Words by Manal Aziz
Spread out over several countries covering the entirety of North-Africa has long lived an indigenous folk. An early diversified matriarchal people in which Amazigh females ruled the lands.
History knows many heroes. Streets have been named after them and we can read about them in our history books. However, Amazigh culture is a diverse and dynamic culture of which its history entails several occupations and very little writing – a history deemed to be forgotten. Rarely is there tangible evidence of the origins of this culture, and even more rarely so of the Amazigh females who pulled its caravans. Read along as I attempt to unearth a whimsical matriarchal society honouring the very women who made a difference.
Within ethnic groups, ancient spirits and customs are preserved. However, this happens not in libraries or scripts, but orally and via an everyday practical application. Indispensable in the safekeeping of these historical and social treasures are the backbones of these peoples: powerful women. But how come we hear so little of these fearless warriors, these queens and ancestresses who led the caravans, heard the sheep and defeated in battle? Despite the Roman, French and Arab invasions, many Imazighen societies persevered. They still exist in the Atlas mountains, South of what is now called Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, Northern Mali and Mauritania. Here they fight an everyday battle for acknowledgement and the preservation of an ancient matriarchal culture. These are the untold tales of heroines, of Imazighen.
Origins of the freeborn – Tin Hinan
Imazighen, plural for Amazigh, are the indigenous people of the Northern African region. Although their exact lineage remains unclear, many stories and hypothesis contributing to its almost mythical-like air exist. Tales of the origins lead all the way back to Palestina, South-Yemen, Troje, Ethiopia and even the Indonesian subcontinent. The earliest stories of Amazigh culture lead back to one woman – Tin Hinan – which literally translates to Her of the tents.
Different Amazigh tribes exist of which two are most common: sedentary and nomadic tribes. The sedentary populations live in villages, tilt land and tend herds. In contrast, the nomadic tribes travel with their belongings from one place to another. The Tuareg – meaning the freeborn – is a nomadic Amazigh tribe, once lead by a Tuareg queen. The story of Queen Tin Hinan tells the tale of a fourth-century woman who arrived in the Hoggar region on a milk-white camel. With her was her faithful servant, Takamet. Warriors of the Tuaregs believe they were descendants of Tin Hinan herself, whereas Takamet is believed to be the forefather of the peasantry; granting Tin Hinan the fitting name Mother of us all.
Put to rest on a wooden platform, covered by a red leather cloak, Tin Hinan was found with seven silver bracelets on one arm and seven gold ones on her left. Up until the discovery of the tomb by Byron Khun de Prorok in 1925, the tomb seemed untouched. The thunderstorm that suddenly broke out during the expedition led to believe the unearthing of the tomb was an act of desecration. Nowadays you can still visit what is thought to be the Queen’s tomb in Abalessa, modern day Algeria.
The mother warrior – Kahina
She goes by many names. Dihya, Daya, Dahya or Dehya, was a seventh-century warrior queen and military leader in Numidia. Through her strong leadership, she had led the Amazigh resistance against the Arab invasion, resulting in the defeat of the Arabs and her reign over a large part of Northern Africa. The name al Kahina – the priestess soothsayer in Arabic – was a nickname given to her by the Arabs for her believed ability to see into the future.
But even the greatest must fall. For Kahina it was the Arabs who, after driving them off, returned with a vengeance. Her tactic of scorching earth was one that had little impact on the mountain and desert tribes. Scorching the earth would make the lands less desirable for the occupiers. Instead, the destruction of land made her lose the support of the sedentary oasis-dwellers. Although this has led to her defeat, Dihya is still considered one of the greatest and fearless warriors of those days.
Lalla Fadhma n’Soumer
An important resistance leader in the battle against the French is still considered to be Lalla Fadhma n’Soumer (also known as Fatma n’Soumer). Her life has become symbolic for the resistance the indigenous people have given against the French occupation. A battle that costs an estimated ⅓ of the population’s lives between 1830-1872.
Fadhma is only 16 when the French occupy her home, Kabyle, in 1847, resulting in her alliance with the resistance. Kabyle would become the core from which the resistance fights with Fadhma in command. After many battles were won, Randon, the French leader, asked for a ceasefire. Unknowingly this is an empty promise to be broken by the French after three years. The unexpected attacks result in many deaths on the Amazigh-side, the destruction of Fadhma’s rich library, and finally in July 1857 her incarceration. Lalla Fadhma n’Soumer dies at only 33 years-old from the hardship of imprisonment, the news of her deceased brother, and the unimaginable defeat of her people against the French.
In 2014, a movie about the life of Lalla Fadhma has been released under the direction of Belkacem Hadjadj: Fadhma N’Soumer. This movie depicts the life of a young woman fighting for her indigenous lands during the beginning of the French occupation. Amazigh women, however, are not just warriors, or queens. They are poets, singers and writers too, honouring the artistry of their cultural heritage equally so.
One name in recent Amazigh history that runs chills over spines, is Taos Amrouche (1913-1976). Born in Tunis, she becomes the first known Amazigh woman to publish a novel. After the conversion of her family, they fled to Algeria, leaving behind their Kabyle homeland. However, with the influence of her mother, who was a famous Kabyle singer, her Amazigh heritage would long resonate throughout her career.
The Amazigh alphabet – Tifinagh – is rooted in the Phoenician alphabet. Although Imazighen have their own language, Tamazight, there was never a writing culture. Instead, it was common for the people to adopt the written language of their conquerors. Tamazight was kept alive by speaking the native tongue amongst each other as well as through songs. Taos’ autobiographical novel, Jacinthe noir (1947), was written in French and would become one of the first written novels by a North-African woman. While Taos Amrouche wrote in French, she sang in Kabyle. Chants berbère de Kabylie (1967) was a great example of the fusion of those two worlds. The first album of many was a collection of traditional Kabyle songs that had been translated into French.
Let us remember the queens and the poets, the prophetesses and the warriors that have all lived and died Amazigh females. Fighting for a cause, celebrating their history and bringing together a freeborn people. Let us honour the culture that has followed, worshipped and celebrated their women throughout the centuries, for in this modern day and age, it surely is not a given.