When we think of African military leaders we tend to assume they’re male. But nomadic North Africa supplied some powerful female leaders, such as the fourth century warrior-queen Tin Hinan (‘she of the tents’), popularly seen as a Tuareg ‘ancestress’. Nomadic culture has traditionally defined gender difference in its own way: from matrilinealism to different attitudes towards sexual freedom and female clothing, to the well-known practice of male veiling amongst the Tuareg. One shouldn’t overstate this – there are as many differences between nomadic communities as there are between nomadic communities and settled ones. But nomadism is an intensely practical lifestyle, in which women tend to be less sidelined, or secluded. I think there’s much to chew in these words by the anthropologist Labelle Prussin: ‘If a woman’s reproductive potential, with its guarantee of social continuity, is embedded in the material components of nomadic life, then sedentarisation has far more dire emotional and cognitive consequences than we have yet to realise.’*
Taking all this on board, it should come as no surprise that so many great female leaders emerged from the deserts and hills of pre-modern North Africa. The most significant of these was surely the Kahina, or Dihya (‘the beautiful gazelle’). A Berber priestess with the gift of second sight, she’s popularly depicted with long flowing hair and eyes like flames. She had sufficient charisma to pool several Berber tribes behind her in the late 7th century – leading them on a march against the Arab conquerors, burning down garrisons, gatehouses and crops, and driving the Arabs to Cyrenaica in Libya. ‘The Arabs search for towns,’ she crowed, ‘for gold and for silver, but we only seek for pasturage.’ However, she proved a less than successful tactician – urban Berbers were put out by her destructive policies, and her troops scattered against a tide of low motivation. After all, what spoils could they look forward to if they destroyed everything? But she showed, for a brief burning moment, the power of nomadic solidarity – which would flare again many times over the centuries.
*African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender