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

Warriors: Asian women in Asian society

Western media tends to portray Asian societies as sexist, subtly or not so subtly contrasting the lot of oppressed Asian women against the 'liberated' Western woman. This tactic of "comparing their best against our worst" is often used by whites against non-whites in various contexts, be it the criticism of African American sexism in modern America, or the pitying gaze directed at Asian women from pre-modern periods.

In the following paragraphs, we will take a look at the history of women warriors in Asia. Perhaps some portraits will not be palatable to the typical Western male with low self-esteem looking for someone to fit his notion of an Oriental girlfriend/wife who supposedly argues less than "Western women" and who listens adoringly to his babble.

West Asia

In pre-Islamic times, Arab women served as warriors, administrators, and ambassadors. Zenobia, wife of Odenath the King of Palmyra (in modern Syria), rode with her husband on campaigns against the Persians and the Goths.1 After Odenath's death, Queen Zenobia seized Roman territories and rebelled against Roman rule.2 Chronicles say she was as daring as her husband in combat. 3

Poetess El-Khaansa, a comtemporary of the prophet Mohammed, was also a renowned warrior. In 15th Yemen, Zaydi chieftain Sharifa Fatima, daughter of an imam , conquered San'a.4 And in the 18th century, amira Ghaliyya al-Wahhabiyya led a military resistance movement in Saudi Arabia to defend Mecca against foreign takeover. 5 The kings of Persia reportedly had female bodyguards.6

Central Asia

During the second Anglo-Afghan war, the Afghan woman Malalai carried the Afghani flag into battle after the soldiers bearing the flag were killed by the British. Afghan women played an active role in the fight against European imperialists.

Khutulun, daughter of a brother of Kublai Khan, was a legendary soldier. Her father held the Central Asian khanate while Kublai ruled from China. She was without dispute her father's best warrior. It was said that Khutulun would ride into enemy ranks and pluck out a captive as easily as a hawk picks out a chicken. No man had ever bested Khutulun in a fight. A Mongol prince who came to ask for her hand was beaten by Khutulun in a public wrestling match. Like Urduja of the Philippines, she never married.

South Asia

In Kerala, India, women, as well as men, train intensely in the indigenous martial art of Kalari Payattu. Young girls and mothers can kill or paralyze with one blow. The nizams of Hyderabad in the Deccan had female guards.7 The kings of Kandy in Sri Lanka were protected by archeresses.8

The Indian queen Jhansi Ki Rani Lakshmibai (Lakshmibai, Queen of Jhansi) practiced the arts of war since childhood. Born a noblewoman, she married the Rajah of the state of Jhansi and became an accomplished military leader. She led her armies into battle and resisted the British to the bitter end. Jhansi Ki Rani was reported to have manipulated her horse's reins with her teeth while shooting a pistol with each hand. She killed many European men in battle with her own hand. Yet such images are largely ignored by the Western media, which prefers to dish up images of submissive Indian widows committing sati in popular fiction such as The Far Pavilions and Around the World in 80 Days. In contrast to its prominence in Western fiction, sati only occupies a small place in the wide scope of Indian culture - its practice was limited to a few small castes in a particular part of India.9

Southeast Asia

Warrior queens and princesses were not uncommon in Filipino life prior to the Spanish conquest. It was said a blind princess resided on a island some way from Luzon. No man came into her presence except by passing through her formidable force of bodyguards. She was such a skilled fighter that even the one man who ever overcame the tests of her bodyguards could not touch her.

Another warrior, Princess Urduja, ruled over a vast area of the Philippine Archipelago in the 14th century. Urduja said she would only marry a warrior who was her equal or better. So she never married. Following in the tradition of Filipina women, 18th century warrior Gabriela Silang led the longest revolt against the Spanish. Teresa Magbanua (1871-1947) and other Filipinas fought in the Philippine revolution. M., a modern Filipino man of Spanish descent says, "The present day cultural machismo was introduced by the Spanish; old Filipino culture gave great respect to women".

In the early centuries of the 1st millennium, Vietnamese women warriors commanded armed forces. Sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi in the 1st century CE and Trieu Au in the 3rd century CE led uprisings against Chinese imperialists.10 Records of armed Vietnamese women astride war elephants still exist today.

In the 19th century the king of Siam was guarded by a battalion of 400 women armed with spears.11 They were said to perform drills better than male soldiers and were crack spear-throwers. A similar phenomenon was reported in a Javan princedom.12

East Asia

The earliest records of Japanese history are filled with accounts of warrior queens leading their armies against enemy strongholds in the land of Yamato or in Korea.13 The Heike Monogatari records a general Tomoe who served the warlord Yoshinaka. A famed rider of untamed horses, she was called "the equal of a thousand", capable of dealing even with "demons and gods".14

The medieval Chinese produced many formidable women warriors. The Chinese martial art made famous by Bruce Lee was developed by two women, Yan Yongchun and the Venerable Wumei - founders of the Yongchun (Wing Chun) martial arts system. Daughters of military families trained in the martial arts and often served as military officers themselves. These women led armies and fought battles, even rising to the rank of General. Hardly the kind of material for The World of Suzy Wong. There were numerous such Chinese women. A few examples can be found at:

Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers

Northeast Asia

Medieval Mongolian noblewomen were outspoken and had many opportunities for martial training. Their influence extended way beyond Northeast Asia, as in the case of Khutulun, described above. Mongol women fought as regulars in campaigns against Turks and Europeans.

Comparing women's roles in Asia and Europe

While there are certainly some Asian cultures which are oppressive to women, it is doubtful whether conditions in Asia were worse than conditions in Europe. In old Europe, most ordinary European women led fettered lives, denied the opportunities available to men. Some noblewomen and princesses had the chance to avail themselves of martial training and acquire certain skills considered to be in the domain of men. But few actually marched into battle. While there were some European warrior women, there is no reason to believe warrior women were any less common in Asia. In the following 3 sections we take a look at Asian and European female warriors through the ages.

Ancient (up to 476 CE)

In the ancient times, both Asian and European women were found among military leaders as well as rank-and-file warriors. Roman armies fought Germanic tribal forces of men and women.15 Uzbeks, Tajiks and Tartars -- Turkic peoples of Central Asia -- also had female warriors riding beside males.16 Boudicca (Boudicea) of the Iceni led a Briton revolt against Roman rule but the Bedouin Zenobia of western Asia led an even longer successful resistance against the Romans.17 Camilla of the Volscians (an Italic race) fought to the death against the Trojans18, as did the Trang sisters of Vietnam against the Chinese.

Medieval (476-1450 CE)

In the Middle Ages, Frenchwomen Joan D'Arc and Jeanne Hachette were military leaders in wars against foreign oppressors.19 Chinese General Liang Hongyu - the mighty drummer and Lady of the Nation's Peace trained and led an all-female corps which fought in the war against Khitan invaders. Slavic women served as soldiers20. So did Mongol women.21

People in Albania still practice the 'sworn virgin' tradition - a medieval custom of allowing a daughter to become a "son" if a family has no son, or if the sons are handicapped, too young, or otherwise unable to serve as the head of the household. Such daughters take on all of men's privileges and responsibilities in their society, even dressing and living as men.22 Some of these "sworn virgins" were at the forefront of armed resistance against invading Turks.

The kinalakian, a force of militaristic women, staged military campaigns in the Philippine Archipelago. These warriors of the Shri-Visayan Empire were said to be masculine in appearance.23

Modern (1450 CE - )

In the 19th century, European women had to disguise as men in order to fight at Waterloo while Chinese women served openly at all ranks in the Taiping rebellion army.24 An estimated 400 American women enlisted in the American civil war.25 Hundreds of Filipina women joined the resistance against the Spanish. One of these women - General Gabriela Silang - led a fierce armed revolt against the Spanish in the province of Ilocos.26 Other women fighters included Teresa Magbanua (Generala Isay) of Iloilo and Generala Agueda Kahabangan of Laguna and Batangas.27

Like women in Communist Europe, women in Communist Asia fought alongside their men at the frontlines. In North Korea, women served as special forces agents.28 In Vietnam, Viet Cong women and men battled American invaders. Many of the Viet Cong women were combat soldiers.29 In contrast, the vast majority of American women serving in Vietnam were not given combat positions.30 In China, women served as generals and combatants for both the Nationalist and Communist armies.31

The Muslim separatist movement of Aceh, Indonesia, also recruits girls and women to serve as fighters.32 Tamil women in Sri Lanka fight as members of the Tamil Tigers; some become suicide bombers, just as the men have.33

So, even in the allegedly more sexist of the Asian countries, opportunities for women at least paralleled Europe, and in many cases actually surpassed Europe. It appears at all times, Asian women were not necessarily more limited than European women in career opportunities.

  1. Milton Meltzer, Ten Queens, Portraits of Women of Power, p. 36
  2. Meltzer, p. 38
  3. Meltzer, p. 36
  4. Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, p. 20
  5. Mernissi, p. 20
  6. Stanley B. Alpern, p. 2
  7. Alpern, p. 2
  8. Alpern, p. 2
  9. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th edition), p. 294
  10. Alpern, p. 2
  11. Alpern, p. 3
  12. Alpern, p. 3
  13. Oscar Ratti/Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, p. 114
  14. Paul Varley, Warriors of Japan as Portrayed in the War Tales
  15. Alpern, p. 3
  16. Alpern, p. 3
  17. Alpern, p. 1
  18. Alpern, p. 1
  19. Alpern, p. 2
  20. Alpern, p. 3
  21. The characteristics of the Mongol army
    Genghis Khan and the Mongols
  22. Antonia Young, "Women who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins", 2000
  23. In Search of a Princess
  24. Alpern, p. 4
    Women Who Want to Turn the World Around
  25. Alpern, p. 5
  27. Gregoria de Jesus
  28. Korea: The Enemy Within
  29. Vietnamese Women at War
  30. Unarmed and under fire: An oral history of female Vietnam vets
    Fifty Years of Painting and Sculpture on Armed Forces and Revolutionary Wars
  31. Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers
  32. Christian Science Monitor - Muslim women in freedom fight
  33. On the sacrificial ideology of the Liberation Tigers