“She had begun to create a role reversal like no other. Of course, this made many men luth and fear her.”
Who comes to mind when you think of great women of history? Rosa Parks, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc or maybe Boudica? What if we go a little more back in history- who comes to mind? Cleopatra; Hatshepsut King of Egypt, or maybe the Queen of Sheba? There is another famous queen of a darker nature- the Horn of Africa’s infamous ruler, the Somali nomadic Warrior Queen- Arawelo. Revered by all Somali women as the role model to aspire to, who empowers them with an innate confidence to demand respect and love for their agency as women. Are you curious? Let me take you on a journey and discover a story you’d wish you’d known before. Welcome to Sanaag in modern day Somaliland…not today silly! Let’s rewind the clock to 10th Century BC when history was literally being made right across Africa. A baby girl was born to the King and his wife Harmaanyo- their first born, their little curud (eldest child). Her mother was gifted with three more daughters and no sons. This, of course, made baby Arawelo as the eldest, the rightful heir to her father’s kingdom seeing. Ebla- who’s that you ask? That’s her given name before she, you know became a Queen and everything. So anyway, Ebla was trained in the ways of becoming the perfect Somali woman. She knew how to carry out all the domestic chores- or in her case, how to boss the maids to do the work. She was taught the etiquette of how to be the perfect Somali bride- albeit a ruler but still a wife. And when the time came for her to be wed to the son of the clan elder from the neighbouring tribe. Ebla was not having a man stripping her of her freedom. So, she did what any queen who didn’t want to marry did. She refused to marry any man; she was going to run the kingdom herself- after all, she was going to be the queen anyway. The young Ebla saw how the women around her were mistreated and undervalued. This was normal of course, but Ebla thought there must be a better way than the lives the women in her village were leading. These stray thoughts would later be the making of the queen we hear of today. While the Buraan droughts were still ravaging the whole kingdom, it was only a matter of time before even the royal family would suffer its harshness. The princess saw that the men of the tribe elders were busy waging war on each other to help the women and elderly to dig wells and hunt beyond their villages. The young princess ventured out and began fetching water and bring it to the villagers, and when food was scarce she ventured further and began to do the most unwomanly thing- hunting! The women of the village saw that their customs would not save them from the drought. Widowed women were the first to join her in her endeavours. You see they had nothing to lose; they were already ‘outcasts’ because they had no husbands to take care of them. The women learned to hunt the jungle and how to dig wells, they were self-sufficient. Talk began of how the women of one village were doing unspeakable things- of women who hunted! As time passed and the Ebla grew into a young and beautiful woman (cliché but so what) of strong character and mind. By now she was working with the neighbouring villages helping them to learn how to dig for water and hunt with the qaanso iyo fallaadh (bow and arrow), some even learnt how to use a waran (spear). Word spread across the kingdom that a group of female warriors were forming. This, of course, caught the attention of the tribal elders who were not happy about their women getting the wrong ideas. They did what they knew best once they found out who was at the roots of this uncouth behaviour. The first battle to subjugate the Ebla didn’t go as the elders planned of course. Ebla and the female warriors fended off the attacks. In order to teach the men a lesson, they would never forget she castrated the men who had attacked her army. As you would expect this did not go well with the elders and more attaches ensued. She used her wits and took advice from her elders. Many clan elders were overwhelmed by her strength, they pledged their loyalty to her and joined her army. She was crowned and given the title Queen Arawelo. Arawelo was tired of the tribes that constantly fought; they were not benefiting nor easing the lives of the people, who were also experiencing the full effects of the droughts. This lead to Arawelo commanding all women to abandon their womanly roles in society. Any man who was against her orders was hanged by his testicles. And to add insult to the injury all men were to take on the roles of child-rearing and domestic chores. She had begun to create a role reversal like no other. Of course, this made many men luth and fear her. In Arawelo’s eyes, women were natural peacekeepers, they were more compassionate and empathetic. She had witnessed the men of her nation slaughter each other recklessly. As far as Arawelo was concerned women were far more superior to men. Women bore children and were hardworking, kind and gentle in their affairs. Therefore, she saw women as effective leaders. Her reign saw the birth of female children being celebrated, women carrying out duties that fit their character whether that was in politics, being a warrior or living the simple life. The story goes that Arawelo, now an elder, after many years of not hunting she took to the jungle to hunt again. There she was shot and assassinated by Odey Biiqey (Wise Fool)– a man who hated what the kingdom had become. The kingdom was inherited by her niece as Arawelo had no children.
This is one of my favourite versions of the story of Queen Arawelo. She is a controversial figure (both in folklore and historically) who changed the agency of women bother in her them and in modern Somali society. To this day Somali men fear her, calling women who are strong-willed and independent an Arawelo. A term of dissing or away of showing their disproval of the different characteristics Arawelo embodies. On the other hand, Somali women are known to call refer to their daughters an ‘Arawelo’ to show pride in their daughters who ambitious. So even call their daughters Arawelo, showing wishing for their daughters to be a trend maker and an advocator for the less fortunate. Of course, there are women who don’t hold Arawelo in high regards. Whether that is because of her methods of fighting against the injustices women faced or because they view her as anti-procreation. Likewise, there are Somali men who see her story as a source of empowerment and an example of the strength of Somali women. Whichever way you choose to read the story of Arawelo, it’s clear that she was a complex character.