Queens, Spies, and Servants: A History of Ethiopian Women in Military Affairs

Above: These female war veterans are pictured in Addis
Ababa’s Menelik Square in 1973 at a ceremony to commemorate
an early victory against the Italians. Photo by Shemelis Desta

By Tseday Alehegn

Chronicles of war and military prowess are plentiful in Ethiopia’s historical literature. Growing up we are effortlessly taught the virtues of honor and duty, which have bestowed sovereignty to generation after generation of Ethiopians. Countless retelling of tales depicting the early and decisive victory at the battle of Adwa remain ever fresh in our proud minds and hearts; the feeling only to be outdone by the resoluteness of heroes who ended the Italian occupation of Ethiopia during the Second World War. Indeed, it is as the 17th century writer Almeida wrote of us: “In war they are reared as children, in war they grow old, or the life of all who are not farmers is war.”

The emphasis on military virtues becomes more palpable when we recognize the unique manner in which Ethiopians chose to fight off their external enemies. From earliest times, both women and men were encouraged to participate in mobilization and preparation efforts. Depicting the atmosphere during the battle of Adwa in 1896, historian G.F. Berkeley observes how the Ethiopian army was not merely organized as a segment of the population, but rather as an entire collective that had integrated the occurrence of war into its normal day-to-day activities. He points out, “It’s not an army [it is] an invasion, the transplanting of the whole people.” No one was left behind. While men served as soldiers they brought along with them their wives who in turn became involved either as civilian participants or as military combatants. What rights, titles, honors men claimed for their valor women were able to do the same.

Females were traditionally not allowed to inherit land unless the father died before the daughter married or there were no sons in the family. However, women would be able to claim property after serving in military mobilization efforts. In an uncommon way, the ability of women to participate on the warfront initiated change to their otherwise lower societal status. Not all participation in war, however, was voluntary as is clearly depicted in the following 19th century edict by the leader Ras Gugsa: “One who does not join the army of Gugsa, man and woman, will lose his genital and her breast respectively.”

Historians have estimated that an average of 20,000 to 30,000 women have participated in the campaign of Adwa alone. While the majority served in non-violent chores such as food preparation and nursing of the wounded, a significant portion served as soldiers, strategists, advisors, translators, and intelligence officers. Women from the aristocracy worked alongside maids and servants thereby breaking norms in class separation.

Female Military Strategists & Combatants:

At a time when women in most parts of the world were relegated to household chores, the number of Ethiopian women in the late 17th century participating in war expeditions against foreign aggressors was on the rise. Whereas most war decrees at this time encouraged all Ethiopians to fight occupation attempts, in 1691 Emperor Iyasu issued one of the first proclamations to curtail the rapid growth of women soldiers. The chronicles report:

“The king had the herald proclaim that the girls of the country must not ride
astride mules, because at this time these girls had adopted the practice of doing
so, tightening the belts of their shirts, covering their heads with their shammas and holding a long spear in their hand..marching in expeditions like men.”

Queen Yodit is one of the earliest-mentioned Ethiopian female leaders who fought spiritedly in battles. She successfully overthrew the powerful Aksumite kingdom, but because many churches and historically important sites were destroyed in the process her reign is infamously described as the dark era. Between 1464 and 1468, under the leadership of King Zere Yaqob, women’s expansion into political positions became more evident. Historian Richard Pankhurst notes how Zere Yaqob “established a women’s administration by appointing his daughters and relatives to key provinces.”

King Zere Yaqob’s wife, Queen Eleni, was an equally formidable and astute military strategist, and was largely responsible for the arrival in 1520 of the Portuguese as one of the first diplomatic missions. Predicting the appetite of Turks in invading Ethiopia’s coastline she proposed a joint attack strategy to the Portuguese leadership against the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks. Sylvia Pankhurst records her letter to the Portuguese summoning a coalition. Queen Eleni is to have written:

“We have heard that the Sultan of Cairo assembles a great army to attack
your forces…against the assault of such enemies we are prepared to send
a good number of men-at-arms who will give assistance in the sea bound
areas…If you wish to arm a thousand warship we will provide the necessary
food and furnish you with everything for such a force in very great abundance.”

The Turks were soundly defeated. Years later Queen Seble Wongel was able to draw on the help of the Portuguese in defeating Ahmed Gragn’s muslim expansion into Ethiopia. In February 1543 her army fought at the battle of Woina Dega where Gragn succumbed to his death.

Harold Marcus documents Queen Worqitu’s history as the warrior queen who helped Menelik gain his crown. In 1865 Queen Worqitu of Wollo granted Menelik a safe route through her territory as the future monarch successfully escaped from King Tewodros’ prison.

The effect of her support in aiding Menelik to power is recorded in Ethiopia’s ensuing transformation from a ‘land of kings’ to a nation ruled by a ‘king of kings.’

Perhaps the most famous queen involved in military affairs is Empress Taitu, wife of Emperor Menelik II. In the battle of Adwa Empress Taitu is said to have commanded an infantry of no less than 5,000 along with 600 cavalry men and accompanied by thousands of Ethiopian women. Her strategy to cut off the invading Italian army’s water supply led to the weakening of the enemies warfront.

Following her example, Itege Menen avidly participated in battles taking places during the ‘Era of the Princes.’ Fighting against the incursion of the Egyptians, she is said to have had 20,000 soldiers under her command. Likewise, during the Italo-Ethiopian occupation, Princess Romanworq Haile Selassie upheld the tradition of women going to the battlefront and she fought alongside her husband.

Intelligence Officers, Advisors, and Translators:

Intelligence work was key in Ethiopia’s gaining the upper hand against fascist Italy and here too women played a significant role in information gathering. Through the establishment of the Central Committee of ‘Wust Arbegnoch’ (Inner Patriots) women members helped provide soldiers with intelligence information as well as arms, ammunition, food, clothing, and medicine. Sylvia Pankhurst also records how the female patriot Shewa Regged had organized an elite Ethiopian intelligence service to gather more arms while leading the Ethiopian guerilla fighters to the locale of Addis Alem to defeat an Italian fortification. Pankhurst recounts Shewa Regged’s resilience in her biography as follows:

“She was captured by the Italians and tortured by them with electricity to compel her to disclose her accomplices; despite all their cruelties, she preserved silence.”

Queen Taitu’s role as advisor is also well known. In depicting the wariness and foresight of Queen Taitu, historian R. Greenfield records her advise to Emperor Menelik and his cabinet regarding the Italian encroachment. She warns:

“Yield nothing. What you give away today will be a future ladder against your
fortress and tomorrow the Italians will come up it into your domains. If you
must lose lands lose them at least with your strong right arms.”

Her dedication and subsequent victory in preserving Ethiopia’s sovereignty won her the title “Berhane ZeEthiopia” (Light of Ethiopia). Her official seal bore this distinguished title.

In the role of translator, Princess Tsehay Haile Selassie served her country by accompanying the Emperor to the League of Nations and aiding in Ethiopia’s call for support from the International Community. The Plea falling on deaf ears the League soon dissolved as the Italians persisted on invading the last free African stronghold. Plunged into war, Empress Menen is to have asserted “Women of the world unite. Demand with one voice that we may be spared the honor of this useless bloodshed!”

Non-Combatant Efforts:

The role of women in Ethiopian military history will remain largely untold if their work as non-combatants is not recalled. It is in this position that the majority of women of the lower class contributed in strengthening Ethiopia’s defense. While some uplifted the morale of the fighting contingent through popular battle songs and poetry, others labored for the daily nourishment and overall well-being of the soldiers. The record of Ethiopia’s long-standing independence will be incomplete without the recognition of thousands of women servants who accompanied women and menfolk of the aristocracy in battle after battle. Maids and servants were responsible for the gathering and preparation of food and other administrative roles. The traveler and writer James Bruce stresses the diligence of these women during war expeditions. He writes in earnest:

“I know of no country where the female works so hard… seldom resting
till late at night, even at midnight grinding, and frequently up before
cockcrow. Tired from the march, no matter how late, water must be brought,
fuel collected, supper prepared by the soldiers’ wife…and before daylight, with
a huge load, she must march again.”

When not involved in presiding over day-to-day affairs women helped out in the clearing of roads, digging of trenches, and nursing of the wounded. In the same spirit, during the Italo-Ethiopian war, Princess Tsehay Haile Selassie helped mobilize women of all classes in efforts to provide gas masks, clothes, rations and bandages to the civilian population to protect against frequent Italian air raids and mustard gas attacks.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, it is appropriate to recognize the achievements of Ethiopia’s women who helped in the creation of a one-of-a-kind defense system, which has successfully deterred foreign aggression not for a few years, but for thousands.

Publisher’s Note: This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Tseday Alehegn directly at: tseday@tadias.com

About the Author:
Tseday Alehegn is the Editor-in-Chief of Tadias Magazine. Tseday is a graduate of Stanford University (both B.A. & M.A.). In addition to her responsibilities at Tadias, she is also a Doctoral student at Columbia University.

8 Responses to “Queens, Spies, and Servants: A History of Ethiopian Women in Military Affairs”

  1. 1 YB Aug 11th, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I enjoyed reading the article. It is beautifully written.

    The name Shewa Regged should be spelled Shewaregged Gadele (her last name).

    I know the spelling because my grandmother was the youngest sister of Shewaregged.

  2. 2 Indrias Getachew Aug 12th, 2008 at 3:39 am

    Great article, and congrats for mainting the magazine.

    Do you write for other publications? Would you be interested in contributing a chapter to an upcoming book on ‘Africa unite’ – a commemoration of the 60th birthday celebration of Bob Marley. We are looking for someone to do a chapter on women in the iberation struggles on the continent.

    My best,

  3. 3 rob k Sep 2nd, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Wonderfully written story!!!

    One Love,
    Rob K

  4. 4 mg Sep 9th, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Eritrea should also be noted in this discussions esp since it was a part of Ethiopia and it had the 2nd largest female army in the world. The females played a large role in getting rid of the Italians from East Africa and securing Eritrean’s independence.

  5. 5 AZ Dec 6th, 2008 at 1:43 am

    It is absolutly remakable histroy that our ancestors left for us, i think we all should remain equally united as an Ethiopian.


  6. 6 Steve Jan 14th, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Wonderful story,
    I believe Ethiopia is one of the greatest african country that deserve all my respect. However, we must all be united to fight the traffic of our daughters, our sisters in the middle east(qatar, jordan, lebanon , baharain saudi arabia gulf ..etc where they are called sharamuta black slaves or bitch slaves) to preserve our dignity, I was so shocked to know our sisters have been enticed for good money and job and end up in every family being badly sexually abused…go to http://www.google.com and search ethiopian maids in lebanon and you will see.

  7. 7 Binayew Aug 18th, 2010 at 7:27 am

    I found “history of Ethiopian Women…” interesting .The effort made to unearth the history of Ethiopian women need to be appreciated. Keep it up Tseday.

  8. 8 hager wodad Mar 17th, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    What a fabulous story! I am very proud of Tadias Magazine! Thank you from the heart!

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