“The Woman King” is a rare example of an African story told in the form of a Hollywood historical epic. Around the world, it has won praise for its acting, directing, and themes of female empowerment with women, led by General Nanisca, fighting a war that men cannot.
While the film is set in the 1800s in the kingdom of Dahomey, today the same area is known as Abomey. The story of the female warriors and General Nanisca has echoed down the ages here and in the rest of Benin.
Nan Zognidi is the present-day queen mother of Abomey.
She said she teaches young people the same values as the female warriors, a mindset that shows young girls are equal to boys.
“They have the same abilities and the same competencies as boys,” she said.
Zognidi’s role of queen mother is ceremonial. As with royalty in other parts of the world, it involves attracting tourists to the kingdom. But before she took on the role, she was a women’s rights activist.
Now, she runs a program to teach girls trades that promote financial independence and the history and culture of the kingdom. She also encourages leadership among her courtiers.
Pkadomi Sylvestre, a 13-year-old courtier, said the queen mother has taught her how to work on political activities for women’s empowerment.
A statue depicting one of Abomey’s female warriors in Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou, was inaugurated earlier this year.
The example set by the female warriors of Abomey is something Africa needs more of, according to U.N. Women, a branch of the United Nations dedicated to female empowerment.
“Women who are involved in politics are not usually positively seen by society,” said regional adviser Soulef Guessoum, noting that in Africa, only 25% of the elected assembly are women — short of the 30% target set by the U.N. in 1995 and well below the 50% that many consider the ultimate goal.
Marion Ogeto, a human rights lawyer who works with Equality Now, a non-profit working for female empowerment, said the female warriors of Abomey are inspiring.
“This community was way ahead of its time by advocating for an army that is all and only women,” said Ogeto. “That already just blows your mind and then it goes a step further and shows you that they have a woman leader, a woman king and then she’s in a position where she’s able to sit at the same table as the king as well as all the others and tell the king, ‘This is not how we handle the situation, we need to do X, Y and Z.'”
As for Zognidi, she thinks the most important lesson Abomey’s warriors must teach the world — not the least the world of politics — is that “everything that men can do, women can do today. We can’t say that women are weak, it is wrong.”
Women, she said, are as strong as men.