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.
Queen of Katwe official trailer
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.”
Phiona did not go to school and yet she was able to reason her way through the rigorous sport of chess. We, hence, immediately encounter a girl who succeeds outsides the context of formal schooling. Next, religious institutions and ethics inspired by religion play a crucial role in the lives of the characters. Phiona, for instance, encounters chess through a Christian sports outreach ministry that runs various programs for underprivileged youth in Katwe. The program provides sports but also feeds kids, a service that is crucial in the context within which Phiona lived. We also observe what a life lived in the service of others looks like in the character of coach Robert Katende. Hired only in a part-time capacity because that is all the church can afford, Katende is later offered an engineering job, which he declines to continue working with the Pioneers (his chess students). That is his life’s work.
In addition to highlighting the role of religious institutions in improving the lives of the most marginalized in society, we encounter Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet, who provides a glimpse into yet another support system for Phiona. Nakku, who is widowed and has four children, is fiercely protective of her family and works hard to provide food and shelter. Even though events beyond her control lead her older daughter, Night, to get pregnant early, Queen of Katwe develops the characters of Nakku enough for the audience to not devolve into blaming the mother for the daughter’s transgression.
Significantly, it also develops Night’s character – through scenes that show that she cares for her family, particularly Phiona – to avoid marking the black girl as a site of hypersexuality and promiscuity. Indeed, Nakku and Night’s life circumstances present complicated options linked to survival, which resist reduction to stereotypes. Likewise, we meet supportive friends and siblings who are equally crucial in Phiona’s ascent.
Phiona’s story of triumph then is not the triumph of the autonomous, empowered girl who single-handedly beats the odds and moves out of the slums. Rather, it is a story about interdependencies, where religious institutions, community, siblings, a well-wishing mother and religiously-inspired ethics all play a role in creating moments of relief. Such complex portrayals of black girlhoods call on the audience to re-think assumptions about success and girl power.
Yet, Queen of Katwe also shows how individuals’ as well as communities’ capacities for action are mediated by structural constraints – gatekeepers in the form of state officials and school masters, or fees to enter chess tournaments. We thus leave the movie with a understanding that improving the lives of girls in the global South entails not only resisting the demonizing of their cultures, families, and religions but also paying attention to the structures that limit their opportunities.