Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Sayyida al-Hurra

Episode Summary

Sayyida al-Hurra (c. 1485-1561) was a 16th century Moroccan Pirate Queen whose fleet controlled the Western Mediterranean Sea.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello and Happy New Year! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

In case you’re just tuning in, here’s the deal. Every weekday we’re telling the stories of women from around the world and throughout history who you may not know about but should. Each month is themed and in honor of the new year, we’re taking the month of January to talk about leaders. 

Today’s Leader was a 16th century Moroccan Pirate Queen whose fleet controlled the Western Mediterranean Sea. A major power broker during the period, she was even respected by her enemies for her political skill and intelligence. Let’s talk about Sayyida al-Hurra

Sayyida was born around 1485 in the Kingdom of Granada to a prominent Muslim family.

In 1492, Sayyida and her family fled to Morocco after Granada was conquered by the Catholic monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon during their Christian “Reconquista” of Spain. Sayyida reportedly had a happy childhood after the relocation, but never forgot her family’s forced exile. 

When Sayyida was 16, she was married off to a family friend who was 30 years her senior. The marriage had been arranged when she was just a child. Like Sayyida, her husband was also a prominent immigrant from Moorish Spain living in Morocco. 

Sayyida’s husband lived in the city of Tetouan, which had originally been settled in the 3rd century but was later destroyed in the 15th Century by Spanish forces. When Muslim refugees from Spain began streaming into Morocco, many settled thereand eventually received permission from the Sultan of Morocco to rebuild the city.

Sayyida and her husband, who had become Governor of Tetouan, led the rebuilding. Sayyida worked side by side with her husband on government matters, and became a sort of vice-governor. When he would leave the city, Sayyida was put in charge.

In 1515, Sayyida’s husband died and she took the reins of power in Tetouan. This makes her the last woman to officially and legitimately hold the title of al Hurra, meaning Queen, in Islamic history.

Sayyida’s anger and humiliation over being forced to flee Spain as a child never left her, and she despised the “Christian enemy”. In order to gain some measure of revenge, she turned to piracy on the Mediterranean. Banking on her position and resources as queen of Tetouan, Sayyida contacted the famed Barbarossa of Algiers, who controlled the eastern Mediterranean and essentially made a deal to assemble her own fleet and take control of the western Mediterranean. 

Her fleet of pirates was a nightmare for the Spanish and Portuguese who were highly dependent on the shipping trade throughout the Mediterranean. She soon became the undisputed pirate leader in her region, and was even grudgingly respected by the Spanish and Portuguese for the power she so skillfully wielded. She was the person they had to negotiate with to return prisoners taken during the pirate raids, which turned out to be a  very lucrative business for her. 

In 1541, Sayyida married the Sultan of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi. However, because she wasn’t ready to give up her position as Queen of Tetouan, she forced the Sultan to travel from Fez to Tetouan to marry her. This is the only recorded instance in history of a Moroccan king getting married outside of the capital. 

Sayyida was eventually overthrown as Queen of Tetouan in October 1542 by her son-in-law. At that point she had ruled for 30 years.

Accepting the realities of politics, Sayyida retired and lived quietly for nearly two more decades.

She died on July 14, 1561.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another great Leader from history.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!