An untold story
During this period the Somali people are engaging in clan-based warfare, the Buraan droughts have ravaged their lands for many years at this point. The story unfolds as the drought is at its peak and many cattle and grazing land dying, and food and water are becoming scars. Women and female children are left to fend for themselves or left to starve. The role of the women was to look after the farm, tend the herds, and child rearing. It was not their place to be outspoken nor defy the male citizens. However, it was not uncommon for women to ascend the throne and rule the land in their own right.
“Unaware this was the birth of a sisterhood the likes that would not be seen again.”
Let me tell you the story of Arawelo, not the version you always hear about. Let me tell you the story of Ebla, a young woman who would overcome social labelling and shaming, to become the one we now know as Queen Arawelo of Somalia. A kind, righteous and wise Queen. She was born to Haramaanyo, a gentle soul but strong woman in present-day Sanaag, Somaliland. She was raised in the ways of her mother, and her mother’s mother- taught how to be a good Somali woman- obedient and dutiful. Like many of the women before her, she was to be wed to a warrior from the neighbouring tribe. And so she did. The young bride was living through harsh times. In the one hand, brutal skirmishes had claimed thousands of lives. On the other hand, nature did not look kindly on them- unrelenting droughts overclouded the lands. The young Ebla’s husband was killed during the clan wars. The young Ebla had two children who also passed away due to the severe drought.
In those days, it was taboo to marry a widow. But, if the widow had living children she could wed a male relative of her late husband. This ensured wealth stayed within the tribe’s family. Women were no more than possessions of their husbands. Since Ebla didn’t fit the bill, she was cast out of her husband’s village.
As a young and destitute widow, Ebla decided to go back to her own family. The shame she carried as a widow and being childless, they too turned her way. No longer fit for marriage, she had no value as a woman- an outcast of her society.
Heartbroken and dejected, she was to live in the jungle fending for herself. There, she met and befriended other ‘outcast’ women. Unbeknown to these ladies, this was the birth of a sisterhood the likes that would not be seen for centuries. They hunted together in the jungles and lived out in the open grasslands for many years. Little did they know their survival skills would later become their warrior boot camp. As they lived in the jungle, they face aggression from men who wanted to destroy their sisterhood and their new-found way of life. A life free of stigma and unkind words.
During this difficult time, Ebla showed great bravery, strength and leadership whenever the women were attacked by bandits or those who disapproved of women hunting. These events would result in the birth of a queen unlike any other in Somali history.
The tell of a warrior sisterhood spread across the land. And like bees to honey ‘outcast’ women joined the warrior sisterhood. These women now had a new sense of identity, of belonging and being welcomed. The jungle sisterhood grew and transformed itself into an army. As time passed, the warrior sisters were called on to aid the weak and oppressed minority. They, in turn, showed loyalty to the sisterhood. Ebla would soon shed her former name- and be crowned Queen of Peace and Prosperity- Queen Arawelo. The birth of a new Queen and her warriors spread across Somalia, and the women who heard of her felt liberated- they celebrated the coming of a new age.
The Queen was not one to judge hastily nor misuse her power- she gathered her wise council of women and men and asked for advice.
Too long had she witnessed the wars of the clans; she wanted an end to them immediately. She was advised of three strategies. Firstly, reconcile warring clans. Secondly, warn those who refuse a peace treaty. Finally, if peaceful means were rejected, she was to declare war on them. Arawelo had an army strong enough to show she meant her words.
Some clans heeded her words, and ceased their attacks- whilst others refused. The Arawelo ordered the construction of a huge prison that could hold thousands. No mercy for warlords. The prison would become the home of the clan leaders who defied her. The building was like no other seen before- this was a new idea to the Horn of Africa.
When the prisoners of war did not return, nor news of their death reached their relatives and the people talked. And of course, this was fertile grounds for rumours to flourish and spread. A bad omen was in the air.
It is a well-known little secret that a one’s ‘manhood’ was his testicles among the nomads. Some say that “if a man loses his testicles he cannot escape, think nor help himself.” In other words, he is powerless. No man could escape the Queen’s prison- she made sure of it. It’s no surprise this would give birth to the biggest and most horrifying rumour to ever haunt Somali men for generations; that the Queen castrated her prisoners- she rendering them powerless. That she was to be feared- merciless. News of the rumour reached the Queens hears, much to her amusement. She understood that the rumours could be used to dissuade and frighten her enemies. They would think twice before they dared to attack her. The rumour prevented much bloodshed and discouraged young men from joining the feuds of the clans.
Make no mistake Arawelo was merciless to tyrants and tough on troublemakers, but she liberated thousands of Somalis from war, poverty and humiliation.
Her story ends on a tragic note like many. She was assassinated by Oday Biqay (Wise Fool) while hunting in the jungle.
After the tragic death of Queen Araweelo, history was to repeat itself- war and bloodshed. To this day, many visit her grave is allegedly lies. Women leave branches of leaves or flowers- a symbol of her empowerment of women. Men, on the other hand, stone her grave because …we can guess why. To this day Somali girls are told of a frightening Queen who demanded women’s rights and freedom, while boys are taught to hate and fear her.
How can you know which tale is true you ask?
There are so many versions of the story of Arawelo. Those who have been narrated to of her story may only know of a single version. It is when individuals who have been raised with her one version meet those who know of different avatar of Arawelo. Some of the most amazing spins have made her into a man-eater confusing her with Dhagdheer, another Somali folktale figure. Some modern Somali feminists have started to challenge the oversimplified ‘evil’ villain that many Somalis have come to know her as. They question whether the mere fact of her rebellion against the status quo and outright rejection of that societies absolute patriarchy governed by men is the cause of the over vilification of Arawelo.