A fearless warrior woman, Dihya briefly prevented Arab invaders from sweeping through North Africa in the 7th century.
Tall and powerful, the outnumbered general woman named Dihya performed a final act of stubborn defiance against an Arab army invading her homeland in northwest Africa. Far from the stereotype of a humble and submissive Maghrebi woman, the legendary warrior of the Aures mountains in Algeria ordered her men to light fires, which the prevailing winds brought on the troops led by an Umayyad general named Hasan, the forcing to withdraw to Libya.
“The land has been burned so badly that any future countryside would have to cross a barren wasteland with no resources,” reports the Encyclopedia of ancient history. But Dihya was not finished.
She implemented an even more destructive scorched earth policy to make the region undesirable to Arabs. Dihya ordered his army to demolish fortifications, destroy towns and villages, and smelt gold and silver. She also ordered the burning of fields and the destruction of private gardens. Some scholars say, unsurprisingly, that Dihya alienated herself from her people, weakening her position when the Arab armies returned a few years later.
The indigenous Amazigh people of North Africa – known today as the Berbers, a derogatory term they themselves do not use – resisted the remarkably rapid Western expansion of Arab armies into the regions of ‘North Africa previously controlled by the Byzantines. By 647, Mesopotamia and Egypt had fallen, resulting in widespread adoption of Islam. Hasan captured Carthage in 698 in what is now Tunisia. Then, the rest of the Maghreb.
Around 702, the Arabs invaded again. They chased Dihya into the mountains and killed her near a well now called the âKahina Well,â says Cynthia Becker, an associate professor at Boston University specializing in Amazigh arts. (Dihya had many names in legend and historical records – the most evocative of which is Kahina, which means “sorcerer” in Arabic, according to Yanee Nordine Benhaga, an Amazigh activist and medical scientist at Harvard Medical School). The name Kahina, most frequently used by Arabs, alludes to the warrior queen’s supposed ability to see into the future.
Growing up, Amazigh children everywhere [North Africa] hear storiesâ¦ about a female warrior who fought the invaders from the east.
Yanee Nordine Benhaga, Amazigh activist
Some sources say that before his death, Dihya handed his two sons over to the Arabs so that they could convert to Islam and escape his own fate, although 9th century historian Al-Waqidi and historian of the thirteenth century Ibn al-Athir suggested that his children had also been killed. With Dihya’s death and the resulting Arab rule over North Africa, the details of his life became a stew of myths and hyperbole.
“[N]o legend has articulated or promoted as many myths, nor served as many ideologies as this one â, writes Abdelmajid Hannoum in Colonial stories, post-colonial memories: the legend of Kahina, a Maghrebian heroine. Noting that the story of the warrior was passed down through oral tradition for two centuries before it was first recorded in writing, Hannum says that over the years, North Africa – according to the conqueror of the day – was “sometimes Arab, sometimes French, sometimes Berber and sometimes Jewish. He adds that the legend of Dihya is crucial in the Islamic history of North Africa because it represents a time when the region” was reborn and regenerated “.
Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century historian, perpetuated the idea that Dihya was a witch who came from Judaized Imazighen – a royal member of the Jarawa tribe who eventually became queen, according to the Encyclopedia of ancient history. Others claim she was a Christian.
Some wonder if she existed, although Benhaga considers that there was or was not an almost unimportant historical Dihya, given that her legend continues to reinforce a strong identity among Amazigh women.
âGrowing up, Amazigh children everywhere in Tamazgha [North Africa] hear stories told by grandmothers about a female warrior who fought the invaders from the east, âsays Benhaga,â and how she resisted for years before being killed. Many Amazigh women, he continues, especially in rural areas and particularly in Algeria, admire Dihya – and fiercely defend their families as she has.
Becker has documented various works of art across the country that glorify Dihya, including street art on a wall at the entrance to a village outside of Tizi Ouzou, a town in north-central L ‘Algeria, and a 9-foot statue erected in BaghaÃ¯, a town and commune in the northeast of the province of Khenchela – further indicating how its legend lives on among contemporary Algerians.
These representations of a female warrior reinforce the assertion of Amazigh militants according to which “before the arrival of the Arabs, North African women enjoyed greater freedom and a greater status than today”, Becker writes for The Mizan Project, a digital scholarship platform hosted by the Institute. for the study of Muslim societies and civilizations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. âGrowing up in the south of Morocco,â Benhaga adds, âour grandmothers ran all aspects of village life.