Why is it that history always remembers women attached to ruthless and vicious legends? This is the story of Queen Arawelo, the fierce Somali ruler that made of her country pretty much what women have been fighting for in the last centuries.
Before we jump into this, let me ask you a simple but really important question. What about the title made you want to read this story? Was it the part about the queen hanging men by their genitals or the reversed gender roles bit? If we're being honest, it was probably the first option, and that's absolutely natural: we love reading about people who break the rules to get what they want. The interesting thing here, and the reason why I asked you this question, is that this character’s biography is always swinging between these two stances.
Known as the first feminist ruler in history, Queen Arawelo was definitely one of a kind when it came to developing an equal society during her ruling. She’s remembered as both just and ruthless, as wise and stubborn, as caring and hateful, because as it happens with these kinds of characters, the way she achieved this egalitarian haven depends a lot on who’s telling the story. However, the one point in which both versions coincide is that hers was one of the most prosperous and stable reigns in the history of what’s known today as Somalia.
Not many details are known about Arawelo, other than that she ruled around the fifteenth century. She was the eldest of the King’s three daughters, so when he passed, a male successor was out of the question. Or that’s what Arawelo thought when she took the throne without asking anyone. Arawelo had always been a rebellious girl who never followed the social roles her position and gender dictated. She wanted to receive the same education the boys got and and to take part in “male” everyday activities. For that reason, when she became queen, she decided she would give all girls the same opportunity. How did she do that? By banishing all stereotypical gender roles socially pervaded.
As you can imagine, men weren’t happy about this, mainly because they believed that ruling wasn’t a woman's job. So, when Queen Arawelo started hiring women for the most important political jobs, the problems started. Many women told her that their parents and husbands wouldn’t let them fulfill their new roles because they had to take care of traditional women's chores like taking care of children or the house. Arawelo’s response: let’s give these men a day without women, so they realize we’re much more than just their servants. Arawelo had previous experience in empowering women. During her father’s reign, terrible draughts and hunger desolated the region, but the young Arawelo, organized a group of women to carry water and hunt, tasks thought to be only for men.
Illustration from Mackenzi Lee's "Bygone Badass Broads."
With her previous experience and her own views on women’s roles, little by little, these gender roles were reversed, with women in power positions and men doing domestic jobs. Eventually, both women and men had equal treatment, making the land prosper as it had never done so in the past. So, when did it all get so gloomy and violent? As I mentioned at the beginning, the way Arawelo is portrayed depends a lot on who’s telling the story. After her death, Queen Arawelo’s historical depiction became tainted by myths and legends.
For starters, some versions claim that she was killed by a grandson who wanted to bring the reign back to “normality” and do away with all female power. This has never been proven, just like the tales of her being a ruthless woman who hated men and wanted revenge after being raped in her youth. Following this particular version, legend has it, she used to hang rapists from their testicles as punishment. Moreover, out of hatred for the male gender, she trained women to become violent and oppressive with their husbands and sons, just because she believed in female supremacy. To make it even more fanciful and vicious, it was even said that she castrated all men in her reign except for a select group of men who served as "stallions" to reproduce.
Honestly, though we love reading about harsh and heartless female characters, we must admit that, in most cases, it’s history and, the gender norms ingrained in our culture are what end up giving these traits to strong, independent, and determined women. Just as there isn’t evidence of these, we can’t say it didn’t happen, but most likely it’s just another case of women-trashing, like in the tons and tons of other examples. All in all, what Queen Arawelo must be remembered for is her unique measures to bring equality to her nation. But more importantly, that even as far back as the fifteenth century, she proved that the best way to prosper is by building an equal society.
Here are other outstanding figures that history doesn't share that often:
Cover photo by @actionvance