Four badass women from North African history you should know

From queens who left the Romans quaking in their boots, to women on the frontline of the fight against French colonisation in Algeria, add these names to your list of heroes

18 June 2017 // Rafeeat Aliyu



Dihya / Wikimedia Commons

An Amazigh (Berber) queen, Dihya was born to the Jrawa tribe in 7th century Numidia (which is now mostly Algeria, with small parts of Tunisia). As with many people born so long ago, there is conflicting information about her and it’s tough to sort fact from fiction, but here’s a snapshot of how she earned a place in the history books.

Oral traditions describe Dihya as a tall charismatic woman with long black hair and dark eyes. According to Arabic sources, she was a “Jewish sorcerer”; they refer to her as al-Kahina, which translates as soothsayer or witch. Others believe Dihya may have been a Christian queen; Arab stories say Dihya travelled around with an “idol”, but whether this was Christian is up for debate.

Dihya gained her reputation as a fierce fighter when she gathered together the diverse Amazigh people to beat back Arab expansion into her territory. She defeated the army of the Umayyad dynasty and formed a successful state, until the Egyptians returned – bigger and stronger – to defeat her.

Although more renowned as a warrior, Dihya was also apparently into ornithology, the study of birds. She is said to have studied the birds of the desert and noted her findings down on a parchment that was found near where she died.

Amanishakheto was a ruler of Nubia, part of the Nile Valley which is now modern-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt. She was part of a long line of Kandakes, queens and/or queen-mothers who ruled Nubia, and is believed to have reigned from 10 BC to 1 AD (though other sources place her some 14 years before this).

She was a powerful leader with a penchant for building pyramids. When Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini tore through and destroyed Amanishakheto’s tomb in 1832 he found that she was buried with a hoard of jewellery and gold, signifying her immense wealth and power.



Amanishakheto / Khruner CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikipedia

Amanishakheto is also said to have defeated a Roman army belonging to emperor Augustus in the mid 20s BC. Border clashes did take place between Rome and Nubia at the; according to Greek sources, the conflict started when Roman ambitions led them to sniff around a gold-rich region under Kush control.

The Nubians also invaded Egypt. Led by Amanishakheto, they attacked Roman garrisons in Aswan and sacked Thebes. Amanishakheto enslaved inhabitants and brought down statues of Caesar which were then buried under the entrance of a temple at Meroë. This way those coming in and leaving the temple literally walked over Caesar’s head.

But Amanishakheto wasn’t foolish enough to let war get in the way of economics. Despite these conflicts, trade and political relations between Nubian and Rome flourished despite the aggression.

Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer

Lallah Fadhma N'Soumer

Lallah Fadhma N’Soumer / Wikipedia

Lieutenant turned guerilla fighter, Bou Baghla, is often considered synonymous with the Algerian resistance to France’s brutal colonisation that began in 1830. But it was Lalla Fadhma n’Soumer, also known as Lalla Fatma n’Soumer, who arguably was a better embodiment of independence, bravery and courage.

Born Fadhma Nat Si Hmed in 1830 in a town called Soumer, Fadhma was a Kabylie woman and scholar, studying the Qur’an alongside male students at her father’s school.

As a teenager she joined Bou Baghla’s resistance and was thrown into warfare against the French. The force eventually  defeated the army of Marshal Jacques Louis Randon and brokered a ceasefire. But three years later the French forces rallied and, with Bou Baghla dead, Fadhma led the resistance. Though they fought bravely, the French overwhelmed them. She passed away in incarceration aged just 33.

Fadhma’s fierce intellect and battle victories made her a heroine among her people. She was given the title Lalla, a title of utmost respect, which denoted as saintly.

Tin Hinan

Tin Hinan

Tin Hinan / Wikipedia

The Tuareg, also known as the Kel Tamasheq, are Berber nomads who inhabit the Sahara desert, southern Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and some neighboring countries. In legend, the woman who is said to be the mother of the Tuareg is Tin Hinan.

According to legend, some time in the 4th century, Tin Hinan left Tafilatet (the Atlas mountains) in south east Morocco, taking her maidservant Takamat and her guide Mehawa with her. Using the stars to guide the way, the party traversed the Sahara desert and eventually reached the oasis of Abalessa in southern Algeria.

In Abalessa, Tin Hinan, who is described as irresistibly beautiful, encountered the Kel Ahaggar people and eventually embarked on a passionate affair with a man known as Amastan. Their relationship would awaken jealousies and tensions that escalated and forced Tin Hinan into battle. When she won, she reconciled and united the tribes of the Kel Ahaggar and ruled as Tamenukalt (queen) until her death. She settled in the Ahaggar mountains of Algeria and became the first queen of the Tuaregs.

In 1925, archaeologist Byron Khun de Prorok and the French army excavated a magnificent tomb in Abalessa. Although there is some debate on whose remains were found, the Tuareg believe them to be those of Tin Hinan.

Whoever it is, the gold, silver and pearls found in the tomb suggest that this was a woman of prestige. That chimes with Tuareg culture, which is still matriarchal. Tin Hinan’s legacy is still remembered in a festival held in her honour in Tamanrasset, southern Algeria. The festival aims to highlight Tuareg culture particularly its women through the arts.

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