• The Gender Security Project

Lessons on Women, Leadership, and Power from Wakanda

Updated: Jun 15

By Kirthi Jayakumar



Image Credits: CinemaFemme (Link)


"I would make a great queen because I am stubborn — if that's what I wanted."

Nakia’s lines from Black Panther (2018) reflect a very deep understanding of feminist leadership. The idea of tying women to particular qualities to justify their right to hold positions of leadership is essentialist and limiting. Such notions prevent women from being and doing leadership in ways that do not conform to limiting and reductionist gender stereotypes. Women are more than their bodies and the cultures they are forced to represent.


Wakanda subverts the stereotypical notions the world has normalized: in Wakanda, gender equality is a fact that breathes and lives among the community and women are not restrained from attaining their full potential, and those of them in positions of leadership do not perform traditional gender roles. Women are not burdened with having to be culture signifiers. And yet, their cultural diversity is respected, engaged with and revered.

In sharp contrast, many communities in the real world, continue to essentialize culture,[1] and focus on ways to keep culture a homogenous standard against which they hold their women accountable. In doing so, there has been a poor focus on the subordination of women and its social, economic and political connotations — coupled with the construction of culture within the confines of power-relations at all levels — local, national, regional and global.[2]


Studies have shown that the cultural practices that are upheld, highlighted and celebrated across many of the world’s communities in countries that were once colonies, are largely those that were selected, promoted as generally applicable and privileged, by the colonial powers themselves. Consequently, a lot of the male leaderships in traditional spaces have tended to derive their authority and legitimacy from colonial power.[3] As a result, formalized legislative and policy frameworks tend towards cultural interpretations, and state institutions continue to define culture — subtly or otherwise.[4]


That women’s bodies are the primary vehicles of reproduction has been a basis for the confinement of their roles to being reproducers, or those that are tasked with reproducing the community. That women’s bodies are also primary vehicles to signify and embody culture has been a basis for the imposition of the task of reproducing the dominant culture of their communities, on women.[5]


With the rigid gender roles, then, there come rigid structures, patriarchal norms and policing systems that police a woman’s body, identity, choices and movement. The norms that are assigned through unequal gender roles continue to manifest are cyclically perpetuated. As a consequence of being considered the “privileged signifiers” of cultural factors that differentiate communities,[6] women are forced to conform with the status quo. This conformity is equated with the larger goal of preservation of culture — and any attempt to challenge an existing norm is seen as a betrayal of culture — and the sanctions are painful. Women are likely to be bound by tradition when it comes to marriage, childbirth and seeking employment, even if they may have access to education, and healthcare. Furthermore, some cultural and traditional practices that granted women rights — such as matrilineal ancestral descent, right to property and right to land — may be discarded, or weakened with the progressive weakening of personal agency.[7]


In sharp contrast, Wakanda is very, very different. Representing culture is not a gender role — and there are no gender roles, either. Everyone is free to live and work to their full potential. For instance, Nakia rejected taking the herb and becoming the Black Panther only because she didn’t have an army and the herb was a good incentive to win the Jabari tribe over, not because it was meant only for men. Nakia also gets to travel the world and work without having to be a cultural signifier. Shuri was a woman in STEM, working to build and improve technology like a pro — she was not kept out of science like women in our world are. Okoye is a General, and the Dora Milaje are the forefront in Wakanda’s military space: she is not kept out of the army because it’s a traditionally male job. After Zuri is killed, a woman takes over position: she is not prevented on the ground that his job is only for a man to hold.


In Wakanda, a woman occupies a position of leadership because she does. Not because she is inherently predisposed to peace, not because she is inherently nurturing, and most certainly not because she has to fill a quota. They don’t add just women and stir in Wakanda.

References

[1] Farida Shaheed, “Citizenship and the Nuanced Belonging of Women”, in Scratching the Surface: Democracy, Traditions, Gender, Jennifer Bennett, ed. (Lahore, Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2007).

[2] A/HRC/4/34, para. 20

[3] Charu Gupta, Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India (Delhi, Permanent Black, 2001).

[4] Charu Gupta, Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India (Delhi, Permanent Black, 2001).

[5] Nira Yuval-Davis, “The Bearers of the Collective: Women and Religious Legislation in Israel”, Feminist Review, vol. 4 (1980), pp. 15–27.

[6] Deniz Kandiyoti, “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation”, Millennium — Journal of International Studies, vol. 20, №3 (March 1991), pp. 429–443.

[7] Uma Narayan, “Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism”, Hypatia, vol. 13, №2 (Spring 1998)


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