Monday, September 25, 2023
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What is driving the Arawelo phenomenon?

By Abdi Mohamud

The story of the old Somali queen, Arawelo, has been told countless times for centuries. It has been told and retold again and again because every generation has found it fascinating.  Arawelo’s ability to govern and to subdue her subjects seems to be a source of much awe, reverence and fear for today’s people as it has been for many others since time immemorial. However, the interest shown towards her today by people across the world is unparalleled. Since the advent of the internet, her story has travelled across continents. Today, you will find Nigerians, Americans and people in other nations commenting on Queen Arawelo and her remarkable ability to prevail over her adversaries and disappoint all who challenged her rule and kingdom.

Portraits of Queen Arawelo; credit WP- Rachel Idzerda.

People imagine and reimagine her story. Some add new things to it and others omit some aspects of the story. Even her name has taken variations in spelling and pronunciation. While the accepted and correct spelling of her name is Arawelo, it is not

uncommon to see people writing it as Carrawelo, Carawelo, Arrawelo and so on. Different forms of spelling compel us to say or pronounce her name in different ways. The variations in her name in writing and in spelling create problems for those of us who are familiar with the queen. You may sometimes assume that people are referring to a different character and specific stories pertinent to it. In such circumstances, things may take a different outlook and meaning, which create doubts on familiar characters and stories. So there is a need to resist the careless interferences coming from uninformed groups who are attempting to create a new identity for our queen. Her name and story should remain as pure as they have been for centuries.

The consensus on Arawelo among the Somalis before the story was internationalized was that she was a cruel and crass queen. It is reported that she would castrate male members in her kingdom. And that is why many men hate and despise her even today. However, women have never detested the queen as much as men. Whether the queen was a champion for women’s rights is debatable but a perception to that effect is often created. During Arawelo’s reign, women were ministers, advisers and courtiers. It is also believed that she had commanded the army of female brigades.They were defenders and servers of the queen. She trusted women because she found them less threatening and more cooperative while men posed a constant threat to her kingdom and life. The castration technique was a severe and inhumane punishment meted out, I believe, on those who were in contest with her for power and not on all men. She may have found this punishment deterrent enough for those who set their eyes on her throne.

It is interesting to note that Arawelo did not eliminate her opponents as the custom has been for autocratic rulers throughout history. She opted for lesser punishment: castration. It is not clear why she chose this method of punishment, but it is likely that she understood the usefulness of male population for her kingdom. Men were needed to till the land, tend livestock, do construction and much more. So she desired to inflict enough pain to keep them alive and useful for society. Another plausible argument could be made that the queen was more humanethan she is usually portrayed. The fact that she refrained from resorting to capital punishment and slaughtering them may be a sufficient reason to believe that she was not as cruel and ruthless as we may think she was.

Today, Somali women adore and revere her more than ever before. And as indicated above, non-Somalis are also enthused with the Somali Queen.  Renewed interest in Arawelo is palpable and widespread. Some are choosing her name as their first name, some as middle and others as last name. Her name and story have gained more prominence and acceptance lately than anytime in history. So one may wonder where this new interest in Arawelo is coming from. Are women putting men on notice informing them that their power and will are as strong as those of Queen Arawelo? If that is the case, isn’t their argument plausible considering Somali women’s prominence in politics, beauty, business and in many other spheres? It seems that women are outperforming men and wielding more power in the corridors of privilege and authority. This shift of power dynamics is what arguably drives the new Arawelo phenomenon.

The list of trailblazing Somali women who have achieved great successes across industries and professions such as politics, academia, fashion, and so on is lengthy and impressive. Examples of women whom I believe are our “modern-day Arawelos” are the Deputy speaker of the Golaha Shacabka in Somalia, Sacdiya Yasin Xaji Dahir, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, former Mayor of Maine who is now a member of the Maine House of representatives, Deqa Dhala, the first Vice President of the Norwegian Socialist Party, Maryan Hussein, model Halima Aden, and multi-millionaire entrepreneur, Amina Moghe Hersi. Each one is an Arawelo in her own right. What drives and makes them successful is an inherent strength, courage and determination possessed by all Somali women. Their qualities and successes are not unique but are traits evident in every Somali woman.

The Arawelo in them pushes them to reach new heights and break high ceilings. Their achievements in male-dominated business and political landscapes are nothing short of miracles. They make indelible marks on countries and communities to which they are new and are total strangers. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Maine House Representative Deqa Dhala are living examples of Somali women’s abilities to beat all odds. A few months back, it was reported that the Deputy Speaker Sacdiya Yasin Xaji Dahir ascended to presidency, reaching the highest zenith of power. She rightfully usurped power when both her bosses happened to be away from the country. Absence of the nation’s President and Speaker of the Parliament was an opportunity for her to take the reins. She commanded the whole nation and directed its affairs effectively. This was a remarkable, historic moment. It was the first time a Somali woman occupied such an alleviated seat in the nation. Her accomplishments engendered a lot of interest so the probability is now even higher that women will be a real challenge to the patriarchy.

In conclusion, Arawelo remains an inspiration and a symbol of determination and independence for Somali women. Whether she was a real queen who wielded a lot of power and commanded respect or whether she is a mythical queen, fantasized in a fantasy world is an unsettled matter.  And yet there may be some truth to the claim by some that Arawelo was a real queen.  Some even assert that she was a contemporary with Jesus Christ and lived in the first century. I hope this debate about her intensifies more interest in the public. Somali mythologists and researchers should take this matter seriously. They owe the nation in-depth analysis, scholarly explanations and facts about the great Somali queen.

Abdi Mohamud
Email: [email protected]

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