A soldier of the Polisario Front holds her child and a rifle during training in the Western Sahara, December 1978. The Polisario are a Sahrawi liberation movement who fought against Moroccan control of the Western Sahara from the 1970s to early 1990s. Female soldiers were key to defending the the Tindouf refugee camps during the conflict and today the women's wing of the Polisario contains around 10,000 members.
North African history
Dihya al-Kahina was a Berber queen, religious and military leader who fought against Islamic expansion in Northwest Africa during the 7th century. Her name is recorded with a number of variations, including, Daya and Dahlia. 'al-Kahina', meaning 'sorceress', was a title given to her by her Muslim opponents because the defeats she inflicted on them were deemed the result of magic.
Dihya was raised in the Aures mountains in what is now modern-day Algeria. She was daughter to the chieftain of a Jewish Berber (Amazigh) tribe, however some sources suggest she also had some Greek heritage. Little of her childhood or private life is recorded, save for some accounts saying she had a passion for desert birds, her studies of which led to early advances in North African biological science.
In the early 7th century the Berbers of Northwestern Africa were under the control of the Exarchate of Carthage, itself a division of the Byzantine Empire. However after Egypt fell to Islamic conquest the Exarchate found itself in direct conflict with the Islamic Caliphates. The Byzantine capital of Carthage eventually fell to the armies of the Umayyad General Hasan ibn al-Nu'man, essentially wiping out Byzantine control of the area. However with their former rulers defeated, Dihya was able to rally all of the Berber tribes under her leadership and she became know as the 'Queen of the Berbers'. She mounted a campaign of resistance against the Ummayyad invaders, at first using guerrilla warfare but quickly escalating into outright conflict. Under her instruction the disorganised Berber forces quickly transitioned into a well-disciplined army.
Seeing Dihya as the most powerful opponent in the region, General Hasan marched south to engage her. Their armies met near Meskiana, where Dihya's forces defeated Hasan's so completely that he fled the area and retreated to Libya for the next few years. During this time Dihya came close to establishing a new nation state, setting up new administrative systems to support her army.
However the Berbers had become the only opponent to Islamic rule in Africa and the Caliphates devoted enormous resources toward their defeat. Hasan returned with fresh forces, this time allied with one of Dihya's own sons who had defected. The Berber forces were defeated and Dihya herself was killed in the ensuing battle. Some accounts say she poisoned herself when defeat became inevitable, while others say she died in combat with a sword in her hand. As the last voice of resistance to Islamic rule in Northwest Africa, Dihya's death marked the end of an era for the region.
Sayyida al Hurra was an Islamic pirate queen during the early 16th century. ‘Sayyida al Hurra’ is in fact a title marking her out as an independent female ruler. Her true name is unknown.
Born around 1485 in Granada, Sayyida fled with her family to Morocco when that Islamic kingdom fell to Christian Spain. At 16 she was married to a man 30 years her senior, al-Mandri, who was the governor of of Tétouan in northern Morocco. She assisted her husband in ruling the city and inherited his position following his death in 1515. She was the last woman to use the title of ‘al Hurra’, meaning ‘queen’.
Sayyida had never forgotten the indignity of being forced out of her home by ‘the Christian enemy’. To get her revenge she assembled her own pirate fleet and allied herself with the Turkish corsair Oruç Reis, known in Europe as Barbarossa. Together their forces wreaked havoc on Spanish and Portugese shipping lanes, looting ships and ransoming captured sailors. Sayyida al Hurra took control of the western half of the Mediterranean, while Oruç Reis commanded the east. Spanish records describe her as a respected and fearsome opponent who dominated the seas of that region.
In 1541 she accepted a marriage proposal from Ahmed al-Wattasi, the King of Morocco. However she refused to give up her role as queen of Tétouan or even to leave the city for the marriage ceremony, forcing al-Wattasi to come to her. This is the only recorded instance that the Moroccan king married outside of his capital.
Sayyida al Hurra reigned for nearly thirty years, until she was deposed by her own son-in-law in 1542. She was stripped of her property and power, however her ultimate fate is unknown.