Khawlah bint al-Azwar خولة بنت الأزور – c.7th Century – Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Kawlah bint al-Azwar

Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a warrior like no other. Born during the 7th century, the daughter of a chief of the Bani Assad tribe, her family was amoung the first to convert to Islam, during the life of Mohammed.

Living during the times of the Muslim conquests, she clearly had some serious military training behind her. In fact, the first time we hear about Khawlah is in the heat of battle. She was working as a combat nurse during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uquab in 634 when her brother, Zirrar (sometimes Dhirrar), the commander of the Rashidun army, was wounded and captured by the Byzantine army.

Khalid ibn Walid, the leader of the Muslim forces, set off on a rescue mission, and Khawlah went with them. She dressed as an ordinary soldier in an attempt to blend in – but her bravery in singledhandedly fighting off the Byzantine rear guard made her somewhat conspicuous.  In fact, she so distinguished herself that the soldiers who saw her fight thought she must be Khalid himself.

When the Byzantines finally fled the battlefield, Khalid came to find the warrior he had heard so much about. He found Khawlah drenched in blood and asked her to lower her veil. Her identity revealed, Khalid ordered his army to chase the remaining Byzantine soldiers – led by Khawlah.

Khawlah fought alongside Khalid and her brother many more times. In another battle she was knocked off her horse and captured by the enemy. As a woman, she did not have the rights a male captured soldier had. She was the spoils of war.

But the enemy had sorely underestimated her. Imprisoned alongside other women captives, Khawlah got organised. She led the women as they tore the camp apart, using the enemy’s tent poles as weapons, killing thirty Byzantine knights as they escaped.

Today Khawlah is honoured in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East as a heroine. The Iraqi all-women military unit is named the Khawlah bint al-Azwar unit, and the first military college for women in the UAE is called the Khawlah bint Al Azwar Training College.


References:

On Wikipedia:

Chen Shuozhen 陳碩真 – d. 653 – Muzhou, China

Ancient China, China

Chen Shuozhen

China is no stranger to women warriors, but while Fu Hao, Mother Lü, Yuenü, and Princess Pingyang were all rabble rousers from noble houses, Chen Shuozhen came from more humble origins.

A peasant woman living in Muzhou, Tang dynasty China (modern day Chun’an, Zhejiang), we know very little about Chen Shuozhen’s background prior to the rebellion in 653. She would have lived through the last years of Emperor Taizong’s reign, during which there was likely a recession in China due to some large building projects.

Taizong’s successor, Gaozong, was seen as a weak ruler, and wars at the Chinese boarders during the early years of his reign caused further discontent among the common people.

Against this backdrop of general discontent and poverty Chen Shuozhen led a rebel army of more than 14,000 soldiers. Historical sources say that she rang bells and burned incense as she marched, leading some to believe that there were religious motivations behind the uprising.

She declared herself Emperor Wenjia – becoming the first woman in Chinese history to declare herself emperor (more than forty years before Wu Zetian) and took three cities before she could be stopped.

Though the rebellion lasted only two months, Chen Shuozhen’s name lived on in Chinese folklore as a hero and the first woman to claim the title of emperor.


References:

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644 – Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles

On Wikipedia:

Princess Pingyang 平陽公主 – 598 – 623 – China

Ancient China, China

Pingyang

By single-handedly amassing an army of 70,000, Princess Pingyang was a key player in the destruction of the Sui dynasty and the foundation of the Tang dynasty – a golden age for China.

The daughter of a military commander, Li Yuan, and the wife of the chief of the imperial palace guards, Pingyang was a noble lady and a prominent figure at court. China had only recently been united under the Sui dynasty, and in the early 600s was under the control of Emperor Yangdi – an immensely unpopular ruler.

Yangdi spent China’s money on expensive invasions into surrounding Asia, dangerous construction projects like rebuilding the great wall (which caused millions of deaths) – and attempted to pay for everything through heavy taxation.

The imprisonment of Li Yuan was the final straw, and as soon as he was released he and Pingyang’s husband left the imperial palace to mount a rebellion. Pinyang stayed behind in a highly vulnerable position as the wife and daughter of two insurgents.

Pingyang was made of stern stuff, however, and eventually left the palace herself, heading for the safety of her family’s feudal lands in Hu county. Thanks to Yangdi’s oppressive policies, the people there were starving, having suffered a drought without being offered relief by the government. Pingyang flew into action, offering the people food from her own family’s stores and winning their loyalty.

Pingyang continued to work covertly to ally herself with other local rebel forces and so building her own army, which later became known as the Woman’s Army. She herself dressed in male military uniform, marching at the head of her troops like a general.

She was a strict leader, forbidding looting, raping or pillaging, in order to keep the rural people on her side. Wherever Pingyang’s Woman’s Army triumphed, they shared the food with the locals, and came to be seen as heroic liberators.

Eventually, thanks in part to Pingyang’s efforts, the Sui dynasty was defeated and Yangdi fled for his life. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, and Pingyang was given the title ‘Princess’. She was also given the rank of marshal, and conferred all the honours due to an imperial prince.

Princess Pingyang died very young, at the age of twenty three. Her grief stricken father ordered an elaborate military funeral. When advisors complained that it was highly irregular to have such an extravagant ceremony for a woman, he replied –

“She was no ordinary woman.”


References:

Notable Women of ChinaBarbara Bennett Peterson

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles

On Wikipedia:

Princess Pingyang

Mavia ماوية – Reigned 375 – 425 – Syria

Ancient Syria, Syria

Mavia

A century after Zenobia set her sights on taking Egypt from the Roman Empire, another Arab queen attempted the same thing. Where Zenobia had failed, Mavia not only succeeded – but also made Rome sign a treaty in her favour.

Also known as Māwiyya, this fierce warrior queen ruled a confederation of Arab tribes (known as the Tanukhids) from her seat in southern Syria. Her husband had been king of the Tanukhids and once he died his power passed to Mavia.

She proved herself equal to the task, leading her army in open rebellion against Roman rule in the Middle East. Mavia rode at the head of her cavalry, leading troops into Phoenica (modern day Israel, Lebanon and Syria) and Palestine before finally reaching Egypt.

In Egypt Mavia met the Roman army in battle again and again, defeating them each time. Eventually, Rome consented to a truce – but Mavia set the conditions.

Mavia was a successful general and ruler largely because of her use of guerrilla tactics. Rather than fight from Aleppo, which would have given the Romans a target, she retreated with her troops into the desert, drawing on the nomadic tribe’s knowledge of the terrain. As a result, the Tanukhids were better prepared than the Romans and able to keep them guessing.

As for her conditions for peace, Mavia requested that a monk named Moses be made bishop over her people. Moses was supposedly a desert dwelling Christian Arab who impressed Mavia – and who possibly convinced her to convert to Christianity. To prove that she honoured the truce, Mavia married her daughter Chasidat to a Roman commander.

Peace was temporary.

Rome was soon at war with the Goths (in Eastern Germany) and called upon Mavia’s formidable forces for assistance. She provided cavalry, but her Arab army was not prepared for the environment of northern Europe and the Goths won, killing Roman emperor Valens.

The new emperor Theodosius I gave the Gothic kings and nobles a number of high profile positions within the Roman Empire at the expense of the Arabs. Furious at the lack of respect shown for their loyalty, the Tanukhids revolted a second time in 383. It is not clear whether or not Mavia led this revolt, but it was certainly the end of the Tanukh-Roman alliance.


References:

God’s Self-confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women – Anne Jensen

Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs – Irfan Shahîd

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth CenturyIrfan Shahîd

On Wikipedia:

Xun Guan – 3rd Century – Xiangyang city, China

Ancient China, China

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Xun Guan was born at a time of turbulence and uncertainty for feudal China. Her father, Xun Song, was the governor of Xiangyang (also Xiangcheng) during the last years of the Western Jin dynasty (265 – 316).

She was thirteen years old and with her father when their city came under attack from the insurgent Du Zeng, who had amassed some 2000 troops and surrounded the city. Under siege and low on supplies, Xun Song found himself in a desperate situation. If he could just get word to Shi Lan, a general and ally in neighbouring Pinyang, then perhaps they could send supplies and reinforcements – but to do this someone would have to break through Du Zeng’s forces.

It was a dangerous mission, one that no one was willing to take. As food supplies dwindled further, Xun Song prepared himself to carry out the task himself. Xun Guan stopped him.

His young daughter was adamant that he must stay with his people, who needed his leadership now more than ever. Instead, she volunteered to lead a small party past the enemy line and go for help herself.

Though she was only thirteen, Xun Guan clearly had some military training and was a persuasive speaker, because her father allowed her to go. She waited for night to fall, when she knew that Du Zeng’s soldiers lowered their guard, and managed to escape the city unscathed.

From there, she headed straight to Pinyang where she pleaded to Shi Lan for help. She also wrote a letter on behalf of her father to General Zhou Fang in the south, asking for further reinforcements. Zhou sent 3000 men at once and the two armies fell upon the besieged city, forcing Du Zeng to retreat.

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Xun Guan (source)

Once the city was freed, Shi Lan commented to Xun Song:”You daughter is clever and brave. I am envious of you!”

Zhou Fang added:

“Xiangyang is no longer under siege and the people are saved. Respect and thanks to young Xun Guan!”


References:

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E – 618 C.E. Lily Xiao Hong Lee, A. D. Stefanowska, Sue Wiles

Xun GuanCultural China

Zenobia – 240 – c.274 – Palmyrene Empire

Ancient Syria

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Syrian warrior queen Zenobia was another in a long line of women to cause trouble for the Roman Empire.

Born in Palmyra, her origins are mysterious – the Greeks called her Zenobia, her Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia and in Arabic she is called al-Zabba (الزباء‎). Some historians describe her as having Jewish heritage, others that she was the daughter of a sheikh, or that her father was the Roman Governor of Palmyra.

Wherever she came from, Zenobia had no problem coming up with her own family history. She claimed to be a descendant of the Ptolemies – related to queen Cleopatra herself, as well as Dido, the legendary goddess-queen of Carthage.

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Coin featuring Zenobia (Source)

Her lineage is uncertain, but Zenobia definitely did speak the ancient Egyptian language, and may have learnt from her mother who is thought to have been part-Egyptian. Zenobia was also described as very beautiful and highly intelligent, just like Cleopatra. She was well educated and spoke Latin, Greek and Aramaic fluently. In addition, Zenobia was physically strong, being an accomplished horsewoman and huntress.

She was married to the king of Palmyra, Septimus Odaenathus when she was about eighteen. He already had a son from a previous marriage, and in 266 Zenobia gave birth to her own son, Vaballathus.

When Varballathus was only a year old, the king and his eldest son were assassinated. Zenobia became the sole ruler of Palmyra until her son came of age.

She lost no time in securing her power, and immediately began planning conquests to expand the limits of her empire. At this time, Zenobia had the full backing of Rome as a client queen. She was expected to protect her borders and the eastern empire from the neighbouring Sassanid Empire – so it was within her remit to attack on these fronts.

In 269, she went too far.

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and her General Zabdas marched their army into Egypt, violently defeating the Roman forces. They captured the Roman Prefect in charge of the region and beheaded him, proclaiming Zenobia queen of Egypt.

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Zenobia’s empire shown in yellow (Source)

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Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz (Source)

From there, she pressed on into Anatolia, then Palestine and Lebanon. These were all hugely important trade routes in the classical world, which the Roman Empire depended upon. Zenobia claimed them for herself and for her son.

Emperor Aurelian had finally had enough in 272. His forces clashed with Zenobia’s army in Antioch and defeated the Palmyrenes, who retreated to Emesa, where Zenobia had a treasury. Aurelian was hot on her heals and besieged the city, forcing Zenobia to escape with Varballathus on the back of a camel.

This last desperate attempt at escape failed, and Aurelian’s cavalry captured the Queen before she could get home to Palmyra. Zenobia’s Empire came to an end. She was taken back to Rome in chains and eight year old Varballathus is presumed to have died on the voyage.

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The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717 (Source)

It’s not clear what happened next for this fierce ruler. One version of her story claims that she either committed suicide or was excecuted in Rome. Another that she happily married a Roman senator and became a prominent philosopher and socialite.


In fiction:

Geoffrey Chaucer gives a short version of the story of Zenobia in The Monk’s Tale.

A number of operas have been written about the life and exploits of queen Zenobia by various authors including: Tomaso Albinoni (1694), Leonardo Leo (1725), Johann Adolph Hasse (1761), Pasquale Anfossi (1789), Giovanni Paisiello (1790), Gioachino Rossini (1819) and Mansour Rahbani (2007).

Lebanese singer Fairuz performed a song called Zenobia in 1977.

Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker is a historical romance novel fictionalising the life of Zenobia.


 

References:

BBC’s In Our Time featuring a discussion on Zenobia.

Zenobia, Queen of the East, Or, Letters from Palmyra, Volume 2 – William Ware

Empress Zenobia: Palmyra s Rebel Queen – Pat Southern

On Wikipedia:

 

Lady Triệu – 225 – 248 – Vietnam

Vietnam

Lady Trieu

Almost two centuries after the rise and fall of the warrior sisters Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, Vietman was still under Chinese rule. The native people continued to resist foreign domination, and uprisings were a regular occurrence.

It was time for another heroine.

Lady Triệu (also known as Triệu Thị Trinh) was a young woman who refused to go down without a fight. She ran away from her village into the forest, where she gathered an army to take on the Chinese.

Her brother tried to stop her and convince her to settle down, but she shook him off, assuring him that she was meant for better things:

“I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.”

《欽定越史通鑑綱目》卷首This was a difficult argument to ignore, and her brother chose to join her.

Lady Triệu is described by Vietnamese sources as literally larger than life at 9 feet tall, with a voice like a ‘temple bell’. Like all good heroes she had stamina, and could walk 500 leagues in one day.

Historians describe Lady Triệu as riding war-elephants into battle and wearing yellow tunics, gaining the title ‘Nhụy Kiều Tướng quân’ – the Lady General clad in Golden Robes. Her gaze was supposedly so fierce that the Chinese soldiers were afraid to meet her eyes.

Sadly, like her predecessors the Tru’ng sisters, Lady Triệu’s rebellion did not last. Unable to gain enough support to grow her army, Lady Triệu was eventually defeated in 248. According to legend she was so brokenhearted at the loss that she killed herself.

However, a small thing like being dead would not stop her from being a nuisance to the Chinese, and legend says that her spirit haunted the Chinese general who had beaten her. Her memory continued to offer hope and support to the subjugated Vietnamese for centuries and today she is a celebrated national hero.

Den-tho-ba-trieu

Bà Triệu Temple

 


 

References:

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set  Bonnie G. Smith

The Birth of Vietnam Keith Weller Taylor

On Wikipedia:


 

Image credits:

By 阮朝國史館(Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn) – National Library of Vietnam, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6446560

View from outside of the gate of Bà Triệu Temple in Hậu Lộc District, Thanh Hóa Province By Mai Trung Dung – Own work, Public Domain

Empress Jingū 神功皇后 – c.169 – 269 – Japan

Ancient Japan

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The story of Empress Jingū is entrenched in legend. Until the early 20th century she was considered a historical figure and the 15th imperial ruler of Japan. Since then her historicity has been re-evaluated, and Jingū has been removed from the traditional order of succession.

The sources say that she was married to Emperor Chūai and acted as his consort until his death in 201. After this Jingū acted as Empress Regent to her son, Ōjin, until he took the throne in 270.

Many of the Japanese Emperors from this time period lack solid historical evidence, including Ōjin and Jingū. There are certainly aspects of Jingū’s story which seem fantastical to us today. She supposedly owned two divine jewels which gave her the power to control the tides, and used them to carry out a bloodless conquest of Korea.

EmpressJinguInKorea

Empress Jingū. Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1880) – Source

While there is no evidence that Japan had conquered Korea during the timeframe given for Jingū’s rule, some sources do demonstrate Japanese presence in southern Korea by the 4th century. Korean and Chinese records also describe Japan (known then as Wa) as ‘the Queen’s land’.

The legend also states that Jingū conceived her son before her husband died, but did not give birth for three years while she completed her conquest. It could be simply that the calculations for the pregnancy were incorrect, or that Ōjin was only symbolically the son of Chūai, and his biological father was someone else.

Jingū has a specially designated tomb in modern day Nara and in 1881 became the first woman featured on a Japanese banknote.


References:

The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō – Jien, Delmer Myers Brown, Ichirō Ishida

Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan –  Chieko Irie Mulhern

On Wikipedia:

 

 

 

The Trưng Sisters – c. 12 – 43 – Jiaozhi, Vietnam

Vietnam

When the enemy is at the gate, the woman goes out fighting

(Old Vietnamese adage)

TrungSisters

Though they are sadly not as well-known as western warrior women like Boudica, the story of Vietnamese sisters Trưng Trắc (徵側) and Trưng Nhị (徵貳) and their rebellion against Imperial China is just thrilling and vivid.

Born in Jiaozhi, Northern Vietnam, the Trưng sisters were raised in a noble military household, where they learned martial arts from their father, a prefect of Mê Linh. They grew into intelligent and accomplished young women, and when a neighbouring prefect came to visit their father, his son, Thi Sách, could not help but fall in love with the elder sister, Trưng Trắc.

The pair were very happily married. However, this was no fairytale ending, as the two families were living under the Chinese Han dynasty, who had invaded and conquered Northern Vietnam some decades earlier.

The native Vietnamese were extremely unhappy by what they viewed as their oppression under Chinese rule, and there are many accounts of the Hans forcing the Vietnamese to assimilate to Chinese culture as they pushed further southwards.

The newly married Thi Sách chose to rebel, and was executed for his insurrection. Motivated by this cruel injustice, the Trưng sisters sprang into action, assembling an army of both men and women to drive out the Chinese.

The rebellion was immensely successful, taking back as many as 65 citadels and liberating Nanyue within months. Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were appointed queens of Nanyue and held off the Han for over three years from 40 – 43 CE.

A memorial parade for the sisters in Ho Chi Min City

A memorial parade for the sisters in Ho Chi Min City

Unfortunately, nothing could keep the Han dynasty back forever, and the reign of the sisters was short lived. Both Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were defeated in battle in 43 – some sources say they were executed, others say they committed suicide once they saw the battle was lost.

Whatever happened, the legacy of the Trưng Sisters remains revered in Vietnam. It was the first resistance movement against the Chinese after over 200 years of subjugation. There is a district in Hanoi named after the women, as well as many streets in large cities and several schools. In addition there are a number of temples dedicated to the Trưng Sisters and a yearly holiday is observed in February commemorating their deaths.

“All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission, Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country”

– 15th Century Vietnamese poem


References:

Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past Patricia M. Pelley

The Birth of Vietnam – Keith Weller Taylor

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

On a sunny day in Saigon, national heroines of Viet Nam are honored with a parade of elephants and floats” by SAS Scandinavian Airlines – http://images.flysas.com.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mother Lü – d. 18 – Haiqu County, China

Ancient China, China

Mother Lu

Xin Dynasty China was a dangerous place. A feudal state, the ruling classes had almost total power over the working farmers. Not only this, but struggles between the nobility were also common and regions were often at war as men grappled for power.

One such man was Wang Mang, who usurped the imperial throne in year 9. He was not a popular ruler; many of his policies, such as income tax and land redistribution, were seen as attacks on landowners. On top of this, the Yellow River flooded which led to a terrible famine.

Wang’s troubles truly began in 14, when one of his magistrates ordered the execution of Lü Yu, a young civil servant.

Big mistake: for Lü’s mother it was the final straw. Mother Lü (we do not know her personal name) was furious at the murder of her son, and was not the kind of woman who would let it rest.

Mother Lü happened to be exceedingly wealthy – wealthy enough to hire her own army. In a region full of dissatisfied and desperate men, it was not difficult for this lady to amass thousands of recruits and have them armed.

Haiqu County

Haiqu County

Appointing herself General, she marched her troops to the capital and had the magistrate who executed her son beheaded. Having taken her revenge, Mother Lü presented the severed head to her son’s tomb as an offering. She then led her troops out to sea, where they planned to become pirates.

Grief and military life had taken its toll and shortly after these events Mother Lü took ill and died in year 18.

She had been the first Chinese woman to lead a rebellion and her legacy continued. The ripples Mother Lü started soon became waves as her armies expanded and eventually defeated Wang Mang.


References:

Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 2 – edited by Junius P. Rodriguez

Women in Early Imperial China Bret Hinsch

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

ChinaShandongRizhao” by No machine-readable author provided. Plastictv~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons