If you grew up in Somalia, one of the first childhood tales you are told is about an ancient Somalian queen who fought for female empowerment and championed gender equality. Her name was Queen Arawelo and her mark on history is one that is not as widely recognized as it should be today.

The first of three daughters, Queen Arawelo took the throne of what is today’s Somalia after the death of her brutal, sexist father in 15 A.D. Under Arawelo’s rule, stereotypical gender roles were reversed as girls ruled the world and men stayed at home. Queen Arawelo challenged patriarchial norms and is considered one of the leading feminists of folklore history.

Having never followed the expected social roles her position and gender dictated, Arawelo possessed essential leadership traits before she took power. She demanded the same education as boys and engaged in activities regarded as too “masculine” for women to participate in. During her father’s reign, when the famine-spreading Buraan droughts devastated the region, Arawelo organized a group of women to fetch water and hunt to prevent inhabitants from starving and migrating, usually men’s work.

When Queen Arawelo took power, she was determined to give all women the same opportunities as men by banishing all gender roles. She actively encouraged women to take on responsibilities perceived as masculine and become providers for their families. Arawelo hired women for crucial political positions as she believed that women held key attributes men did not when it came to their approach to power. Queen Arawelo found women to be natural peacekeepers and more efficient leaders. Growing up, Arawelo saw how men were more often instigators, participators, and conductors of war as opposed to taking more diplomatic routes when it came to conflict.

But not everyone embraced her alternate way of thinking. Furious by her convictions, Queen Arawelo’s husband objected to her self-ascribed role as the breadwinner and believed that women should only focus on their domestic and child-rearing duties, leaving the “important” things to the men.

Angered by her husband’s stance, Queen Arawelo responded by demanding all women across the land to abandon their “womanly” roles. The strike was successful in establishing a role reversal whereby men took on child-rearing whilst the women became leaders in things like politics and hunting. Not only did Queen Arawelo fight for the liberation of women, but she also fought for women to hold power and authority in her kingdom.

As Arawelo lived so long ago, her story and portrayal have become somewhat knotted in myths and legends, particularly when it comes to her alleged radical forms of punishment. Some say that out of hatred for men, she trained women to incite violence against their husbands and sons as retribution for being raped in her youth, as well as castrating men to keep them from reproducing. Others say she used to hang rapists and prisoners by their testicles. Whether these legends are true or not, Queen Arawelo unequivocally made men think twice before committing a crime.

Just like her extraordinary life, Queen Arawelo’s death is also shrouded in mystery. One legend that seems to be a historical favorite is that Arawelo was killed by her grandson who wanted to return the reign to male hands and remove all notions of female power.

Queen Arawelo remains one of the greatest rulers in Somalian history. She defied gender roles and what it meant to be a woman and was proud to stand up for her matriarchal values upon taking the throne. Under Arawelo, the country experienced a long period of prosperity.

In Somalian culture today, a variation on her name is still a Somalian term for a girl or woman who is assertive, strong, brave, and independent: Caraweelo. Her relentless fight for gender equality motivated her throughout her rule, but the sad truth is that the fight for equality continues in 2021. Women today are continuing to fight for the values Queen Arawelo proudly stood for in 15 AD…and we mustn’t forget those who led the way and championed female empowerment.

To discover more stories from Somalian culture, read Folktales from Somalia by Ahmed A. Hanghe.

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  • Rebecca Azad works in the creative and charity sector in project and event management, communications and as a content writer. She runs her own sustainable fashion blog. You'll usually find her in a cosy corner of a coffee shop sipping a latte whilst reading a novel or writing a new article for her blog or publication.