To the east of Algiers is a rugged mountainous region, the Kabylia, whose loftiest peak is named after a holy woman, Lalla Khadija. The Berber-speaking inhabitants have always been known for their spirit of independence as well as for the veneration they accord to local Muslim saints, male and female. Fatima N’Soumer, a Berber holy woman, was born in 1830, the year of the French invasion of Algeria. Clad in a red cloak, she led armed resistance to the French military assaults upon the Kabyle mountains from 1854 to 1857. Fighting side by side with the men, she and her followers were able to beat off the army—for a while. As a result of her actions, Fatima’s political and religious influence stretched all over the Kabylia, where her disciples believed that she had miraculous powers from God to cure the sick, ward off evil, and foretell the future in oracles. Nevertheless, outnumbered and lacking sufficient military equipment, she was captured by the French army in July of 1857, which ended militant Kabyle resistance for the time being. Fatima was imprisoned for the next six years and, as a result, her health deteriorated; she died in 1863 at the age of 33 years. Her memory, however, has persisted to this day in oral traditions.
Fatima’s leadership role in anticolonial resistance raises questions about women and warfare during the 19th-century expansion of European empires in Africa and Asia. What kinds of traditions existed in communities, like the Berber Kabyles, that allowed women a major part in militant action? An account written by a French military officer, Carette, who traveled through the Kabylia in the 1830s and 1840s, provides an eyewitness account of the region’s traditions regarding women and war.
Source: Captain Carette. “Algérie.” In L’Univers pittoresque, Histoire et description de tous les peuples, de leurs religions, moeurs, coutumes, industrie. Paris: Firmin Didot, 1850.
Almost all [Kabyle] women follow their brothers and husbands [into battle]. They are even seen in the midst of the battle, encouraging the combatants with their cries, caring for the wounded, helping to carry the dead off the battlefield, sharing in the dangers of the struggle—in the pain of defeat or the joy of victory. Bloody examples prove the part that these women play in holy war [against the French army]. In December 1834, a Kabyle woman served as a foot soldier in an attack against a [French military] a cavalry charge; her body was discovered among the dead afterwards. In a military confrontation in 1835, fourteen women were killed or wounded. Finally in June 1836, I saw the widow of a Kabyle religious leader, who had been killed the day before in combat, arrive at the head of a column of Berber warriors. She remained at the site of her husband’s death weeping and wailing despite the fact that bullets [from French rifles] rained about her for an hour.