoff/© 2021 CTMG

France, a country where the Catholic Church drew strict gender boundaries and where women did not have the right to vote until 1944, claimed Africa to be “civilised” but enforced patriarchy. When colonial power required recruits from Benin in world wars, it was assumed that only men could fight. As former US President Barack Obama has said: “Progress doesn’t run in a straight line. It takes fits and starts.”

Dahomey gained full independence from France in 1960 and changed its name to Benin in 1975, but the colonial legacy suffered. By February 2021, Only 8.4% seats in Parliament Organized by women. Vantcheken hopes that The Woman King can raise international awareness of the need to turn the moral arc back to justice.

“You still find very strong, independent, enterprising women in that field – I can give you the example of my mother – but in order for this to translate into real advancement for women, you need to double down on supporting women on educational opportunities. Entrepreneurship and representation of women in government.

“For example, Benin currently has 77 mayors and only four women, which is unimaginable given the history of the place. What is clearly important to me is not just celebrating the extraordinary institution that existed at the time. but also to try to rectify the mistake made over the centuries.

Members of 'Dahomey Amazon'
Member of ‘Dahomey Amazon’. Photograph: Pictures from History / Universal Image Group / Getty Images

She continued: “If you look for very successful, strong women currently in academia, in business, in politics, you will find them more in Nigeria and Senegal than in Benin. These are the kind of debates we really need to do. And I hope that the international community will play its part in helping to achieve this. This is a unique organization of the world; it is not just related to Benin.

“The effort we need to do to help that region, especially Benin, to regain lost ground in terms of women’s rights and opportunities, is something that has to be done collectively. , which has to be done not only by the government of Benin but also by the international community. So I don’t want to just talk about how incredible it has been; we need to keep the legacy of those women alive.”

The Woman King, set in 1823, has drawn comparisons to the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, which takes place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda and features a new version of Egoji, Dora Milaje. To prepare for shooting in South Africa, Davis and fellow cast Mbedu. help toLashana Lynch and Sheila Atim spent months in weightlifting and fight training so that they could perform their own stunts.

Gus Kesley-Hayfordpresenter of the BBC TV series The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, said in an email: “The Agozi are not ancient histories. These are groups that may have established themselves in the 17th century, but these are traditions that continue into the 20th century. persists in.

“And that particular endurance speaks not only of the powerful and painful effects of European settlement and economic encroachment in West Africa, or the growth of the transatlantic slave trade, or even the fierce territorial rivalry between indigenous peoples that fueled economic The instability had unfortunate consequences. The root of their success lies in the sheer fearlessness and strategic brilliance of these women.”

Kesley-Hayford, director and former director of the V&A East Museum Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, welcomed the release of The Woman King. “It is a very timely moment to revisit this story – women as operators of family businesses, as the glue for the family, as political visionaries, as mediators of change across West Africa. , as the cool heroes of the continent. It’s an age-old tale of heroism, of feminism, but a story that also feels very timely.”

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