A lesson from Wakanda

By Kirthi Jayakumar
Watching Black Panther twice made me see something in Wakanda that we are missing out in the world around us, that we can certainly strive to create. No, I don’t mean vibranium. And no, I don’t mean the Dora Milaje (although I wish…). What I do mean I mean, is the status of women.
Think about it: in Wakanda, gender equality is a fact that breathes and lives among the community. In Wakanda, women are badass and are not restrained from attaining their full potential. In Wakanda, women are respected. But most importantly, in Wakanda, 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, child birth 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]
This form of structural violence leads to women facing a range of discriminatory treatment and violence. Everything from social restrictions and stigma, to honour-based crimes and other forms of violence and discrimination, keep the cycle of violence against women alive. In some instances, the imposition of the status of cultural signifiers takes precedence even over the rigid sex-specific role of reproduction. For instance, in India, a recent policy framework exempted cosmetic products used as cultural signifiers of Hinduism from tax, but levied a heavy tax on menstrual products.
In sharp contrast, Wakanda is 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 — not kept out of the army because it’s a traditionally male job. After Zuri is killed, a woman takes over position — not that his job is confined only to men
The key lesson to take home from Wakanda is that when culture and tradition bind certain aspects of women’s social lives, women may remain bound by these norms for long after other aspects of their socio-economic and political lives may have changed.
We see it in the world around us. And we need to change it.
[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)