Queen Arawelo is among the best-known folktale characters. Originally an obscure figure outside of Somalia, her legend has reached international audiences due to English-language media: a graphic novel (Mohamed, 2014), an article in biographies of women in history (Porath, 2016), and a theatrical production in London. There’s even a website for diasporic Somalian women named in her honor. Gender politics underlies this popularity since her story, in its many forms, is among the few about explicit sex discrimination. While most artists and scholars focus on the topic of women’s rights and feminism, the legend’s content also captures important aspects of contemporary men’s rights activism.
A starting point is that male resistance is a fundamental theme. In all versions of the tale, the queen is assassinated by her grandson. His motives include an implied desire to avenge the eunuchs after he meets and speaks with them (Drake-Brockman, 1912) a desire for revenge after being blinded (Rayne, 1935), or a desire for revenge after the queen attempts to castrate him (Hanghe, 1988). The boy receives guidance from either his father or grandfather, who serve as strategists, and he nearly always receives help from the eunuchs. This theme extends into real life: Somalian men have been known to throw stones at a mound that allegedly marks Arawelo’s grave (Mukhtar, 2003).
Combined with that is a subversion of stereotyping and gynocentrism. The castration element of the legend comes from a cultural belief that “if man loses his testicles he cannot escape, think or help himself.” Yet, the eunuchs challenge this notion by having agency in Arawelo’s downfall. Depending on the variant, they leave her unguarded (Shafi, 2006), provide backup during the queen’s assassination (Drake-Brockman, 1912) or shelter her archenemy until he impregnates her daughter and leads their son against her (Hanghe, 1988). Moreover, Arawelo’s prominence in Somalian folklore may stem from the country’s matrilineal past. Certain subclans were founded by women, as reflected in their names and Majeerteen sultans being selected from the maternal line (Mukhtar, 2003). The queen’s murder and reinstitution of male authority constitute a critique of these norms.
This critique is clearest in portrayals of Arawelo. Her justifications for castrating men echo feminist beliefs. In one version, she gets raped and decides to castrate men to avenge herself and other women. A related motive is that she castrates men for battering their wives (Zabus, 2007). These sentiments resemble the claims that men use rape to instill fear in women (Brownmiller, 1993) or that domestic violence is an expression of patriarchal control (Hooks, 2000). In another version, Arawelo grew up in a war-torn Somalia and concluded that male leadership was to blame, so she and the other women stole men’s weapons to prevent more conflict. This idea of the gentle female and the aggressive male is expressed in early twentieth century writings: “The woman’s outlook on life is to save, to care for, to help. Men make wounds and women bind them up” (McClung, 1915). The negative depictions of Arawelo, in most variants, because of these beliefs and her willingness to act on them, is an indictment of feminism and misandry.
Feminists have attempted to undermine the traditional narrative and its implicit messages with propaganda. They say the queen brought “peace and prosperity” to Somalia and that the tyrannical portrayals of Arawelo are misrepresentations by male storytellers (Chait, 2011). This is contradicted by research into the historical origins of the legend. It is believed that the figure known as Arawelo was not a Somalian monarch but a distorted memory of an Abyssinian queen. This queen, alternatively named Judith, Yodit, or Goudit, was noted for her efforts to eradicate Christendom (Ismail, 2014). Thus, violent interpretations of Arawelo match historical reality.
The legend of Arawelo is about male liberation. It is a story that acknowledges discrimination against boys and men. It is a story that encourages men to fight individuals and systems that would harm them for an accident of birth. It is a story that all men’s rights activists should know since it is their story.
Brownmiller, Susan. (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Fawcett Books.
Chait, M. Sandra. (2011). Seeking salaam : Ethiopians, eritreans, and somalis in the pacific northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 222 – 223.
Drake-Brockman, E. Ralph. (1912). British somaliland. London: Hurst & Blackett. 169 – 172. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.81470/page/n255/mode/2up
Hanghe, A. Ahmed. (1988). Folktales from somalia. Somali Academy of Science and Arts. 131 – 142.
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McClung, Nellie. (1915) In times like these. D. Appleton and Company. 23.
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Porath, Jason. (2016). Rejected princesses. New York: HarperCollins. 327-331.
Arawelo: A modern retelling of the warrior queen. (2018). Queen of Sheba International. Retrieved from https://www.queenofshebainternational.org/post/arawelo-a-modern-retelling-of-the-warrior-queen
Rayne, Henry. (1935). Blackwood’s Magazine, Vol. 238, pp.568-578. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20010627221704/http://www.anaserve.com/~mbali/letter20.htm
Shafi. (2006). The legendary cruelty. Retrieved from https://shafisaid.wordpress.com/2006/03/23/the-legendary-cruelty/
Sharif, Najma. (2018). Araweelo abroad is the website creating a safe space for somali women. Ummadda Media Online. Retrieved from https://www.ummaddamedia.com/araweelo-abroad-is-the-website-creating-a-safe-space-for-somali-women-by-najma-sharif/
Zabus, Chantal. (2007). Between rites and rights: Excision in women’s experiential texts and human contexts. California: Stanford University Press. 29 – 33.