Shenila Khoja-Mooji in Africa is a Country:
In recent years there has been a global convergence on the “girling of development”; in other words, girls’ empowerment and education as a way to address poverty. This includes corporate campaigns such as Nike’s Girl Effect and those by state aid organizations such as USAID’s Let Girls Learn. These campaigns promote understandings about girls’ empowerment that portray girls as individuated selves who can overcome structural difficulties – such as poverty and disease – if they only re-invent themselves by working hard, staying in school, delaying marriage and entering the workforce. This kind of “girl power” assumes an autonomous girl-subject who must rely on herself to improve her circumstances. This attention to the individual deflects attention from the role of the state, foreign policies, consumption patterns in the global North, as well as capitalist relations that exacerbate poverty in the global South. Poverty appears to be a personal problem rather than a political one.
Such storylines devolve into blaming local culture, families, and/or religious communities for the direct and structural violence that girls experience in the global South. The portrayal of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai in Western media often blames the entirety of Muslims and the nation of Pakistan for the bad behavior of the particular members of Taliban who attacked her. What we have then is a simultaneous elevation of the individual as the site of power and the demotion of the collectivities to which she belongs. These logics are deeply problematic because they shift blame to local entities (families, for instance) that, too, are enveloped in poverty due to capitalist relations. Furthermore, such logics mark religions and religious communities as irrelevant to modern times. Hence, one of my preoccupations has been to reclaim religion/families/cultures from these tired portrayals and excavate alternate evidence. Queen of Katwe, a Disney production directed by Mira Nair, provides one such intervention.
The film Queen of Katwe traces the life of chess champion, Phiona Mutesi, who lived in the shantytown of Katwe in Uganda. At the age of nine, she enrolls in a chess program managed by a local church ministry, enticed by the free cup of porridge that is distributed to students there. Through perseverance and practice, support from her mother, and a tenacious coach, Phiona goes on to win the national championship. Hers is, indeed, a story of triumph against insurmountable odds; a life-script that, perhaps, is not accessible to many girls in Katwe. However, the movie makes a range of interventions in the conventional wisdom about what constitutes education and points to the need to re-think dominant conceptualizations of “girl power.”