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Women in African militia

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Amazonian Guard

As the world takes a trip down to the opulent land of Wakanda via Marvels’ Black Panther, let’s take a look at some real life women in African militia. As some comic buffs may know, in Black Panther, the Dora Milaje is the African warrior women militia that secure King T’Challa of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda. For those who are not comic buffs or have little to no background on the Black Panther storyline, Okoye is the general of the Dora Milaje and the head of Wakanda’s armed force and intelligence. The comic film, by inclusion of a prominent female armed force take a divergence from the dominant masculine political narrative in most superhero films. The film took much effort in depicting an Africa as imagined without the interference of colonialism, and what the natural Afro-futurism would look like had Africa not been robbed of her good wealth, human resources and land. And as we know prior to the invasion of European colonialism, women in Africa were equal contributing leaders in armies, economy, commerce, politics and community leadership.

In the context of war, outside of the perspective of the male power brokers who have embodied a historic political and class privilege in being leaders of war, are the women who form forces and a strong core of the militia. Typically, war is seen as a patriarchal political and military structure in both Nigeria and around the world, with the gaze of heroism usually being a masculinized rhetoric of ‘patriotism’. A militia consists of citizens of a nation or subjects of a state or government that can be called upon to enter a combat situation, as opposed to a professional force of regular, full-time military personnel. Typical view of women in war in developing nations is often a marginalized one intrinsically as a non-combative role. There are some real life all-women African militia groups worth noting.

We know African leaders like former Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi enlisted all-women security detail known as the Amazonian Guard, or the official name, the Revolutionary Nuns. He relied on these highly-trained female soldiers and bodyguards in day to day movement.

Groups like South Africa’s Black Mambas, an all-female militia group, are focused on a different type of battle. Their enemy: the poachers of South Africa’s rhinos and elephants. Though unarmed, they have tactics that are thorough and have been effective over the years. Donning army uniforms, the 26 all-female members of this militia keep watch over the tens of thousands of wildlife country on a 24-7 vigil.

Some historical all-female militia include, Benin’s Dahomey Amazons which was created by King Agaja who ruled present-day Republic of Benin from 1708-1732. He established the all-female bodyguards who were armed with muskets. They were later developed into a militia and successfully defeated the Dahomey’s neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The Dahomey Amazons were soldiers who were rigorously trained, clad in uniforms, and equipped with foreign guns.

By the mid-19th century, they made up about a third of the entire Dahomey army numbering between 1,000 and 6,000 women at a time. According to accounts, the women soldiers were structured in parallel with the army, with a centre wing (the king’s bodyguards). Some accounts note that each male soldier had a female warrior counterpart. In world history, they remain the only known army corps made exclusively of women.

During the Biafran war, Igbo women joined civil defence militia units. In May 1969, they formed a Women’s Front requesting the Biafran leadership to allow them to enlist in the infantry. During the war women mobilised Biafrans for all public occasions. “Women formed a strong core of the militia, task forces, etc. Women became the cohesive force.” (Ifi Amadiume “Women’s Political History, 1984).

According to authors of Shaping our Struggles: Nigerian Women in History, Culture and Social Change, “women typically do not remain mere onlookers or innocent victims in conflict. They often take on roles and responsibilities, partake in combat and political struggle, and build new networks in order to obtain needed resources for their families. While civil wars impose tremendous burdens on women, they often contribute to the redefinition of traditional roles and the reconfiguration of gender relations in the society”.

In Flora Nwapa’s book, Wives at War, it depicts that, like the women and girls who fought in Vietnam, African women had been organized for a real fight from the word go. They asked for guns to fight the enemy, they asked to be taught how to shoot. And just like other contemporary wars, African women have been conscious of their role to be played in relation to internal and external power.

Through the process of exclusion of women in war strategy, policies and combat, militia groups can deny themselves the expertise of those who typically work hand in hand with the soil, who are the very foundation of community growth, development and sustainability. These unique gifts, talents and intuitions that women contribute are the very intricacies and details that give a group an edge over their opponent in war and the lack of these particular contributions can lead to potentially deadly consequences.


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