An insight into the influence of Mongolian women during the time of the great Mongol Empire and how it differs from the roles of women in other Neolithic societies.
The transition from hunter-gatherer to Neolithic societies forced many women into a structure where they had little to no influence. Their roles and responsibilities tied them to their households where they were often treated like the property of their husbands. Even the seemingly ‘insignificant’ roles they played within their households were scrutinized by male society. With the Mongol empire, however, a society was structured that acted in the favour of many women. This essay will critically explore to what extent Mongol women were free to exercise power, how women played a role in the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire and how the roles of Mongolian women differed from women in other Neolithic societies.
Background and Context
In 1206, a powerful Eurasian leader named Chinggis Khan established the largest contiguous empire in history after uniting independent Turco-Mongol tribes under his banner. The Mongol Empire stretched from the black to the yellow sea, from modern day Korea over to Georgia, Armenia and Hungary. The Eurasian Steppes had a mere population of 200 000, but this was all the manpower Chinggis Khan needed to set his legacy.
What makes this empire different from many other Neolithic societies of the time is that it acted as a nomadic society while establishing various settlements along its migration routes. When we consider other great civilisations like the (Byzantium Empire) Many are of the opinion that the nomadic element of the Mongol Empire was why it was bound to collapse; you cannot establish an effective bureaucracy from horseback. It is difficult to consistently manage and maintain an empire/civilisation without a bureaucracy. This is where the role of women, however, becomes significant. In the early days of the empire, there were other structures put in place in order to help maintain the influence and order of the empire. Women played an integral role within these structures.
Women in the Household
Before looking at women’s political and economic scope of influence, it is important to understand their role in the household. In the Mongol culture, brides were bought from their families and sold to the groom for a certain bride price. Customarily, these two parties would agree upon a marriage settlement or bride price between them. For the marriage, the bride’s duty was to go and hide at one of her relatives and the groom’s duty was to go claim her with a group of his friends. The process is almost forceful and simulates an abduction. After the “abduction” takes place, the bride’s family mourns her loss while the groom’s family prepares a feast to welcome the new bride. This ritual clearly indicates a sense of ownership that the husband has over the wife, demonstrating a limitation that Mongol women had in their personal freedom.
Despite this lack of personal ownership, women were generally the head of the house when their husbands were away at war. As the Mongols were a patrilineal society, they were also responsible for administering the wealth that their husbands owned. This also meant that Mongol men could take on more wives as their wealth accumulated, in order to help with its management.
Even though both of these expressions of power have their limitations, it demonstrates a trust in women’s abilities to manage wealth and authority independently of their husbands.
Women’s role in politics and the economy
Even though women mainly acted as administrators of wealth and property, some of them had rights to property of their own. Higher class women could receive property as a form of dowry and were able to administrate their own ordos. An ordo was a mobile institution of political and economic activity.
How women used their power to push their own political agenda vs limited power of women in other Neolithic societies & how their status was determined and how it compared to other women’s property rights and status.
Even though the societal structure of the Mongol Empire still limited the influence of some unmarried, lower-class women, it worked in the favour of many ambitious Khatuns who sought to push their own political agenda. In most of the other Neolithic societies, women were even limited from exerting authority within their households. Mongol women’s statuses meant little without the wealth or status of their husbands, but within their administration they could exercise a fair amount of power. These women also played a role in the military and had economic rights that were unheard of in other Neolithic societies. The structure of the Mongol empire therefore indicates that there was a far more progressive attitude towards women and their ability to manage power than there was in other Neolithic societies.
- Weatherwood, J. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan rescued his Empire. Crown/Archetype, USA, 2010.
- De Nicola, B. Women and the Economy of the Mongol Empire. Edinburgh University Press, Edinborough, 2017.
- George, L. Daily Life in the Mongol Empire. Greenwood Press, London, 2006.