Ryan Coogler’s adaptation of Black Panther was a record-breaking success and black audiences around the world praised his representation of black women through the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s mighty female warriors who protect the crown. As amazing as the Dora Milaje are, the notion of women in power is not foreign to pre-colonial Africa. Women ruled as queens and trained as warriors to protect their land and people. Ancient African civilisations had some of the greatest political and military minds and many of them were women.
“when I celebrate black history month, I celebrate Mother Africa”
In the kingdom of Kush, the Meroitic people had established a dynasty of queens known as the Candaces. Kandake Amanirenas goes down in history as the queen who had led the resistance against Roman imperialism and battled Caesar Augustus’ armies. Amanirenas is praised for her military excellence and courage, she fought strenuously for five years against the Roman armies. She did not give up, even when she had lost an eye in battle. One day, Amanirenas beheaded the bronze statue of Emperor Augustus and buried the bronze head underneath a Nubian shrine. This was an act of defiance, symbolising the kingdom of Kush and her people trampling on the power of the Roman emperor.
Kandake Amanerinas fought so hard and the Romans retreated, her success led to the Roman Emperor signing the Treaty of Salmos. Her role in this war marks Kandake Amanirenas as one of the greatest rulers in African history.
Another amazing woman that fought against imperial conquest was Dihya, although she has now become known as Kahina which can be translated as “prophetess”, “sorceress” or “witch” in the Arabic language. Dihya was not technically a queen, but she was a freedom fighter and a leader that fought against the Arab invasion of North Africa in the seventh century. Not much is known about her history before her military struggles against Hasan ibn al Nu’man. Contemporary images of Dihya depict her as a fair-skinned woman who may have been an Arab, however, do not let this white-washing of this leader fool you. Many historians agree that Dihya was black, she was tall and wore her in dreadlocks. Dihya’ story is reminiscent of a fairy tale, legends even suggest that she had the supernatural power of foresight and was able to prophecy when enemy armies were advancing into her territory. Other legends suggest that she was able to communicate with birds who warned her of these armies. Dihya was a great strategist and her ability to predict her enemies moves led to Arab historians portraying her as someone with a supernatural advantage. Nonetheless, Dihya gave her life trying to protect North Africa from an Arab invasion, this woman fought tooth and nail for her land and her people.
These women show that femininity does not have to be docile as western patriarchal systems will have you believe”
We will travel to Nigeria in the 16th century where Aminatu (also known as Amina) ruled the Hausa empire in West and Central Africa. Whilst her mother ruled, she trained for years and honed her military skills. Aminatu matured into a fierce warrior and gained the respect of her soldiers before assuming her role as queen. This Hausa warrior queen refused to marry and rule with a man by her side. Her military escapades boosted the wealth and power of her kingdom through the acquisition of gold, crops, and slaves. She fortified her territories and built walls and borders, some of these walls still exist in Hausa city-states. These fortified walls are known as “ganuwar Amina”, translated as “Amina’s Walls”. Aminatu reigned successfully for three decades and she is a woman “that was “capable as a man”.
Like Aminatu, Araweelo defied gender norms. In ancient Somali tradition, Araweelo fought hard to build a matriarchal society. She believed that women made better rulers than men and a matriarchal society would not be rife with war and oppression. She believed that women should be dominant in society and called for them to abandon their domestic roles. Legends, however, have rewritten this story to one of tyranny and suggest that she called for women to hang men by their testicles.
Thousands of years later, women place flowers at her rumoured grave and men desecrate it. To say that she made an impact would be the greatest understatement.
These women have made their place in history as great rulers and warriors. They show that femininity does not have to be docile as western patriarchal systems will have you believe, these women found strength in their femininity and tried to change their kingdoms. These black women fought for the sovereignty of their lands, the empowerment of their people and fought against foreign imperialism. So when I celebrate black history month, I celebrate Mother Africa. Despite the effort to erase our history, thanks to oral tradition, the legacies of these women remain.
By Hani Abdihakim