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Warriors and Rulers: the roles of African women in African society

Warriors: African women in African society

Western media coverage on African women usually centers around issues of oppression such as female circumcision in East Africa, "Islamic" extremism in West Africa, or rape in South Africa. While the world should not dismiss these issues, what we are seeing is a lopsided image of African women's lives. Africa is home to many cultures, and the place of women varies in different African societies. Unfortunately, a large number of non-Africans perceive the whole of Africa as a single cultural entity, and cannot imagine that two different African cultures can have value systems that are diametrically opposite to each other.

What follows is a non-comprehensive list of African women warriors. It is our hope that these portraits will show a side of Africa not often seen by the rest of the world - the historic reality of strong women who forged their own destinies.

West Africa

The West African kingdom of Dahomey (in modern Benin) maintained a well-trained army of women in service of the king up through the late 19th century. This all-female army participated in real battles and was reported to be vastly superior to male soldiers in their fighting skills. Some of these women soldiers continued to sabotage the French even after Dahomey's official defeat by France at the end of the 19th century. Their history is told in Amazons of Black Sparta: The women warriors of Dahomey, by Stanley B. Alpern.

In the mid-18th century, Ibo women in southern Nigeria shared combat duty with men, as did Fulani women in northen Nigeria ruing the 1820s.1 In 1900 Ghana, Yaa Asantewa (Asante Queen Mother) galvanized the Asante and led a revolt against the British.2 Major General Aderonke Kale served as the highest ranking female officer in the Nigerian Army during the 20th century.3

Northwest Africa

The Berber tribe of Jarawa in the Aures Mountains was led by a Dahia al-Kahina. The warrior queen ruled over a vast area and achieved brilliant victories against the Arab invaders led by Caliph Abdalmelek.4 After her death in battle at the end of the 7th century, the Arabs overcame Berber resistance. The Tuaregs, a Berber tribe, celebrated a woman's divorce with a party, and rape was extremely rare among them. Wrestling matches between girls were a part of Tuareg culture.5

Northeast Africa

Candace (title of the queen of Nubia) led her armies in person to fight the Romans in southern Egypt during the 1st century B.C. The Romans were forced to retreat without entering Nubia. According to classical records, Candace was mannish and blind in one eye.6

  1. Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta, p. 3
  2. Yaa Asantewa - Queen Mother of Ejisu (1900)
  3. Notable Women of Nigeria
  4. Jewish Communities Worldwide 1998-1999 edition, ed. Dr Avi Baker, 190
  5. Dance As Community Identity in Selected Berber Nations of Morocco
  6. Alpern, p. 1