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Warriors and Rulers: the roles of Asian women in Asian society

Leaders and Rulers: the roles of Asian women in Asian society

The widespread acceptance for the current one-sided appropriation of Asian women by Western men relies on the perception that Western society offers Asian women a 'better', more liberated life. (Strangely, Asian men are given far less attention than Asian women by Westerners) To continually churn out this propaganda, Western media picks only the images of Asia that suit their agenda, ignoring information that does not conform to Western stereotypes. Historical accounts of Asian women as independent people of power and initiative are met with silence from the general Western public, particularly the men.

In the following sections, we present portraits of Asian women from all over the continent, images of powerful and influential women that have been passed over by white-male-controlled Western media in favor of images of submissive geishas and exotic belly dancers.

West Asia

Western sources represent the women of Judaism and Islam as oppressed victims of sexist traditions. Certainly, teachings unfavorable to women exist in these traditions, but are other religious traditions more popular with Europeans free from sexist teachings too? Accounts of female religious leaders in Islam and Judaism have escaped media attention. Zarkali's A'lam lists several Arab women who were experts in Islamic theology: Sitt al-Qudat (chief of qadis - a qadi is a religious authority/judge) taught in Damascus during the 14th century.1 Sitt al-'Arab and Sitt al-'Ajam were also famous 14th experts in fiqh (religious knowledge).2 Kurdistani woman Asenath Barazani was a Jewish religious authority who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. She served as community rabbi and head of the yeshiva (Jewish religious school). Sages from all around the country wrote the female rabbi for advice concerning religious matters, and she herself wrote an interpretation of the book of Proverbs.3

Arab women also served as heads of states. Asma Bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya governed Yemen with her husband Ali, founder of the Sulayhi dynasty.4 She attended councils of state with her face uncovered. After her husband's death in 1091, she managed the affairs of state on behalf of her partially paralyzed son. Asma died in 1138. The administration of the state then passed to her son's wife, Arwa Bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya, who was the niece of Asma's husband Ali.5 Arwa reigned for almost half a century. Both queens had the khutba proclaimed in their name together with their husbands' names.6 (It is customary to proclaim the name of the current sovereign during the Friday sermon, khutba, at the mosque)

South Asia

Sultana Radiyya, a Turkish Muslim, ascended the throne in Delhi in 1236 AD. Her father, Sultan Iltutmish, designated her as his successor, passing over her brothers.7

Sultana Khadija, daughter of Sultan Salah al-Din Salih Albendjaly, reigned in the Maldives from 1347 AD to 1379 AD. According to Ibn Battuta, the khutba was proclaimed in her name.8 After her death, her sister, Sultana Myriam, succeeded her. Myriam was succeeded by her daughter Sultana Fatima, in 1383.9

Southeast Asia

The Indonesian sate of Aceh was ruled by Sultana Tadj al'Alam Safiyyat al-Din Shah (1641-75), Sultana Nur al'Alam Nakiyyat al-Din Shah (1675-78), 'Inayat Shah Zakiyyat al-Din Shah (1678-88) and Kamalat Shah (1688-99).10 These 4 consecutive queens successfully hung on to power despite the fact their political enemies imported from Mecca a fatwa declaring it was forbidden for a woman to rule.11

East Asia

In China, as in many other countries, women could not officially become heads-of-states were sometimes in fact head-of-state in all but name - they controlled the ruler and the court as consorts, queen mothers or empress dowagers. Emperor Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty was a singular exception. Not content with being Empress Dowager, she seized the throne from her son, and reigned for many years as Emperor.13

Japan, on the other hand, had no less than eight female Emperors. The recent Western media brouhaha about Japan having to consider having a female Emperor makes it sound as if the thought of having lady emperors never crossed Japanese minds. Actually, the last woman emperor, Go-Sakuramachi, reigned in the 18th century, which wasn't all that long ago.14 Women weren't officially banned from becoming monarchs until the mid-19th century.

Some Western reporters are quick to point out that Go-Sakuramachi did not exercise real political power, and that her role was largely ceremonial. The last woman to exercise real authority as emperor ruled in the 700s. However, they fail to mention that Japanese emperors, male or female, have rarely exercised political power or commanded armies in the field. They chiefly performed sacerdotal functions and served as the source of legitimacy for the country's real rulers.

Modern Asia Women as Heads of States

Many Asian nations have female heads of states or deputies. (Something even the United States and most European nations have not achieved) As of 2008, the following Asian nations have/had female heads of states or deputies in modern times:

  • Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina, former Prime Minister; Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister)
  • Philippines (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, President; Corazon Aquino, former President)
  • Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister)
  • South Korea (Han Myeong-sook, former Prime Minister)
  • Sri Lanka (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, former President; Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, former Prime Minister. Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike had served 2 past terms as Prime Minister and is the first woman in the world to hold the office of Prime Minister)
  • Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri, former President)
  • India (Pratibha Patil, President, Indira Ghandi, former Prime Minister)
  • Turkey (Tansu Ciller, former Prime Minister)
  • Israel (Golda Meir, former Prime Minister)
  • Mongolia (Suhbaataryn Yanjmaa, former President)
  • Tuvinian People's Republic (Khertek Amyrbitovna Anchimaa-Toka, former Chairperson of the Presidium)

It appears that throughout history, Asian women were not necessarily more limited than European women in career opportunities.

  1. Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, p. 20
  2. Mernissi, p. 20
  3. Jewish Communities of the World, 1998-1999 edition, ed. Dr AviBeker, p. 198
  4. Mernissi, p. 117
  5. Mernissi, p. 147
  6. Mernissi, p. 71
  7. Mernissi, p. 94
  8. Mernissi, p. 107
  9. Mernissi, p. 108
  10. Mernissi, p. 110
  11. Mernissi, p. 110
  12. Empress Wu Zetian
  13. Go-Sakuramachi Tenno in Wikipedia