OWhen French soldiers attempted to colonize the West African kingdom of Dahomey, they encountered an unprecedented enemy. The Agojie were known to raid villages, take captives and cut off the heads of anyone who resisted. And they were all made up of women.
“The French were shocked,” Professor Leonard Wantchekon, a leading Agojie specialist, said by telephone from Princeton University in New Jersey. “They knew them before, but they didn’t know they were such efficient, brave, strong soldiers.”
That France, supposedly the cradle of the Enlightenment, has been backward in its essentialist view of gender is just one of the political blows delivered by The Woman King, a new $50 million historical epic that tells the story d’Agojie, although most of the characters are fictional. .
The film is directed largely by women and features an almost all-black cast. It’s directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and stars Academy Award-winning Viola Davis as the 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 are not any. We run away.
The Kingdom of Dahomey, in the West African region of this region that is now Benin, was established around 1600 and grew stronger both through military prowess and through the capture and sale of hundreds of thousands of people from neighboring tribes and nations to the transatlantic slave trade. It fell in 1894 after war with France led to its eventual colonization.
In Dahomey culture, all official roles – from financial advisors to religious leaders to military generals – were balanced by a man and a woman. The king granted the title of Kpojito, or female king, to a female companion.
Wantchekon, who was born and raised in Benin and served as a historical advisor on the film, says, “What’s very unique is that the social norms in Dahomey were very gender-inclusive. The girls played with the boys and took part in any activity in which the boys were involved, namely agriculture and trade, cultural activities. There has always been a strong sense of equitable gender norms and representation of women in government.
The Agojie, one of the first all-female military units in history, are said to have been created by Queen Hangbe, daughter of King Houegbadja. She rose to power in the early 18th century after her twin brother Akaba died in mysterious circumstances. A 100ft statue of Hangbe was erected in Benin earlier this year.
For a long time, women only made up 5% or 10% of the army, but that changed under King Ghezo (played by John Boyega). He expanded the Agojie from around 600 to around 6,000.
Wantchekon continues: “In 1818, it was expanded, institutionalized with a systematic process of recruitment, training and representation in government decision-making to such an extent that for most of King Ghezo’s 40-year reign, between 30% and 35% of the armed forces were women.
“At the same time, key positions in government like Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, Minister of Interior, were gender balanced: you would have the female post and the male post. Traditional religions also had a very strong representation of women.
Women have proven their mettle on the battlefield against domestic and foreign enemies. Europeans called them “Amazons”, evoking the female warriors of Greek myth. A British traveller, observing the women training by rushing over acacia thorns, wrote: “I could not persuade myself that a human being, without boots or shoes, would under any circumstances attempt to pass through above such a dangerous collection of the most effectively. armed plants that I had never seen.
Wantchekon 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 did not come from nowhere.
“This institution is the result of social norms in Africa. It’s because women were brought up in these communities to be independent, brave, strong. This is what made this situation possible. And also, it required a certain degree of institutional sophistication to be able to bring it to that level.
“You see any of the pictures of these women, what they wore, how they were trained, what they accomplished; it’s a combination of strong social norms that include gender and are very sophisticated in the way they built the military, the way they trained their soldiers.
Wantchekon, who had a member of the Agojie in his extended family, points out that they are not as far apart historically as they seem – Nawi, the last known surviving Agojie with battlefield experience, died in 1979 to more than a hundred years. “In 1970, these women who many consider mythical figures, some of them were still alive.”
Prior to the Hollywood call, Wantchekon had already worked on 51 biographies of female warriors, visiting the places where they lived and died and speaking to their descendants. He plans to write a book and make a documentary that will keep their memory alive and remind Benin, and the world, of what is possible outside the prison of patriarchy.
“It’s important to emphasize how unique it was,” he thought to himself. “Even now, it’s hard to imagine that such a situation exists anywhere: that people trusted women at this level and that society prepared women to actually play this role, which was the most dangerous, the most risky and the most important in society at the time.To have such a high level of female participation, up to 35%, is simply exceptional.
“But one of the tragedies is that when the French took control of the kingdom, when they defeated Dahomey, not only did they ban Agojie, but they also prevented women from entering public office. , in government, in educational opportunities. As a result, you have declined not only Agojie but also the status of women in this area. This is truly the tragedy of the whole situation.
France, a nation where the Catholic Church established strict gender boundaries and where women did not gain the right to vote until 1944, claimed to “civilize” Africa but imposed patriarchy. When the colonial power needed Beninese recruits in the world wars, it assumed that only men could fight. As former US President Barack Obama observed, “Progress does not go in a straight line. It zigzags and zags in spurts.
Dahomey gained full independence from France in 1960 and changed its name to Benin in 1975, but the colonial legacy weighs heavily. In February 2021, only 8.4% of seats in parliament were held by women. Wantchekon hopes The Woman King can raise international awareness of the need to return the moral bow to justice.
“There are still very strong, independent, enterprising women in this field – I can give you the example of my own mother – but for this to turn into real advancement for women, there must be more educational opportunities. , support for women entrepreneurship and women’s representation in government.
“For example, there are currently 77 mayors in Benin and only four are women, which is unimaginable given the history of the place. For me, what is clearly important is not only to celebrate this exceptional institution that existed at the time, but also to try to repair the damage that had been done for centuries.
He adds, “If you are currently looking for strong, high-achieving women in academia, in business, in politics, you are going to find them more in Nigeria and Senegal than in Benin. This is the kind of debate we really need and I hope the international community will do its part to bring it about. This unique institution belongs to the world; it does not belong only to Benin.
“The efforts that we must put in place to help this region, Benin in particular, to regain lost ground in terms of rights and opportunities for women, is something that must be done collectively, that must be done not only by the government of Benin but also by the international community, so I don’t just want to say how amazing it was, we need to preserve the legacy of these women.
The Woman King, set in 1823, has been compared to the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, which is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda and features a reimagined version of the Agojie, the Dora Milaje. To prepare for filming in South Africa, Davis and fellow cast members Thuso MbeduLashana Lynch and Sheila Atim spent months weightlifting and combat training so they could perform their own stunts.
Gus Casely-Hayford, presenter of the BBC television series The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, said in an email: “The Agojie are not ancient history. These are groups that may have established themselves in the 17th century, but they are traditions that seemed to survive intact into the 20th century.
“And this particular endurance speaks not only of the powerful and painful impacts of European colonization and economic encroachment in West Africa, or the growth of the transatlantic slave trade or even the fierce regional rivalries between peoples. natives who have been the unfortunate consequences of economic instability – the root of their success lies in the fearlessness and strategic genius of these women.
Casely-Hayford, director of the V&A East museum and former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, hailed the release of The Woman King. “It is a very opportune time to revisit this history – women as drivers of family businesses, as the glue of the family, as political visionaries, as arbiters of change across West Africa. the West, as quiet heroines of the continent. It’s an old story of heroism, of feminism, but a story that also seems very current.