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Warriors: Asian women in Asian society - "The World is a book and those that do not travel, read only a page."
the wandering student
Warriors: Asian women in Asian society
Westerners LOVE 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 an Oriental girlfriend/wife who 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 comtempory 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 indigenous martial arts. 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 ignored by the Western eye, which prefers to dish up images of submissive widows committing suttee.


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 brought 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.9 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.10 They were said to perform drills better than male soldiers and were crack spear-throwers. A similar phenomenon was reported in a Javan princedom.11


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.12 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".13

The medieval Chinese are known to be heavily patriarchal, but even such a culture produced many formidable women warriors. The Chinese martial art of Wing Chun was developed by a Buddhist nun. Daughters of prominent military families trained in the martial arts. Wives of generals were often chosen for their battle skills. The Yang family of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) was one such military family. When the men were decimated on various military assignments, their wives, mothers, sisters and even maidservants took their places on the battlefield. The famous Hua Mulan of the Sui dynasty (589-618 CE) built a 12 year military career on killing Hun men in combat. Hardly the kind of material for The World of Suzy Wong. There were numerous such Chinese women. Naming them all would fill volumes.


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.

Manchurian women shoot arrows and ride horses as well as the men, a necessity in a nomadic culture whose survival depends on hunting game. Both husband and wife hunt while their baby sleeps in a crib suspended in tree branches out of the reach of wild beasts. The wife of Nurhachi, first emperor of China's Qing (Manchurian) dynasty, was one of his warriors. They were said to have worn battle armor to their wedding.

During the Song dynasty of China, a Khitan lady commander cooperated with Chinese forces led by a Chinese warrior priestess to put the Jin (Jurchen) forces to flight.


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 same 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.14 Uzbeks, Tajiks and Tartars -- Turkic peoples of Central Asia -- also had female warriors riding beside males.15

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.16 Camilla of the Volscians (an Italic race) fought to the death against the Trojans17, 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.18 Chinese lady generals Yang Paifeng and Mu Guiying repelled foreign invaders. Slavic women served as soldiers19 as did Tungusic (Mongol, Manchu, Khitan and related) women.

A certain region in Bulgaria is said to still practice a medieval custom of promoting a daughter to a "son" if the sons of the family were non-existent, handicapped, or too young. Such women take on all of men's privileges and responsibilities in their society. Some of these women 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.

Modern (1450 CE - now)
In the 19th century, European women had to disguise as men in order to fight at Waterloo20 while Chinese women served openly at all ranks in the Taiping rebellion army. An estimated 400 American women enlisted in the American civil war.21 Hundreds of Filipina women joined the resistance against the Spanish.

Like women in Communist Europe, women in Communist Asia fought alongside their men at the frontlines. In North Korea, women served as commandos and special forces agents. In Vietnam, Viet Cong women and men battled American invaders. In China, Communist women marched into battle right after giving birth. A whole generation of war orphans came into being after the China-Vietnam war because both male and female parents had perished on the battlefield.

Even today, veiled women bear arms and fight as members of Muslim secessionist movements in the Philippines. The Muslim separatist movement of Aceh, Indonesia, also recruits girls and women. Tamil women in Sri Lanka fight as members of the Tamil Tigers, handling the same weapons and missions that the men do. Women of the Tamil Tigers had made the ultimate sacrifice as suicide bombers, just as the men have.

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.

2002 ColorQ.org

M., a modern Filipino man of Spanish descent says, "The present day cultural machismo was brought by the Spanish; old Filipino culture gave great respect to women".
Chit Balmaceda Guiterrez has written:

Princess Urduja ancient accounts say, was a 14th century woman ruler of the dynastic Kingdom of Tawalisi in Pangasinan, a vast area lying by the shores of the Lingayen Gulf and the China Sea. Pangasinan was an important kingdom then, and the sovereign was equal to the King of China. Known far and wide, Princess Urduja was famous for leading a retinue of woman warriors who were skilled fighters and equestrians. They developed a high art of warfare to preserve their political state. "These womenfolk took to the battlefields because the male population was depleted by the series of wars which came with the rise and prominence of the Shri-Visayan Empire in the sixth to the 13th centuries," the accounts said. Strong and masculine physique, they were called kinalakian or Amazons. (namely women who were similar to men in their warlike aspect)

The legend of Princess Urduja can be attributed to the famous story of the Mohammedan traveler (and chronicleer), Ibn Batuta of India. In 1347 he was a passenger on a Chinese junk, which has just come from the port of Kakula, north of Java and Sumatra and passed by Pangasinan on the way to Canton, China. Urduja, who had a particular fascination for the renowed "Pepper Country"--pepper being considered black gold then--was quoted by Batuta as saying, "I must positively go to war with that country, and get possession of it, for its great wealth and great forces attract me."
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