Researcher reclaims 16th century Moroccan woman leader from obscurity

LAWRENCE – While growing up in Morocco, Amal El Haimeur was never taught about Sayyida al-Hurra, the country’s 16th century “pirate queen” who overcame sexism to lead and defend the people of her city-state and region.

So when El Haimeur, now an assistant teaching professor of African & African American studies at the University of Kansas, read a passing reference to al-Hurra in a book titled "The Forgotten Queens of Islam," she went looking for more information about her. But there was hardly any.

Thus, El Haimeur embarked on a research project that took her to cities and archives across Morocco and resulted in the article titled “Sayyida al-Hurra: A Forgotten North African Queen and Military Leader” in the first edition of the new scholarly journal Africana Annual, based in KU’s Department of African & African-American Studies.

“I went to the 2022 summer book fair in Rabat, with publishers coming from all over the Arab world and Africa. I thought I would find resources there, but I did not find anything available about her,” El Haimeur said.

Editors and bookstore owners told her they had nothing available on her scholarly search, El Haimeur said.

“So I decided to go to Chefchaouen, her hometown. There is an educational center there, and they connected me with two historians — one who lives there and the other who lives in Rabat.”

El Haimeur said Ali Risouni and Fatima Bouchmal provided her with copies of history books that cite both primary and secondary sources about al-Hurra and that are unavailable elsewhere — neither commercially nor in libraries.

El Haimeur took pictures or made copies of the materials.

“There is not another edition available,” El Haimeur said. “It's really sad that resources are not available about her.”

Rectifying this lack of information about al-Hurra – particularly in English — was one of El Haimeur’s purposes in writing the article about her. El Haimeur’s translations of the Arabic writings the Moroccan scholars loaned her are the basis for the article’s narrative.

The KU researcher said that al-Hurra’s family status as sharifis, or descendants of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, gave al-Hurra a certain degree of power. Her father founded Chefchaouen, building the fortress there that today serves as a museum. He was a trained military leader, and she learned tactics and strategy from him. 

She learned naval warfare from her first husband, Moulay Ali al-Mandri. El Haimeur said that Muslim leaders considered these high-seas actions to be jihad, or justified warfare, while Europeans considered them piracy.

In addition to Arabic, al-Hurra spoke Spanish and Portuguese, giving her an advantage in diplomacy with those countries.

El Haimeur writes that al-Hurra’s two marriages served to make alliances with nearby rulers to strengthen their conjoined political entities. It was while al-Mandri was away on military missions that al-Hurra began her rule. She later led pirate raids against the Spanish and Portuguese in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, earning the nickname “the pirate princess of jihad.”

The al-Hurra family had been victims of the Reconquista expulsion of Muslims from Andalusian Granada, El Haimeur writes, and they feared further losses. 

El Haimeur writes that, in addition to keeping her enemies off balance, “Piracy gave al-Hurra revenue as well as a means to strengthen diplomatic relationships with foreign countries.”

Following al-Mandri’s death, al-Hurra took over as governor of the Mediterranean port city Tetouan and the surrounding area. She led the northern part of Morocco in the midst of ongoing conflicts between the Iberian powers and the north African Muslim kingdoms.

Al-Hurra’s second marriage, to Sultan Ahmad al-Wattasi, was less successful. The couple never lived together, and the Wattasid clan was overthrown by an alliance that included al-Hurra’s own brother.

El Haimeur said she is pleased to have brought al-Hurra’s story to a wider audience in the English-speaking world with her article. And in fact, she has heard from a Moroccan publisher who wishes to publish it as a booklet in Arabic, to be distributed in her home country.

Wed, 04/17/2024


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service