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Opinion: 'The Woman King' speaks loud and clear to this Nigerian feminist

The general Nanisca, portrayed by Viola Davis, is the star of <em>The Woman King. </em>When a man objects to her influence, she retorts: "If the king respects me, it is because I have earned it."
Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures
The general Nanisca, portrayed by Viola Davis, is the star of The Woman King. When a man objects to her influence, she retorts: "If the king respects me, it is because I have earned it."

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 Woman King, the new movie about an all-female troop of warriors in a 19th-century West African kingdom.

Would this movie, starring the amazing Viola Davis as General Nanisca, speak to the issues faced by West African women like me? What challenges did they face and how do these relate to today's world?

I'm not surprised by what I saw. But I am sad to report that the inequalities faced by the women in the movie do indeed reflect the struggles that women today face in many parts of the world, including West Africa.

The Woman King tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female troop of warriors of the real-life West African Dahomey kingdom, today's Republic of Benin. "Agojie" was another name for the Dahomey Amazons, known for their bravery.

By exploring the lives of these bold women, the film illustrates how the lack of equal rights for women is a problem that has lasted for centuries. While I was deeply inspired to see an all-female army led by a strong woman, I was also dismayed by the inequalities that these soldiers had to suffer. Unlike their male counterparts, the Agojie women were not allowed to marry or become parents as in theory they belonged to the king.

Even today, women around the world often have to choose between a fast-paced progressive career or slowing down to start a family. I hope that the movie inspires more people to recognize the strength of women and create opportunities that allow them to build their career while growing a family — or frankly to embrace any choice they prefer to make. And to be honored for charting their own path.

In one scene, a male member of the king's cabinet expresses his anger at Viola Davis' character for getting the king's attention and influencing his decision to go to war with the opposing Oyo Empire. She says, "If the king respects me, it is because I have earned 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 comments made by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie in her famous TEDx talk "We should all be feminists." In her speech, Adichie sums up the way the world treats women: "We say to them [girls] you can have ambition but not too much otherwise you will threaten the man." Nawi was happy to threaten men.

Nawi is a strong-willed and intelligent character, refusing to buckle down to the pressure of being married off early. In one scene, she dares to speak back to an old man who wants to marry her. He hits her – and then she fights back, shoving this prospective husband.

Her father sees her as a threat to potential suitors and gives her out to serve the king.

Nawi is presented with the choice of joining the Agojie and remaining celibate or serving the palace in other ways. She chooses the path of becoming an Agojie and proved to be one of its best soldiers.

She breaks free of the gendered shackles that society at large places upon women – young and old.

Like Nawi, strong-willed women today are often taunted. They're told their feistiness will make them unattractive to "real men." Personally, I have been told by male acquaintances that buying a car or getting a doctorate while unmarried will make me less attractive to men.

There is a deep-seated struggle to not be the "angry black woman" for many of us who fight back against what is wrong. The movie feels like a much-needed reminder to never stop speaking about the inequalities that women face. If we do not continue to speak up about the challenges we face every day, society will never be fair to women. As Nawi states when she was confronted for standing up to the Viola Davis's mighty General Nanisca, "If I do not speak up, she will not see me."

Another inspiration in this movie comes from King Ghezo, the role played by John Boyega. Although young and inexperienced, King Ghezo leads with humility. He listens to General Nanisca's advice — leading to some jealousy among male members of his cabinet.

That doesn't bother him. In fact, his cabinet includes other women in addition to General Nanisca. He did not engage in tokenism.

I endorse his openness. I believe very strongly that women must have a seat at the table whether to discuss politics and governance or health and development issues such as what I do as a policy and partnerships manager in a global health institution.

This kind of representation does not mean that only one or two women are selected for a conference as we typically see today but a deliberate attempt to hear from women. Whether in traditional settings or workplaces, more women are desperately needed as leaders and as advisers. I have only to look to my own country to see the bias we face: In Nigeria's history, no woman has ever been appointed to head any of the three military branches.

I am glad that more stories are being told about West Africa for global audiences. I left the theater deeply reflective of the challenges faced by Africans during the colonial days but also deeply inspired by the role of female armies like the Agojie. The next time someone says to me that being a feminist is a "new generation thing," I will tell them the story of the Agojie, our female warriors from the 19th century.

Oyeronke Oyebanji is a Nigerian public health professional and senior fellow at the Aspen Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Oyeronke_

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Oyeronke Oyebanji