Women in Mongol society

The characteristics and roles of females among the Mongols

In recent times, relations between the sexes have been beset by much disorder, brought about by various factors, among them the existence of gender roles which have their origin in economic structures that appeared during the Industrial Revolution and its destruction of traditional communities where the woman had a more weighty position in society than she was to be allotted in what we call modern civilization. Adding to this muddle has been a confusion between social roles and sexual characteristics and appearances. As will be understood, there is an acute need for wisdom and understanding between the sexes both in the organization of private and public life. A historical overview of some aspects of the roles played by women among the Old Mongols will hopefully serve to cast more light over some of this complexity we as men and women have to deal with.

Some female readers of these pages may feel dissatisfied by the fact that the main political figures in Mongol history tend to be male. It is a feature of history that the men have been the prime political doers throughout human political history. This is the reason why for example the main characters of the Mongol Empire are males. Nevertheless it would be a major mistake to infer that the Mongol society of the 1200's was inappreciative of female wisdom and that women did not wield authority. On the contrary, women enjoyed a substantially stronger social position among the Mongols than what was the case in the civilized and more male-dominated states of Persia and China. One example of the comparatively strong position of women among the Old Mongols was the belief that it was advantageous if a man's wife was somewhat older than her man, so that she could be wiser than him, and be able to guide him in worldly matters. Consistent with this, it was considered unmanly and a sign of immaturity if a Mongol man did not listen to the advice of his woman.

The Secret History of The Mongols is replete with examples of what high value the Mongols placed upon the female members of society. In this work it is described how Chingis Khan himself seeked and accepted the guidance of women at some of the most crucial points in his career. A close reading of the Secret history even yields the impression that its later translators may have tried to downplay the role of woman by making the males more superior than they were. Such an impression flows from the instances wherein the factual events where women's advice actually changed the course of Mongol history seem to contradict some of the utterances laid in the mouth of Chingis Khan. One example is when Chingis' Tatar wife Yesui points out that it is time for him to designate a successor, should he fall in the war, Chingis allegedly replied: "Even though she is only a woman, what Yesui says is quite right." In view of other events that are referred in the Secret History, there is reason to seriously doubt that the Khan expressed himself this way. Among Mongols, women were very far from "only women." In this context it merits mention that the actual source of the Secret History is a Chinese translation, Yuan Ch'ao Pi Shih, which according to subsequent research faithfully renders the original Mongol account of the events that led to the formation of the Mongol Empire and even illustrates much of their spiritual self-identity. However, differences in culture and values between the Chinese and Mongolian societies are likely to have left subtle taintings here and there in the work. Bearing in mind that females were rather disrespected in Chinese society, chances are that this attitude has been subtly reflected in the process of translation, and so led to what seems to be contradictions between factual events where women are depicted as possessing considerable authority and on the other hand some statements and accounts of specific events that would seem to indicate otherwise.

Here it is elucidating to have a look in the first parts of the Secret History. Already early in the work, after the death of Temuchin's father Yesugei by poisoning, a convincing demonstration of female leadership is given. When the authority of the wife of Yesugei and mother of Temuchin, Hoelun, was challenged by some of her deceased husband's rivals, the Tayichi'ut clan, which had been part of the congregation of tribes for whom Yesugei had been the leader. This undoubtedly was an old rivalry now surfacing again, and the result was that the Tayichi'ut people abandoned Hoelun, and then forced the other members of the camp to follow them. The Secret History describes mother Hoelun as holding the banner of her husband and shouting to them to return to her. It is then related how "Just the sight of her holding the banner and shouting caused half of the people to stop and turn back with her." Even if the banner is described as belonging to her husband, it is clear from the context that his wife was partaking in the authority it conferred, and that Hoelun's leadership in fact was acknowledged, so that the rival clan had to forcibly break it and make the rest of the people abandon Hoelun and her children. The crucial role of Hoelun is additionally confirmed when the Secret History relates how the Great Mongol himself acknowledges how his career was facilitated by the skills and labor of his mother. Later on it is described how the advice of his wife Borte was determining in his decision to break the alliance with his anda (blood-brother) Jamuqa, whom Borte suspected of plotting against Temuchin. This was no small thing to do, since this is a spiritual brotherhood that according to Old Mongol tradition is more binding and obliging than any family tie. Borte also drove home the decision to execute the shaman Kokochu Teb Tengri, who tried to assume political power by instigating rivalry between Temuchin and his brothers.

The Secret History contains many more direct and indirect examples of this Mongol high regard for women. A strong one is the way maternal lines are described. At one point in the elaboration upon the genealogy of the Mongols we are told how Dobun, in one of the first Mongol generations, first fathered two sons with his wife Alan the Fair. Later he "passed away," and his widow subsequently gave birth to three sons. These three sons are described as being the result of no earthly man, but of divine impregnation. This myth places an certain maternal primacy upon the bloodline of which Chingis Khan was the supreme result, since it obviously accentuates Alain the Fair's role as ancestor.

When it comes to legislation, it may be mentioned that before Chingis Khan, extramarital affairs were generally punished by death, but only the woman was liable to be punished and executed. After Chingis Khan's acquisition of supreme power, he changed the laws and ruled that both the man and the woman involved in such a deed be killed for adultery. This decision was naturally a result of the need to stop socially disruptive behavior, it may also be indicative of a desire on Chingis' part to establish a greater degree of equality between the sexes, if so it is a manner of thinking that lends weight to the supposition that the instances in Secret History where the female position is depicted as an excessively subordinate one may be at least partially attributable to masculinistic bias in the Chinese translators. Mongolian women also had the right to inherit property from deceased husbands, and it was customary that the mother became head of the family if the father died. This had political consequences that bespoke what powerful status females had among the Mongols. A foremost example from the immediate post-Chingis period is Sorkhaqtani, the wife of Tolui, who is also known as the mother of Kubilai, Hulagu, and Mongke, who would in due time all become khans. During the reign of Ogodai, Ogodai is known to have used Sorkhaqtani as his political advisor. She also is reputed to be a great friend of learning and to have been influential in the decision that all her sons be prepared for khanship by being well educated and learn as much and possible about the societies over which they were to rule. Also she followed the old precepts of Chingis Khan and Yeh-lu Chu'tsai in demanding that the peoples of the Empire must be supported rather than mindlessly exploited. In all these matters her influence is said to have been decisive and to have strenghtened Mongol rule considerably during her period.

The Mongols also differed from other nations, notably the Chinese, in their marriage customs. Although the society was polygynous, in that the men who could afford it were allowed to have several wives, this did not imply that these women were subjugated in such relations. If a woman's husband died she was given free choice as to whether she wanted to remarry or not. Most importantly, a Mongol woman had the right to decide to divorce her husband should the marriage prove unsuccessful. Accordingly, a woman who had been married before carried no stigma at all, and if she remarried the new husband accepted her children as his own, which probably is a result of the Mongols' view that if a person acquired a family there was a pre-existing spiritual connection between them, and the Mongols always emphasized spiritual ties over biological ones, also considering the former to be what caused the blood ties where those existed.

When dignity and social positions were made inheritable, this was simply because it was the only way to transfer authority in a politically satisfactory way. This fact is shown by Chingis Khan's own suggestion that his first son Jochi succeed him, even if Jochi was in all probability begotten by Chilger from the Merkit which abducted Borte early in the marriage. In the end Chingis decided upon Ogodei because his other sons refused to accept Jochi on the ground of his not being Chingis' carnal son, climaxing in Chagatai's remark: "How could we allow ourselves to be ruled by this bastard son of a Merkid"? Significantly, one of Jochi's defenders made this speech: "When your mother was stolen by the Merkit she did not want it to happen. It happened when one nation came to fight with another. She did not run away from her home. It happened when one nation attacked the other. She was not in love with another man. She was stolen by men who had come to kill other men. The way you speak will harden the butter and sour the milk of your own mother's love for you. Were not you born from the same warm womb as Jochi? Did not you and Jochi spring from a single hot womb? If you insult your mother who gave you your life from her heart, if you cause her love for you to freeze up, even if you apologize to her later the damage is done. If you speak against the mother who brought you to live from her own belly, even if you take back what you have said the damage is done. Your father the Khan has built the whole nation. He tied his head to his saddle, poured his own blood into great leathern buckets, never closed his eyes nor put his head to a pillow." This remarkable passage demonstrates how the maternal ancestry was thoroughly acknowledged, and this was additionally evinced when Chingis himself said: "How can you say this about Jochi? Jochi is my eldest son, is he not? Do not ever say this again." However, the damage was done: It was clear that Jochi's succession would create strife and was therefore not realistically defensible. Ogodei therefore became Chingis' heir. In this context it should be emphasized that abduction, albeit not uncommon, was not the normal manner of pairing people. The usual manner of planning marriage was to let the shamans decide when a man and a woman were compatible marriage partners, this was often done already when the two in the future couple were children. In this, all the physical and psychological characteristics of both were held to be equally important and taken into account. In other words, the traditional Mongolian way to arrange a marriage did not imply female subordination under the male.

Practically speaking, among nomads the contribution of each member of society was very important for the whole, hence Mongol women had many other duties than those directly connected to reproduction. Therefore there was at the outset a material basis for comparative equality between man and woman among the Mongols. In addition, Mongolian woman were often proficient and merciless warriors. Even if this fact has been downplayed in subsequent historical works written by (male) Western scholars, Mongolian women were routinely given extensive military training, and the strongest and most skilled of these fought in wars together with the men. This did not in the least diminish their genuine femininity and womanhood.

George Vernadsky writes (on page 105) in his "The Mongols and Russia" on how even ordinary women were expected to accompany the male warriors and to play a key role during military campaigns: "He [Chingis Khan] ordered women accompanying the troops to do the work and perform the duties of the men, while the latter were absent fighting." This again points to a high degree of complementary partnership between the sexes among the Mongols. 

An interesting observation about this was made by Giovanni DiPlano Carpini in his "The story of the Mongols whom we call Tartars." (See the bibliography page) Carpini, who visited the Mongols at Pope Innocent IV's command between 1245-1247, was thus able to write from the unique position of being the first European to produce a firsthand report about the Mongols after their Great European campaign 1234-1242. On page 54, he observes: "Girls and women ride and gallop as skillfully as men. We even saw them carrying quivers and bows, and the women can ride horses for as long as the men; they have shorter stirrups, handle horses very well, and mind all the property. The Tartar (Erroneous term for Mongols, but often encountered) women make everything: skin clothes, shoes, leggings, and everything made of leather. They drive carts and repair them, they load camels, and are quick and vigorous in all their tasks. They all wear trousers, and some of them shoot just like men."

Lastly, a striking and illustrative story should be related: Marco Polo tells of Kubilai Khan's nephew and rival Kaidu (who was the grandson of Ogodai) that he had a daughter who was named Aigiarn, which means "Shining Moon." This name for a Mongol princess is another sign of a profound reverence for the female principle, since the Moon is in all traditional cultures considered feminine on account of its connection to water and its receptive nature and not least because of its curvaceous form that according to old Shamanistic mythos has instilled in human males a universal preference for the curved hourglass-shape in females, which is what distinguishes the feminine appearance from the linear masculine.

Kaidu's daughter (Who in other sources is called Khutulun) was famous for her unparallelled feminine beauty as well as her immense strength of body. In fact, Aigiarn was so strong that she surpassed every male Mongol warrior in physical strength and skill. Consequently, she accompanied her father on his campaigns and took great pleasure in the thrills of fighting. This powerful beauty declared that she refused to marry any man save for him who possessed such skill and power that he could beat her in wrestling. According to the story, she ruled that any suitor must come bringing 100 horses as forfeit. Over time, this remarkable princess had licked 100 strong men and collected 10 000 horses. At last a handsome young prince of extraordinary prowess arrived. He had never met his match among any people in the world, and his self-confidence was so strong that he at once promised to bring a thousand horses with him. Kaidu and his wife were concerned that their brilliant daughter found herself a man and so impressed by the intrepid hero that they begged their daughter to yield and let him win even should she also this time prove the strongest. Shining Moon was however adamant, and stated: I will be his wife only if he can master me. The parties agreed upon a day, and soon the princess and her suitor locked in a wrestling match of colossal proportions. For a long time the two wrestled, and it seemed that no one could vanquish the other. Then, in the end Shining Moon's feminine endurance won the day, and the Mongolian princess of boundless beauty and peerless strength threw her suitor. In great bewilderment, the vanquished wooer rose and hurried away with all his attendants, leaving the one thousand horses behind. Shining Moon never found the man who could bring out in the world the eminent qualities she required in a man, which was unfortunate from one point of view, but she certainly contributed to a general increase in the respect and potential for quality, thus creating the possibility of attainment of higher levels later on. This proud lady may be viewed as one of those who truly upheld the spirit of Chingis Khan, who forever dictates that excellence is the supreme value. The story about Aigiarn can be found in "The Travels of Marco Polo," Dorset Press 1987, pages 417-419. 

This story may not be true in all details, however the main thing is what it illustrates: It forcefully depicts the intrinsic purpose of sexuality, which is selection. When individuals as is naturally done in sexual selection choose each other after lofty criteria of maximal fitness for role, a general development towards high goals is set in motion, and thus we should see how selective procedures invariably propel high achievements and greater excellence. Further; it suggests the Mongolian woman's own legitimate power to choose the man who is worthy of her. By implication, this is the birthright of all females. Finally, and most importantly, it demonstrates the Old Mongolian freedom from restricting societal norms for what roles a woman is allowed to play. Shining Moon is portrayed as being both beautiful and strong; she is at the same time very feminine and a most redoubtable warrior. The contrast to the well-known Chinese foot-binding of women is enormous.

Another thing we can pick up from this outline of prominent Mongolian females is that the modern conception of femininity as connected to social role is gravely mistaken. What has been seen in modern times is a detrimental confusion between femininity, which concerns the sexual characteristics of a female, and gender roles which are entirely cultural artifacts that have no actual foundation in natural processes or principles. What all this means is that apart from what is related to the reproductive functions and the caring for infants, any monopolization of or exclusion from a societal category or position on the basis of sex lacks a rational basis and therefore cannot be justified. 

The last piece of information about Mongolian women this time is a role hitherto not mentioned: In Old Mongol society, Shamanism was the prevalent communal religious/psychosocial experience. In Old Siberian and Mongolian societies shamans of both sexes (Female ones were called idugan, and male ones were called boege) served important functions as psychopomps and therapists for their people. Receptivity is an archetypal feminine characteristic, and as could be expected female shamans are said to be more adept at receiving messages from the other world(s), whereas men are considered equal or better at transmitting the active forces. Recently, this Siberian/Mongolian tradition in which female idugan play an indispensable role has again drawn attention, both from anthropologists and people who have wanted to acquaint themselves personally with Shamanistic techniques of old. This resurgence of an old religious tradition is most notable in the areas of Tuva and Buryatia, which incidentally lie at the southeast of the Bajkal Sea, exactly in the area where the Mongol nation found its cradle.

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Last updated January 23, 2001 by Per Inge Oestmoen