Friday, December 19, 2008

Book review - “ The Role of Women in the Altaic World”

“The Role of Women in the Altaic World” edited by Veronica Veit.
Published by Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007.

The publishing house of Harrassowitz Verlag has released a very important volume of great scholarly value for researchers interested in the role of women in Altaic-nomadic societies from the earliest periods. Titled, “The Role of Women in the Altaic World” this work presents a copious series of well documented essays edited by Veronica Veit. These articles collectively survey a broad range of Altaic nomadic states including Mongol, Turkic, Manchus and the position they historically accorded women – which is refreshingly far more empowered in many instances than those of their sedentary counterparts.

Secenmonke’s article, “The Role of Women in Traditional Mongolian Society” illuminates the mythical monsters in ‘Gesar’s Tale’ which are tamed by the wise sisters of Gesar and provide him “with sense and wisdom in order to appease warfare on earth.” Secenmonke cites passages from the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’ and other historical sources to demonstrate the high status of women in traditional Mongolian society and introduces legendary Mongolian queen-regents Mandukhai Secen and Juggen Khatun who rose to power during periods of crises.

In the article titled, “Compared With the Women the…Menfolk have little Business of their own.” – Gender Division of Labour in the History of the Mongols” by Barbara Frey Naf, we learn about the relatively equal sharing of work duties among Mongol nomads. Naf ‘s contemporary observations made during visits to Mongolia from 1980 to 2001 are counter-balanced by her citations from13th century sources which bear out the importance Mongols placed on women and men having the ability to cooperatively address tasks that range from felt-making, assembling and disassembling gers, herding, butchering animals and calving. The author establishes the central role that Mongol women have historically held and provides them with “ a high degree of self-reliance and to their having a very strong influence on decision-making processes at family level.”

“Manchu Women of the Early Stage: Fantasy and Reality” by Alessandra Pozzi takes us into the world of the Manchu court intrigues and customs from the dynastic founder Nurhaci to Yongzheng. We learn about the Manchu requirement that Manchu royalty had to marry within their own community which also required that after their husband’s death the widow had to “follow in-death” and take their own lives. This custom was finally abolished by the enlightened rule of Emperor Kangxi in 1688 who also put in place several other reforms that were iconoclastic and farsighted. The powerful role of Manchu women was probably best epitomized by the Empress Dowager Cixi who dominated the Manchu court till 1908.

Mark I. Gol’man’s article “The Mongolian Women in the Russian Archives of the XVIIth Century” unveils a treasure trove of historical gems that document the prominent involvement of Mongolian noblewomen in Mongol-Russian diplomatic interplay. These documents are being published by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in four volumes and cover the period from 1667 to 1756.

Beginning with Secin Khatun (Nomakhu Holaci), the mother of Altan Khan the Mongol sovereign who ruled till 1657, Gol’man depicts the elaborate reception she provided to all Russian envoys traveling to the Mongol rulers’ court. In one instance when a Russian envoy named Drushina Ogarkov showed her disrespect she had the Czar punish and publicly whip Ogarkov followed by his imprisonment in Tobolsk. The Secin Khatun was not only present at important political negotiations with the Russian delegations but she also advised Altan Khan during these proceedings and apparently influenced his stance that Mongolia remain independent in the face of Russian pressure.

Gol’man brings home the critically important role that Mongol queen-regents played in political history including Altan Khan’s wife Akhai Khatun who negotiated directly with the Russian envoys after Altan Khan’s death. She declined a Russian proposal to make the Mongol court a subject of the Moscow Czar, “declaring proudly that the Mongol rulers and Mongol people had never been anyone’s subordinates.”

“The Role of Women in the Altaic World” is heartily recommended for its depth of spirited scholarship on this important subject which provides essential perspective and understanding of the tumultuous and vibrant dynamics of Altaic societies gender relations.

No comments: