There is a stereotype of an “Asian woman” in the West. We tend to think about Asian women as quiet, gentle, soft-spoken – a beautiful wall flower, admired, but not heard from much.
You lose the stereotype pretty quickly in Mongolia. There is just something in the way Mongolian women dress, carry themselves and look in you in the eye that makes you feel like there is no “weaker sex” in Mongolia. Turns out – there really isn’t.
In Old Mongolia, a bride was chosen not for her looks or the dowry, but based on her ability to be her husband’s partner in tough times. Unlike in many other cultures, when a village was attacked Mongolian women picked up the arms and fought alongside men to defend their children and households instead of fleeing to safety. Some modern Mongols openly despise other neighboring cultures for having historically treated women like household decorations. (Try mentioning the Chinese women foot binding and watch those eyes roll).
It’s hard to imagine that any Asian culture in the 12th century would enable an unhappy wife to divorce her husband and to re-marry without any social stigma. However, this is exactly how Mongolian society was during Genghis Khan’s rule. Moreover, Old Mongols believed that an older wife was the great choice for a younger husband, who would benefit from her wisdom that he himself had not yet acquired. Some believe that to this date, and you will see many couples like that in modern Mongolia.
Genghis Khan himself paid a great lot of attention the advice and counsel of all his wives. He warned against disregarding a wise advice from a woman. Queen Regents were involved in many key episodes of Mongol Empire rule, starting with Genghis Khan’s mother, on with his daughters who ruled the ancient Silk Route and continuing with the Queen Mandukhai the Wise, who in 14th century united Mongols once again under one ruler, refusing to allow China to take over the Mongolian lands.
After the young Queen’s husband had been killed prematurely, leaving her with no children, she found and adopted an orphan tracing his blood line to Genghis Khan himself, raised the child, married him and made him the ultimate ruler of the reunited nation. Queen Mandukhai used to fight on horseback in front of her army, even pregnant with twins, left behind 10 children and the legacy of a nation’s savior. She’s still revered today by Mongols just as much as Genghis Khan himself.
These days, Mongolian Queens remain a central subject of modern Mongolian arts, as well as women on horses in general – as the two most important things in Mongolian psyche. Modern Mongolian women are just as beautiful as the history depicts them, and you can still tell a Mongolian woman in a crowd by the way she carries herself, proud and unapologetic.
Luckily, the rich heritage of the traditional Mongolian dresses hasn’t completely disappeared either – it is a Mongolian Queen’s dress that Star Wars’ Queen Amidala wears to her Senate meetings. George Lucas must be a big fan, too.