Women Writing Africa: a catalogue of women scholars across the African continent from antiquity until the 19th century
A catalogue of 33 scholars in 5 countries.
Women contributed greatly to Africa's intellectual history, but given the nascent nature of studies on the continent's intellectual past, the writings of African women scholars have often been overlooked and the translation and interpretation of the documents written by individual women scholars is scarce.
Fortunately, there are number of remarkable women scholars whose intellectual reputation was well established and is preserved in internal accounts as well as the scholar's own writings. These women scholars included not just royal and elite women, but also independent writers, religious figures, teachers and students. Their compositions covered a wide range of subjects including history, religion, statecraft, society and cultural norms. A particular field Women scholars excelled at was poetry, which is one of the most popular forms of literature on the continent and is one of the most attested among the collections of African manuscripts, as such, many that appear on this list composed works of poetry alongside other forms of literature.
This article is a short catalogue listing some of the best known African Women scholars until the 19th century, including their published works as well as links to collections of their manuscripts online.
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Women scholars from ancient Kush and medieval Ethiopia.
The ancient Kingdom of Kush and the medieval empire of Ethiopia possesses some of Africa's oldest writing traditions and it's from these that some of the oldest extant works written by women have been documented.
Women writing Kush.
Kush during the Meroitic era (300BC-360AD) produced a voluminous literary corpus of royal inscriptions, donation records, funerary texts, inventory lists, royal daybooks, and annals that are preserved as inscriptions on stone tablets and temple graffito (as well as a now vanished documentation on papyrus-paper).1
Despite this however, few individual scribes (authors) are known by name; partly because the scribes were often (unnamed) learned priests (who also included women), that were educated and active in archives attached to the principal Kushite temples2, but also because the meroitic script has only been partially deciphered.3
Modern researchers propose that the royal inscriptions in particular were often fully authored or co-authored by the same royals who commissioned them4, and given the expansion of the literate class during the meroitic era to include a large "middle class" including the non-royal elite, the provincial elite, the priesthood of all ranks, local administrators, their wives and children"5, as well as the ascendance of Women sovereigns who composed their own royal inscriptions, its likely that the royal inscriptions attributed to Kushite women were fully or partially authored by them.
These documents include; the various monumental stelae of Queen Amanirenas and Queen Amanishakheto written in the 1st century BC6
victory stela of Queen Amanirenas and Akinidad from the Kushite city of Hamadab, sudan recounting several battles won against their enemies ( no. EA1650, British Museum) commemorative stela of queen Amanishaketo found in the Kushite city of Naga, Sudan
Women writing Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia women were part of the laity7, they owned property and could issue land grants, a number of these land grants issued by women are documented from as early as the 14th century (although the exact authorship is unknown)8. As members of the laity, Ethiopian women received elementary education could also be part of the däbtära9, the latter was a literate ecclesiastical class which attained its education from ethiopia’s monastic school system and served in prominent positions of ethiopian society10. Their inclusion among the dabtara explains why several internal and external accounts refer to the presence of educated Ethiopian women (often royals) especially during the 16th-17th century gondarine period when literate women were active in resisting Portuguese attempts at undermining the Ethiopian church.11
Two prominent figures among the royal women scholars were Queen Eleni (d. 1524) and Queen Mentewab. Eleni authored atleast two hymn collections including; “Ḫoḫtä Bərhan” (Gate of Light) and the “Enzira Səbḥat” (Lyre of Praise) in the early 16th century, although neither of these is extant12. Mentwewab reigned with almost complete authority during the regency of her son Iyasu II( r 1730-1755) and grandson Iyoas (r 1755-1769), and was also assisted by several prominent women in government and she is known to have issued many land grants.13
Atleast one extant work is reputed to have been co-authored by a woman. The hagiography “Gädlä Wälättä Pəṭros” (The Life and Struggles of Wälättä Peṭros) written in 1671 about the 17th century ethiopian woman and saint Walatta Petros (b. 1593–d. 1643), was co-authored Eḫətä Krəstos, an associate of Walata, she is know to have assisted the main author Gälawdewos.14
folios from “Gädlä Wälättä Pəṭros” (from private collection15)
Women scholars of the East African coast: the Swahili city-states of Lamu and Siyu
The Swahili scholarly tradition possesses some of the oldest known works from the continent written by female authors. Included in the Swahili curriculum was poetry and grammar, and compared to their peers, the Swahili produced a far greater volume of secular poetry than of homiletic verse.16 The Swahili’s remarkable heritage of poetry has shaped its intellectual culture with poems from the 17th to 19th century comprising some of the oldest manuscripts recovered from eastern africa. Swahili poetry, often referred to as the 'Utenzi genre is defined as an extended narrative poem of defined metre that often assumes an epical form and function and covers a wide range subjects that require extensive articulation including; history, warfare, theology and cultural norms and thus retains a distinctive Swahili prosodic system.17
Swahili women intellectuals wrote poems and taught elementary education in their homes often to other women but also to their children and preserved their intellectual legacy as custodians of many of the best manuscripts from the region. Swahili poetry served as a channel of expression that covered a wide range of political and social functions.
The earliest poem by a Swahili woman was titled "Siri al-asari” (The secret of the secrets) composed in 1663 by Mwana Mwarabu bint Shekhe. In 1807, Mwana Said Amini composed a poem titled “Mwana Fatuma” (The Epic of princess Fatuma), In 1858, Mwana Kupon bint Msham (b. 1810- d.1860), the wife of Bwana Mataka of Siyu composed “Utendi wa Mwana Kupona” (Mwana Kupona's poem) for her daughter Mwana Hashima bint Shaykh, which is now one of the best known poems from the Utenzi genre.18 Swahili royal women were also highly literate and their position in the governance structure of the Swahili city-states enabled them to correspond with foreign allies in writing, an example of this are the early 18th century letters sent by Queen of Kilwa Mfalme Fatima and her daughter Mwana Nakisa to the Portuguese at Goa (India) in 1711.
Mwana Kupona’s swahili poem; “Utendi wa Mwana Kupona” (Berlin state Library19)
letters by Kilwa’s queen Mfalme Fatima and princess Mwana Nakisa written in 1711 (goa archive, SOAS london20)
Women scholars from the Horn of Africa: Brava and Harar
A number of prominent women scholars in the Horn of Africa attained significant popularity and visibility among the intellectual communities in the region especially during the 19th century where we find remarkable traces of pious and holy women.
The city of Brava which is the northern-most city of the Swahili civilization, was the center of an old intellectual tradition which was at its height in the 19th century and produced a number of poets who composed works in the Swahili Utenzi genre (known locally in Brava as 'Steenzi').
Among the prominent scholars of Brava was Mana Siti Habib Jamaluddin (b.1804–d 1919) (also called ‘Dada Masiti’), she is known to have composed several poems mostly in the late 19th century although most the surviving works are copies by her students, and perhaps only one of them from the first decade of the 20th century is exact in its original form.
The poems attributed to her include; “Sayyid Jamaladiini Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn"; "Ya Rabbi ya Muṯaʾaali"; "Sharru ḻ-bilaadi" (on the italian colonization of Brava); "Ya Rabbi ya Rahmaani"; "Mowḻaana Muhyidiini"; "Aḻḻaahu Akbar", and "Sayiidi yiitu Siṯeeni". But her most popular work was “Badi ya hayy ni mowṯi” (After life comes death), which she composed before the year 1909 for an important sheikh named Nureni when he was on his deathbed, it populary recited stanzas include;
"The world is deceitful. Do not let its pleasures tempt you
How many mighty as princes, I saw congregate and then disperse and depart,
though many were full of vitality and wealthy, They left their wealth behind and their aspirations are no more.
What they left behind is no longer theirs, for it will be inherited by the living.
If you look at the living and at those who are bereft of speech and voice,
you will realize that after life comes death. This is a certainty I never forget"21
Dada Masiti’s “After life comes death” (photo from private collection)
In the city of Harar which was a prominent intellectual hub in the region, women ascended to the highest ranks of the city-state’s socio-religious order and spiritual hierarchy.22
One of the better known scholars was Ay Amatullāh (b. 1851– d. 1893), she was the daughter of the qāḍī of Harar, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad. She was a zāhid, a pious woman, was given the title of kabīr, which was normally granted to learned men. Ay Amatullāh studied with the same teachers as her brothers, thereby receiving a high level of education, and she became one of the pre-eminent scholars of her time. She studied Fiqh (law), Ḥadīṯ Exegesis, Tawḥīd (theology), among other subjects and became a faqīh (a scholar of law) in the city and became a teacher of men and women alike. Atleast five works that she wrote survived and are kept in private collections of her descendants, these include a 2876-page, four-volume work of her own commentaries and copies of; “Tuḥfat al Muḥtag Bisarḥal Minhāg”, “Ḥikam” (wisdom), ‘Ṣalawat”, and a 116-page untitled work that she composed for her own classes.23
Women scholars of Sudan: From Funj kingdom to the Mahdiyya
The "eastern Sudan" (ie: modern Sudan) had a rich intellectual tradition and a number of prominent women are known from the 17th and 18th century with several notable Women scholars whose works are extant. The early scholarly class of the eastern Sudanic kingdoms of Funj and Darfur during the 16th century was dominated by a few 'Holy men' (or rather; 'Holy families') whose established scholarly communities within which the tradition of learning was continued by their students and descendants. The most prominent among these scholarly founders was Abd Al-Rahman Jabir, whose descendants (the ‘Awlad Jabir’) produced several of the notable scholars in the Funj kingdom, among whom was Fatima bint Jabir, who was Jabir’s daughter.
Fatima bint Jabir flourished in the early 17th century in the Funj kingdom and is known to have made a pilgrimage. It was through her the tradition of learning of the Awlad Jabir was transmitted to her daughters and descendants, these included her daughter Amina bint Fatima bint Jabir a scholar in her own right, who in turn transmitted the learning tradition through her daughter Quta.24
Among the Women scholars of the 19th century were several poets including Meheara bint Aboad, Shaghba al-Marghumbiya, Bint Masimas, Satna Bint Kanuna and Mahira bint Abbud and Wad Amina, most of their works aren't extant in their original form, but were recited and copied down by their students later.25
There are at least two women scholars form the 19th century eastern Sudan whose works are extant; the first is Bint al-Makkawi, she was from a prominent family among the Ulama of the Mahdiyya state and wrote several works of poetry in praise of Mahdi.26 The other prominent was Umm Misaymis whose subjects of poetry included praise of various Mahdist commanders, as well as eulogies of important figures in the region.27
Women scholars from West Africa:
In the western sudan (ie: west africa), the region’s old and vast scholarly tradition produced what were arguably the most prolific Women scholars on the continent.
Education in west africa was available for both Men and Women upto the elementary level especially because women were often responsible for providing fundamental education to their sons and daughters and for educating other women.28 Higher education on the other hand, was mostly pursued by elite or royal women, or as one teacher of an all-Women class in Bandiagara in Mali put it, the class was comprised of “daughters of bureaucrats, marabouts, or rich families.” (this quote from the early 20th century is discussed in the context of the gender ratio where traditional schools still enrolled more women than colonial schools)29.
In some parts of west africa during the late 18th/early 19th century however, there was a significant increase in the education of women from across all social classes, as the clerical rulers of the revolutionary era states such as the Sokoto caliphate and Futa Toro imamate, actively encouraged the instruction of women, partly because their own kinswomen had been fairly well educated, and thus gave further impetus to the emergence of several prolific Women scholars30
From the works of the founders of Sokoto; Uthman Fodio and Abdallahi Fodio, we can infer their attitudes towards Women's education. Uthman’s writings like "Nir al-albab" (which lists some blameworthy practices in the region, including failure to allow women to receive religious instruction).31 and Abdallah’s "Qasa’id naniyya” (that was written in response to an attack by a scholar who criticized Uthman Fodio for allowing women to attend his teaching).32 both show the ruler’s active encouragement of women’s inclusion in the region’s education systems.
Its in this inclusive intellectual milieu that several Women scholars emerged including;
-Fatima bint Uthman (d. 1838) who wrote several works in Fulfude (her native language) including; "Qasa’id fi-man balagha" and "Qasa’id fi fada’il"33
-Maryam bint Uthman (b. 1810 - d. 1880). she studied with her better known sister Nana Asmau, and is known to have started a school in the Kano palace, where she had became influential in state affairs, before she later returned to Sokoto. she co-authored a book on traditional medicine with Asmau. And was qualified as a waliyya.34 Her works include; “Qasa’id mimiyya” (written nefore 1880 on the battles between Sokoto and Gobir), “Wathiqa ilā amir Kanū fi amr al-mahdī” (‘Treatise on the exodus’ written before 1880 ), “Tariq al-hijra ila ’l-Sadan” (poem in fulfude on the Hijra), she also wrote works in Hausa such as “Lokacin da Sudaniyya za ta Tashi” (The Time when the people of the Sudan will migrate) and “Faɗar Shehu Kan Watsewar Hausa” (What the šayḫ said on the dispersal of the Hausa), and “Risāla laibniha” (whose content is similar to ‘Wathiqa’ above)
Maryam Bint Shehu’s “Treatise on the exodus” (from a private library in Maiwurno, Sudan35)
-Goggo Zaytuna (b. 1880- d. 1950), She studied with her parents and other local leaders in Adamawa (Nigeria) , She had an unusual command of Fulfulde, and wrote a number of religious poems in the language.36
-Khadija bint Uthman ( d. 1856) who was a prominent scholar and also undertook the pilgrimage. She composed several works in Fulfude of which a number were cited by her peers but aren’t extant; these include "Qasa’id al-du‘a’ li-qaryat Wurnii", "Qasa’id fi birr al-walidayn", "Qasa’id fi dhikr ‘alamat zuhir al-mahdi", "Qasa’id fi ’l-figh", "Qasa’id fi ritha’ zawjiha al-‘alim al-Mustafa" and "Qasa’id fi ’l-nahw".37
-Asmau bint Uthman (b. 1794 d. 1864), also known as Nana Asma’u.
She studied under her elder sister Khadija bint Uthman, and her elder brother Muhammad Bello (caliph of Sokoto). She published dozens of her own works and also collaborated with Maryam and Bello in projects of scholarly writing. In addition to her works in Arabic she wrote a great deal of poetry in both Hausa (for her classes and the wider masses) and Fulfulde (her native language) she is also described as a waliyya (‘Holy woman’), She was fluent in Fulfude (her native language), Hausa (the lingua franca of the region), Arabic and Tamasheq. She established a school for women in Sokoto and a network of Women scholars called “Yan Taru” that remained a model for women’s education long after she had passed away. 38
The following is a small sample of her over 80 works which include a variety of topics such as statecraft, history, victory poems, theology, elegies and praise songs. There are atleast 66 of Asmau’s works that have been translated and printed in Jean Boyd’s book (which i have uploaded on my patreon along with other books)
“Bi Yalli” written in 1863, its composition in fuflfude critiquing of the style of government of the Sarkin Kebbi —Bi Yalli, who was removed from office in the same year.39
“Wa’azi” (‘A warning’), a composition in both Fulfude and Hausa instructing her women student class.40
“Kitab al-Nasiha” (Book of Women) written in 1837, lists several of her highly educated peers that like her, were prominent Women scholars in their own right, including; Joda Kawuuri, Yar Hindu, Amina Lubel, Aisha and Habiba, all of whom she included short descriptions of their activities and reputation as scholars although being too brief to mention their works.41 it was also translated by her into Fulfude with the title “Tindinore labbe” and in Hausa with the title “Tawassuli ga mata masu albarka”42
Fa'inna ma'al Asur Yasuran (So Verily), its a composition in Fulfude written in 1822 about the conflicts between Sokoto, Gobir and the Tuareg.43
“Sunago”; its a composition in fulfude written in 1829 about a list of the verses to be recited for blessing.44
“Gikku Bello”; its a composition written in fulfude written in 1838 about the character of her brother Muhammad Bello
“Qasa’id ta’iyya”; its a composition in Arabic written in 1839, essentially a praise poem.
Fulfude and Arabic works of Nana Asmau; 'kitab al-nasiha' c. 1837AD and 'Fa'inna ma'al Asur yasuran' written in 1822AD (now at SOAS london)
Fulfude works of Nana Asmau ; “Sunago” written in 1829 and “Gikku Bello” written in 1838 (fl; 49 and 53-54, arabe 6112, Bibliothèque nationale de France )45
Arabic work of Nana Asmau; “Qasa’id ta’iyya” written in 1839 (folio 52, arabe 6112, Bibliothèque nationale de France )46
Conclusion: On African Intellectual Women’s apparent invisibility
The 33 women scholars listed above with some of their over 100 published works should not be viewed as exceptional cases; rather, they represent the best-known examples of a broader phenomenon.
The legacy of Women scholars, especially in the 19th century Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya was carried on by their students, descendants and followers. Their education networks continue to serve as model for contemporary women's education, their political poetry inspired the rise of charismatic women who were anti-colonial figures, and their memory was crystalized in shrines, mosques and churches dedicated to many important women scholars most of whom were active during the 19th century.
The apparent invisibility of women in the intellectual productions of Africa is only function of the limited research focused on uncovering their work, or as one scholar put it “it would be a mistake to leave them in the dark merely because we aren’t able to shine a light on their stories”47. Hopefully, the recent efforts in digitizing pre-colonial African manuscript collections and libraries will help uncover more contributions of Africa’s women scholars.
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Kingdom of Kush by L. Torok pg 57-67)
Kingdom of Kush by L. Torok pg 343)
language and writing in the kingdom of Meroe by C. Rilly pg 660-667
Kingdom of Kush by L. Torok pg 162-3)
Kingdom of Kush by L. Torok pg 442-443)
discussions of these stela in “The Image of the Ordered World in Ancient Nubian Art” By László Török and “Les interprétations historiques des stèles méroïtiques d’Akinidad à la lumière des récentes découvertes” by Claude Rilly
Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia by Donald Crummey pg 174)
Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia by Donald Crummey pg 43)
A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea by Samantha Kelly pg 369)
The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 500 B.C. to A.D. 1050 pg 158
Sisters debating the jesuits by WL Belcher pg 133)
The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros by Galawdewos pg 21, A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea by Samantha Kelly pg 392)
Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia by Donald Crummey pg 94-99
The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros by Galawdewos pg 18-21)
Faces of Islam in African Literature by Kenneth W. Harrow pg 42)
The Swahili: Idiom and Identity of an African People by Alamin Mazrui pg 16-17)
Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts by Abdulkadir Hashim, pg 387)
Stringing Coral Beads': The Religious Poetry of Brava (c. 1890-1975) by pg 22- 23, 31, 251-353)
Negotiating Social and Spiritual Worlds by C Gibb pg 27)
Gender Issues in the Diwan and Sijil of the City of Harar During the 19th Century by Muna Abubeker pg 55-59
Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 1. Writings of Eastern Sudanic Africa to c. 1900 by J. Hunwick pg 27-29)
Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, pg 164, The Role of Oral Poetry in Reshaping and Constructing Sudanese History (1820-1956) by Baqie Badawi Muhammad)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 1. Writings of Eastern Sudanic Africa to c. 1900 by J. Hunwick pg 83
Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 1. Writings of Eastern Sudanic Africa to c. 1900 by J. Hunwick pg 87, Sudan Arabic Texts by S. Hillelson pg 130-132
The meanings of timbuktu by J Shamil pg 141, 166-8),
The walking quran Rudolph T. Ware pg 176)
Caliph's sister by Jean Boyd pg 4-6)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa by J. Hunwick pg 67, 74)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa by J. Hunwick pg 103)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa by J. Hunwick pg 154)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa by J. Hunwick pg 175-176)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa pg 437-438)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa by J. Hunwick pg 161)
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa by J. Hunwick pg 162-172), Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma u 1793-1864 By Beverley Mack, Jean Boyd
collected works of Nana asmau by J. Boyd pg 272-277
collected works of Nana asmau by J. Boyd pg 57-59
collected works of Nana asmau by J. Boyd pg 81
Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. II: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa by J. Hunwick pg 169
collected works of Nana asmau by J. Boyd pg 28-31
collected works of Nana asmau by J. Boyd pg 38-43
Islam and Gender in Colonial Northeast Africa by Silvia Bruzzi pg 64