I came across the story of the 'bare-breasted virgins' dancing for the Swaziland king's attention at a time when I was pondering the questions of agency and empowerment in everyday life. I guess the problem can be trivialized like this: are we, the common people, powerful in our everyday lives or not? Powerful here can be understood in many ways: can we change or affect the political structures in which we live; can we change or challenge labels such as gender, ethnicity, race; can we resist economic or political repression, and so on.
The story of the bare-breasted virgins (and apologies for perpetuating this stereotyped, Westernized vision) is a good case in point. Trivializing: young women present themselves to the king in the hope of being chosen as a wife. There's undoubtedly a very patriarchal picture here: here you have these thousands of young women who offer themselves to the king. But there's also the empowering picture: the young girl who takes control of her life and goes to present herself to the king because this is a way of taking care of herself, of making it into the world of the rich, who do not have to work anymore.
I guess feminists know the story all too well: first there was the 'liberation'. Then there was the painful realization that oppression is not so easy and that some women - oppressed from one point of view - were in fact supporting the oppressive system precisely because that was their way of gaining an advantage, of having access to power - of being in control if you want.
I realize my story is superficial - but I think my dilemma stands: how can we talk about power from a micro level? How can we talk about empowerment - or oppression - from the level of individual people? Some have chosen to get rid of the term 'empowerment' altogether and to acknowledge that our agency is always within the constraints of the social system in which we live. We do have the power to act, to choose for ourselves, to resist those things we feel are oppressive; but this does not mean that we influence the oppression. We cope with it - and this is where our empowerment.
Photo credits: lumkness