Born in the 7th century, Kahina led the Berber resistance against the Islamic Umayyad tribes in the early stage of the Muslim Conquest in North-Africa.
Known for her great beauty and fierceness in combat, her name remains to this day attached to the Berber identity as well as a highly symbolic feminist figure who inspired many novelists.
Although her amazigh name was Dyhia, the 14th-century historiographer Ibn Khaldun referred to her as al-Kahina, a surname she had been given by the Arabs meaning “prophetess” or “priestess”. The latter seems to have prevailed throughout history, forever synonym for courage and liberty.
Since the rise to power of the first Umayyad caliph Muawiya, Umayyad armies had been moving to conquer the whole of North-Africa.
After inflicting repeated defeats to the occupying Byzantines, their troops took possession of Kairouan, in modern-day Tunisia, in the year 688. Led by general Hassan Ibn Nouaman El Ghissani, they began marching to Carthage. It seems there was no stopping their progression to spread Islam on Berber territory when a woman stood on their way with all her might.
Daughter of the tribal leader Tabat ibn Tifan, Kahina was appointed chef of the Berber resistance after the death of Kusaila, Aksil in amazigh, a prominent Berber leader who had resisted the Umayyad invasions and helped expel the Arabs for more than a decade. His passing at the battle of Mamma by the hand of an army commanded by the caliph Abd-al-Malik could have seen the end of the fight but Kahina would see it perpetuated for at least another ten years.
She managed to unify several Berber tribes of Ifrikiya, from modern-day Algeria to Tunisia, and led them in 697 against general Hasan Ibn Nouaman whose army she crushed near Meskiana, in the east of Algeria. Her victory was so resounding that the Arabs gave the name “Nahr el Bala” to where the battle took place, meaning “river of suffering”. This triumph was short-lived though as Hasan would eventually return with greater force, a thing Kahina knew very well. To strike her enemy at all costs, she is said to have led a scorched-earth campaign on the land, alienating many among her own ranks. However, the accuracy of this claim is still very disputed.
Kahina was met with her demise around 703 or 704 AC, although the precise circumstances of her death are still unclear. Legends say she died a warrior on the battlefield when others claim she committed suicide rather than surrendering to the conquerors. Another legend states she was betrayed by a prisoner she had adopted, who is said to have stabbed her before sending her head to the enemy.
The chronicles written by Ibn Khaldun, another 700 years after her death, contributed to the myth surrounding her persona. The great chronicler indeed painted a very mystic portrait of the Kahina, claiming she had lived 127 years and attributing her many a characteristic of a witch, adding to an abundance of legends that shaped her historical figure and made it withstand the test of time.
The symbolism of her fight was never lost in time as she is still celebrated for her defense of the Berber identity as well as for the values of courage and determination she held high.
The Kabyle poet Kateb Yacine dedicated her fragments of his essay “The War of 2000 Years” in evidence where he also made her a symbol of resistance against the subjugation and enslavement of women with these words:
“They are surprised to see you being led by a woman. (…) To them the prettiest of girls is nothing but a commodity. (…) A free woman outrages them; they say that I am the devil. They cannot understand, blinded by their religion.”
Her independence and strength as a woman, although not unusual in pre-islamic Berber societies, have also been praised by contemporary feminist writers such as Gisèle Halimi or Baya Jurquet-Bouhoune.
For more information on Kahina:
- La Kahina – Gisèle Alimi ( French)
- The War of 2000 Years – Kateb Yacine
- Postcolonial Memories: the Legend of the Kahina, a North African Heroine – Abdelmajid Hannoum
- Un nouveau fragment de l’histoire de l’Occident musulman (62-196/682-812) : l’épopée d’al Kahina – Mohammed Talbi (French)
- Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Lessons) – Ibn Khaldun