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An Early Feminist: Al-Kahina, 7th Century North African Queen--Fact or Fancy?

posted on: Oct 31, 2018

A representation of al-Kahina

By: John Mason, Arab America Contributing Writer

A female leader from a Berber or Amazigh tribe in North Africa, al-Kahina, has a long history going back 14 centuries. She supposedly led the North African resistance to the Arab-Islamic invasion of that region in the 7th century A.D. Al-Kahina is known over most of North Africa, mostly as a heroine, a woman who in today’s terms would be called “liberated,” even a “feminist.” She may also have roots in the Jewish tradition. Such descriptions of al-Kahina have created a highly romanticized vision of her, which has been used by Berbers, French colonialists, and contemporary women to support their respective causes. What are the myths and realities of this so-called Berber queen?

Al-Kahina’s History

Her origins are purportedly in the Aures Mountains in present-day northeast Algeria. Al-Kahina was born in the seventh century. Named ‘Dihya,’ or ‘Damya,’ it is a variant of “beautiful gazelle” in the Tamazight (Berber) language. She was given the title of al-Kahina, which in Arabic means priestess, soothsayer, or seer. Her tribe, according to several historical sources, was the Jarawa Zenata grouping, part of the larger Amazigh or Berber ethnolinguistic grouping. The story has it that al-Kahina ruled from the Aures southward towards present-day Libya and that she and her warriors fought valiantly against the invading Arab-Islamic tribes from the east. There are some claims that her tribe practiced Judaism, which is feasible since the pre-Islamic population of North Africa, while largely Christian under the rule of the Eastern Church of Byzantium, had significant pockets of Judaized tribes as well.

Berber independent states in the pre-Islamic period–al-Kahina would have been active militarily on the mid-portion of the map in the 7th century

It was largely the record of the revered Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, born in what is today Tunisia, who characterized al-Kahina as Jewish. Though he wrote some seven centuries after that period, in the 14th century, he is known to have been astute in his observations. He reported that she was a large woman with long hair, both characteristics associated with a sorcerer. He reported that al-Kahina had the gift of prophecy, such as her ability to foresee the arrival of the invading Arab tribes. More recent historians, however, have questioned these assertions, including her Judaism, based on the absence of corroborating evidence. In this context, she could have as easily been from a Christian tribe or the indigenous religion that worshiped the sun, the moon, and their ancestors.

Her “Heroism”

Al-Kahina is supposed to have held off the Arab Islamic army under the leadership of Hasan ibn al-Numan. Following Hasan’s attack on the then Byzantine city of Carthage near today’s Tunis, his army was defeated by the so-called “Berber Queen.” Legend has it that she slashed and burned the land so as to make it useless to the invading Arab army. This practice supposedly made her unpopular among her own, landholding people. However, the Arab forces later returned and defeated her and her army.

In glorifying al-Kahina, later histories have her reported that she got killed as she fought the enemy–by the sword, as every good warrior would do. Upon her death, her sons supposedly converted to Islam. Following that defeat, Hasan recruited her followers and other Amazigh soldiers to join his army in successfully expanding into Iberia, present-day Spain. Amazigh people, along with the Arabs, played a significant role in ruling Spain up until the 16th century.

Al-Kahina’s heroism is celebrated today by a statue in the Parc de Bercy in Paris, designed by an Algerian artist, intended to celebrate diversity. In Algeria, a similar statue was built to honor her memory and role in fighting foreign aggression.

What a “Berber Queen” means in the long Sweep of History

Al-Kahina’s place in history has been reinterpreted over time at many points since she was first “discovered.” From an early date, upon their expansion into North Africa, the Arabs named her “al-Kahina,” the sorcerer, perhaps to malign her, as an enemy of Islam. Since in Berber society, women had always played a strong role in such important respects as leadership and inheritance, Berbers have embodied al-Kahina as a core cultural figure.

The imagery of the Arab Islamic Army attack on North Africa in the 7th century

In modern terms, the Amazigh have made her a symbol of feminism. In another sense, their “Queen” embodies their ethnic rights in a larger Arab society. Al-Kahina along with the Berbers later became a pawn in the French play for control of Algeria. There, “freeing the Berber minority” from the Arab majority became a pretext for French colonization of the country.

The history of al-Kahina has, in effect, been rewritten many times. One important piece of this story is that the label “Berber” is itself a derogatory term used by the early Greeks to describe a population which originally occupied much of the region we now call North Africa. It meant “savage.” In English, it was translated as “Barbary,” derived from the word barbarous. Berbers were, in fact, a people who had been relatively free, a society in which women held leadership roles. Prior to the Arab invasion of their homeland, the Berbers were only nominally under the rule of the Byzantines from the east.

Al-Kahina and the Amazigh (Berber) Transnational Movement

Al-Kahina’s history, while spotty, is fascinating. She inspires Berbers across North Africa. Morocco is home to the largest number of Berbers, who recently accounted for about 50% of the population, at least those who have a history of speaking a Tamazight language. The name of the language derives from the name of the people, the “Amazigh,” denoting “the free people.”

Algeria has somewhat fewer Tamazight speakers than Morocco. In far fewer numbers, Tunisians and Libyans are also speakers of Tamazight or have roots in the Berber tradition. Berbers are even present as far east as Egypt, in the Western Desert oasis of Siwa. Perhaps surprisingly, Berbers also inhabited what are today known as the Canary Islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Al-Kahina has become central to a Berber transnational movement. It is rooted in an ethos of refusing to be at the mercy of the overlaying, politically dominant culture. This includes the imposition of Arabic as the official language. Berbers want their language, Tamazight, to have equity with Arabic and to demand equality along economic and social lines. Some of the most violent opposition to a national government has been carried out by the Kabyle Berbers, who live in a mountain range by the same name in northeastern Algeria.

The Amazigh see themselves as having a deep history in North Africa. They are an ancient and proud people who have occupied the Sahara Desert over several millennia. The author experienced this pride as an anthropologist when he lived in a Libyan Desert Berber oasis community named Aguila in Cyrenaica, Libya. Though the people did not call themselves Amazigh, they knew their ethnic background was different from that of the Arabs and that they were related to other Berbers across the region. They, too, shared the tradition of having known a Berber Queen who was a leader against the Arab conquest during the 7th century A.D. They called her “Qa,” which might be some variant or other of the label Kahina.

Amazigh Pride in their Women

The Amazigh are proud of their historical role in fighting oppression, but especially the part played by a female warrior such as al-Kahina. In pre-Islamic times, Amazigh women had more freedom and played a larger role in the family and tribe then do

Amazigh (Berber) women occupied important positions in their communities when the Arab Islamic army arrived in North Africa

Amazigh not only traced their lineage through the female line, but the property was held by female-based lineages. Thus women had as much or even more agency than men. That all changed with the introduction by Arab armies of Arab-Islamic culture and social norms.

Al-Kahina and the #MeToo Movement

Al-Kahina’s legend has been rewritten as many times as there are persons who have written about her. Thus, she has been used to promote Berber nationalism and ethnic rights, in a few cases to foster Zionism because of her alleged Jewish connection, and, fervently by feminists in support of feminism. France, as already noted, used her as part of its strategy to occupy Algeria in the 19th century on the pretext that it was freeing  Berbers from Arab rule. Thus has al-Kahina become part of the visions of many parties in constructing their versions of North African history.

The French invasion of Algeria on the pretext of freeing Berbers from Arabs

In this present moment of the #MeToo movement, al-Kahina perhaps represents a  romantic view of how some women have rescued their societies from invading male armies. Joan of Arc comes to mind as another example of such a fierce, uncompromising woman who led her country, France, to victory against England in the 14th century, like al-Kahina, at the cost of her own life.

So, while much has been written of the mysterious, so-called Berber Queen, it is difficult to separate the facts from fiction. It is clear, however, that there was such a woman as al-Kahina in the 7th century A.D., she was a Berber, and she played an important part in holding back the initial attempts by the Arab Islamic army to occupy North Africa. That alone would be sufficient in granting her an important title, whether that of the queen, warrior, or prophetess. Long live the “Warrior Queen!”

[Sources: Joshua J. Mark, 3/16/18; Wikipedia, 2018; Cynthia Becker, 10/26/15; Renee Levine Melammed, 8/5/2011; H.Z. Hirschberg, 1957; John Maon, 1971.)


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.