First of all, I haven’t updated in a while, because I am no longer in Mongolia. Considering that this is a blog about gender in Mongolia, it is difficult to write about it when you are not there and immersed in it!  And although I miss it massively, I have to spend the next year in the West writing more concentrated and academically about my experiences (something I will post here when I am done!). That said, I am planning to be back in Mongolia next summer and will see where life takes me from there, but until then… I have to unfortunately stop writing in this blog. I am very sad about this considering that it has thousands of hits from people all over the world (who are you people?!??!) who are apparently interested in gender, feminist anthropology and Mongolia and that is incredible! So, I hope you read again when I revisit this blog in a year or so (which I will do – I promise… my time with gender in Mongolia is not over). Thanks for reading! ❤ ❤ ❤

ok, last post.


I am back in Berlin and I got called a “Püppchen” today.


While riding around Berlin on my black men’s racing bike and grunting at people to get out of the bike lane, I got called a diminutive form of the word ‘doll’ and an image of myself listlessly propped against a wall, legs splayed, devoid of a voice, empty smile sewn into my frozen face flashed before my eyes. I knew I shouldn’t have put that eye makeup on today…

Seeking my refuge in the coffee shop that was my destination, I arrived and jumped off my bike to the immediate attention of a few well-dressed men.  The male gaze that confronted me hit me like a wave of ice water.  I realized something that I had largely taken for granted in Mongolia: As a white woman, I had been (relatively) free of the constraints of a male sexualized gaze.  My white skin shone like a beacon and blinded any other considerations of my appearance; I could largely do, say or wear anything and I was still a foreigner.  Most Mongolian men did not look at me as a possible partner, because my ‘otherness’ made me fall out of the scope of potentiality.  And thus, I felt relatively free in my body and appearance.

I miss how liberating that was… despite how twisted.

As I approached that coffee shop, I realized my year of non-sexualized corporal freedom was over.  My white skin does not (fully) protect me now; suddenly the small things on my body – my gait, my choice of makeup, my short skirt or my knee-length skirt, a black shirt or a tank top – lend credence to ‘view’ me, appropriate my body, categorize me… I feel like a walking billboard.

Being A Feminine Feminist

I am no raggedy ann!!!

Being called a doll evokes images of perfectly prepared, exaggerated femininity: clichés of airheads afraid to break manicured nails and giggling way too long at jokes that aren’t funny. These clichés fly in the face of everything about me that I think is feminist, but I refuse to let the sexualized gaze and femininity clichés I now encounter drive me to trade in my nail polish for a mohawk (although I could do both!).  Encountering so many awesomely strong, independent, intelligent – and very feminine – feminists in Mongolia has made me have a lot of critical reflections of what it means to be a feminist woman and how culturally shaped even this –ism can be.

Before going to Mongolia, I went through a phase where I decided I needed to trade in my various hair colors, prominent piercings and ripped clothing – completely acceptable in the Berliner context – for something less ‘shocking’ since I didn’t know what type of people I would be encountering. Walking into my first meeting of self-proclaimed, Mongolian feminists, I guess I was expecting to encounter a group that somewhat represented what I had left back home.  Walking into this group of highly stylish, fashion-forward, high-heel touting, cosmopolitan reading, brand name bag wearing, (occasionally) surgically operated women was not what I expected.

“Am I in the right place?” I asked myself.

Feminists can be dogmatic, too.

A few years ago after moving into my first leftist Berliner collective, I invited a friend of mine – who had been a former model – to my house to work on homework.  She was superficially involved in very different things then I was, but we got along very well and she was interested in the concept of my new residence.  We planned to work and then jointly eat with the rest of the collective, but those plans took a sour note when she entered wearing high-heels.  I tried to warn her (“…wear black and not too much make-up…”), but even I was shocked by the reaction she received.  The entire time and throughout dinner, nobody spoke a word to her.

Being myself completely aware – as a researcher of body ideals – what high-heels symbolically represent it is still completely unfair and generalized to conflate a woman’s personal choice to wear high-heels with complacency in oppression.

Coming from this background, I admittedly had to squelch my first impulse that this sexualized, femme fatale, “Sex and the City”-esque form of feminism I encountered in Mongolia was ‘wrong.’ How could embracing consumption and hyper-femininity be liberating?

Different means to reach a globalized end.

Feminism, like any other belief system, is historically and culturally specific.  In other posts I wrote about how Mongolia was the second Soviet country in the world, about the antipathy in Mongolia towards China, and also about the rigid gender divide in the Mongolian countryside, which all contribute to gender relations and feminism in Mongolia.

The ‘New’ Woman

This quote from an Inner Mongolian Cambridge anthropologist describes well two streams of political thought that exist in contemporary Mongolian society but developed during the socialist era: a tension between looking to the ‘ancient Mongolian’ past (Genghis Khan, pastoral, traditional culture, etc.) or to the ‘modern European’ future for inspiration.

“Mongolian nationalism during the socialist period was characterized by a tension between a desire for development towards a Soviet-oriented civilization and the wish to develop a national culture. The traditional identity was being transformed into the concept of a socialist ‘new Mongol’…This change of identity which had its background in the difficult relations with the Chinese, lent the Mongols the political and nationalist enthusiasm to deny themselves their oriental identity, and instead strive to be a ‘Western’ nation…(Sanders 1987:4-5)” (16).

As a result of the Soviet pressure to ‘modernize,’ a new stream of thought developed that pit itself against the old, ancient and Asian (also due to antipathy towards China): a ‘new Mongol’ who was Europeanized, modern, middle-class, educated, and progressive.  This philosophical stream still exists; only the criteria of modernity have changed to reflect free-market democracy.

This concept of the ‘new Mongol,’ and by extension a ‘new Mongolian Woman,’ was mirrored in my research regarding beauty ideals.  I saw different streams of beauty concepts that mirrored this philosophical divide; women alternatively look to ‘classic Mongolian’ and/or to ‘modern European’ concepts of beauty and try to balance the two.  And in the realm of plastic surgery, caucasianized beauty standards, and individualism through consumption, embracing these traits is a way of externally reflecting the ‘new Mongolian woman;’ the progressive, career-oriented, independent, educated, Europeanized, modern Mongolian woman.

In the context of traditional, rigid gender divides and the soviet mandate to curtail personal choice for the collective, to be an individual, making personal choices to buy products for yourself, to be able to earn your own money, and to express your femininity and sexuality (through reading Cosmopolitan magazine or in your appearance) is new and reactionary to the socialist era.  To express femininity is to be proud of your uniqueness.  To be an individual is revolutionary.

Feminism is culturally relative

Each form of feminism is a reaction to the specific cultural and historically circumstances and can take on many guises.  Although I think the hyper-sexualized appearance of urban Mongolian women can also be a limitation, I myself learned that I had to think twice as a white, Western feminist to understand that feminism can have multiple contexts, forms and shapes.  My form of feminism is not necessarily yours.  My history is not your history.

Thus, being back in the Berliner context, I notice keenly how one item – say nail polish – is culturally encoded and received completely differently based on where I am. The same nail polish that might be a representation of my individuality or agency in one context, gets me called a doll – a disenfranchised, objectified mute – in another.  A skirt in one context might be an expression of pro-sexuality liberation or a representation of commodified objectification.  It might help me relate to and understand women in one country, but bar me from entering feminist circles in another.

Somewhere between butch and ‘beautiful’

One of my research informants – a female Mongolian writer – told me about her own personal transformation from butch to stereotypical beautiful (again: culturally specific) a few years ago as a representation of her shift in her feminist approach.  She wrote about women and as such realized that by being feminine externally (and not necessarily internally) she had much more access to the women around her and to the female world in society.  She was proud to be a woman, and thus did not want to negate her femininity to emulate masculinity.  I myself noticed in my research that being more feminine in appearance opened up avenues to more anthropological informants, made them relax more, and allowed me to engage women on more levels.

Really there is no right way.  I was critical of hyper-femininity in Mongolia, but being back in Berlin makes me feel like the pendulum swung to the opposite pole, which isn’t much better and is just as limiting to other types of women.  And the onslaught of stereotypes, objectifying gazes, and belittling phrases towards feminized women in Berlin and Mongolia offer just as many surfaces to challenge gender norms in both mainstream and leftist culture as gender-bending does.  Besides… it confuses all those pundits who want to stamp feminists as ugly, baby-killing witches (as the Pat Robertson quote goes).

So, I’m gonna continue wearing my nail-polish, thank you! And still grunt at you to get out of my freaking bike lane.


I suppose this is an entry that is long overdo. Despite the fact that I am now on the beach in Vietnam, have traversed several countries by train in the last few weeks, and am geographically veryveryvery far away from the windswept, bone-chilling sandstorms of the Mongolian spring, I am still writing about this country. 😉

Before I get started, I wanted to explicitely state my intentions in writing this article: to point to the dangers, from a feminist woman’s perspective, of feeding the fires of extreme nationalism and/or ethnic blood superiority rhetoric. I by no means want to say that all Mongolians think this way; I am simply saying that these tendencies exist in contemporary Mongolian culture and why I perceive them to be limiting and dangerous. There are all types of people in Mongolia, just like everywhere else!

The reason I have been brooding over this particular issue recently – the issue of racism towards the Chinese, Mongolian nationalism and patriarchy- is an incident I experienced recently while in Beijing:

A few days after leaving Mongolia by train (and internally coping with the feeling of loss that came with it), I was trying to get back to my hostel after going to a bar late at night on the other end of town (and Beijing is a big town!). Unbeknownst to me, the trains stop around 11, so I ended up with a friend on the side of a freeway trying to flag down a cab. We weren’t alone; several others had also been ousted by the train schedule and were trying to get home.

I guess living in Asia has made me pretty good at recognizing face structures, cause I can now pretty much pick a Mongolian out of a crowd. And down the line a few meters from me was a man speaking English and not Chinese like the rest. I knew immediately that he was Mongolian and walked up to him to ask where he was going and if he wanted to share a cab.

“Ta Mongol hun uu?” I asked and the look on his face was priceless. Guess it wasn’t everyday that a white woman walked up to him and spoke Mongolian. We exchanged basic pleasantries and introductions, but that was all ruined by the following:

While my Mongolian counterpart hadn’t been looking, a cab had pulled up next to us. But, instead of waiting, a Chinese man who had been standing nearby got in the cab. In my mind, there is nothing wrong with this, since we had been talking and distracted. But once the Mongolian man noticed, he lost it:

“Get out you stupid fag***!” he yelled in English. “You stupid Chinese f***,” I am the blood of Genghis Khan, not like you you stupid, weak Chinese!”

He was flipping out. The Chinese dude in the car and the man standing next to me were screaming at each other. The Mongolian man kept yelling about him having the blood of the great, strong Genghis Khan, in contrast to his weak, ‘infertile’ Chinese counterpart. The man in the cab flicked the Mongolian off and sped away.

During this exchange a different cab pulled up. My friend and I quickly jumped in and left the racist Mongolian man behind still no better off than he had been 10 minutes beforehand…

But the entire thing left a very sour taste in my mouth. What a statement this Mongolian man is making about Mongolian culture while being in a foreign country! What an exchange laced with blood-based, fertility-laden allegories of national superiority.. yuck! If you hate China so much, why are you even IN China?

I had to write about it.


Sinophobia, or racism and/or hatred of Chinese culture and ethnicity, resonates very strongly with many Mongolians.  While traveling through the countryside during research (initially) on nutrition, herders would repeatedly tell me that they don’t trust fruit, because all fruit is from China and thus poisoned.  When I first came to Mongolia six years ago, gangs of orphans used to roam the streets of UB and accost travelers for money.  These gangs are conspicuously absent now with many people claiming that these kids have been taken by the Chinese and shipped off into the Chinese organ trade.  And, obviously due to the Chinese government’s usurpation tendencies, Mongolians fear that the Chinese propaganda machine will eventually turn its gaze to the wide and (mostly empty) Mongolian steppe.

This deep-seated dislike towards the Chinese did not solely arise on its own.  Rhetoric propagated by the Soviet Union in attempts to keep the Mongol nation from getting stronger played a large role in defining what contemporary Mongolians conceive as as “Mongolian.”  As I read in this article recently:

“In the first years of the existence of the [Mongolian] nation (note: which was founded in 1921), Mongols expressed a strong desire to create a Greater Mongolia that would include ethnically Mongolian regions of both China and Russia (Inner Mongolia and Buryatia respectively). The Russians were wary of the emergence of such a large political entity and they appealed to various tactics to create distance between the Mongols of the Republic of Mongolia and other Mongolian groups. As a result of these policies Mongolianness has come to take on a very narrow interpretation… Throughout the Socialist period, the notion of Chinese threat was routinely mobilised by the Russians for political reasons.”

So, although fears of economic dependence on China maybe legitimate and have a historical basis (I mean what country is NOT dependent on China?), many of these rumors are dramatized to serve a different purpose.  I asked the Mongolian National Nutrition Center about the fruit fears, which did chemical tests on Mongolian fruit and found out that the rumor regarding the poor quality of Chinese fruit entering Mongolia is simply not true.  It’s just an excuse to not eat fruit, but it proves a valuable point behind a lot of the stories and rumors circulating about the Chinese in Mongolian popular culture.  Hatred of the Chinese has proven to be a very good rallying cry to unite Mongolians in this unstable, increasingly globalizing world. Furthermore, it upholds ‘traditional’ patriarchal Mongolian culture at a time when women are questioning the traditional gender divide, and has led to the growing sympathy behind and rise of Mongolian ultra-nationalist groups like Dayar Mongol (whose flag prominently features a giant swastika), Blue Mongol and White Swastika.

Thus, it was super interesting to get into multiple conversations with the Chinese I encountered on my travels regarding Mongolia.  The Chinese citizens I talked to knew virtually nothing about their northern neighbor, except for one line in the official history book that stated that Mongolia used to be part of China. Considering how much time Mongolians spend talking about China it is odd to hear how little the Chinese think about them.

Woman = Womb, Man = Mongolianness

Mongolian nationalism plays upon already hyper-masculine Mongolian cultural tendencies and is especially appealing to young Mongolian men.

Setting politics aside for anthropology, if you look at any patrilineal society – a society in which a woman joins the man’s household upon marriage and inheritance is conveyed through the male’s family – a woman’s prime function becomes the continuation of the male bloodline.  Reproduction of male heirs is elevated and becomes a woman’s raison d’être in order to continue the male lineage. Thus, the preference in many societies for male children.

A Western vestigial of this patrilineal inheritance is the acquisition of the husband’s name upon marriage (which obviously still exists). In Mongolia, children get their father’s first name, which is then put before their own name… but the meaning is the same. According to ultra-nationalist rhetoric, you are your father’s child. You are of his blood. Your mother was just the carrier.

I also carried the weight of this distinction when I tried to define myself as half-American, half-German to Mongolians using the Mongolian word эрлийз (“erliiz”).  ‘Erliiz’ refers to mixed-heritage children and could be translated as half-blood, which doesn’t sound so nice in whatever language you translate it into (i.e. Mongolian women calling me ‘Mischling’ while speaking to me in German).  The question that initially shocked me and subsequently irritated me was when I would be asked, after proclaiming my ‘erliiz’-ness, where my father came from.  I came to realize that my mother’s lineage was of secondary importance, and that my heritage was mostly defined through my father, something that irritated me and made me feel like my right to define my own identity (and those of any hypothetical children of mine) was being removed.

But this makes sense from a patrilineal and patriarchal societal standpoint.  Because lineage is passed down through the father’s line and children belong to that line the really only important ethnic marker of a child’s heritage is the father’s sperm.  And women become empty wombs without ethnic/national/identity markers.

A personal anecdote from my own life: The woman = womb, man = ethnicity standpoint is not new.  The reason my siblings, who are 20 years older than I am, do not have German citizenship is because of an antiquated German citizenship law that only allowed German heritage to be passed down through the father’s line.  Because my siblings only had a German mother – a non-ethnic ‘womb’ – they weren’t granted citizenship.  Just an example from Western culture of the same tendency, which points to being rooting in patrilineal/patriarchal nationalist societies that turn women into male heir, bloodline reproducers and remove their rights to their children (*cough*Nazis*cough*).  This law was revised in 1974.

The Extinction Myth

Mongolian Neo-Nazi Scenesters doing the Hitler Salute at a Metal Concert: One friend of mine who used to be in the scene told me that they just think it looks cool... at least that's why he used to do the Hitler greeting at concerts.

Nothing seems to unite contesting groups more than the idea of a joint enemy.  And China looms in the Mongolian cultural consciousness like a feral specter in the distance ready to pounce at the next available opportunity.  And this fear that China (and other foreigners) will one day take over and wipe the map clean of Mongolia has created a nationalist backlash.

I, myself, ended up at some pretty dodgy nationalist concerts while in Mongolia and I often felt unsafe.  However, my status as a white woman seemed to be less of a threat (although not completely safe, I am not an ethnic (sperm) driven threat to nationalist groups).  Thus, when the Mongolian man in Beijing was screaming at the taxi-caper culprit, he kept alluding to the superiority of his sperm, bloodline and thus strength, in comparison to the supposed weakness and infertility of the Chinese man.

I had the opportunity to see quite a few Dayar Mongol protests on Sukhbaatar Square at the end of last year.  The following statement from the organizations head, D. Gansuren, illustrates the extinction myth that feeds nationalist groups; the fear of loosing the bloodline and the need to defend the motherland against the evil invading foreigners:

“We should never forget that Mongolia was a powerful and great world empire. However, high ranking officials are corrupted and giving the land to the foreigners now. It should be mentioned that Mongolians are being beaten and yielded by foreigners who hire the Mongolians at lower wages. Let them do slave work in their own country. The ancestors of Mongolia did not sacrifice their lives to their enemy in order give the land to foreigners. That’s why I wish Mongolians would learn and have good examples from genius kings (referring to the Mongolian khans).  Also they should follow the slogans of the kings, regarded as superior for the Mongolian heritage. We wanted to reawaken nationalistic views to the public through protest. The swastika symbolizes peace, firm, forever and long life.” (an entry regarding the Mongolian meaning of the swastika is another post…)

My Body Belongs to… Genghis Khan?

A gender juxtaposition thus results from the sentiments of blood, ethnic and sperm-based superiority: If you are a in-group woman dating a foreign man, you are creating foreign children and thus a traitor. But an in-group man can date a foreign woman and have children without any repercussions.  The children that result from such a union have the sperm of the father and are thus of the in-group.

A French woman having her head shaved after sleeping with a German.

A Mongolian woman gets her head shaved by Dayar Mongol after sleeping with a Chinese man.

Resultingly, Dayar Mongol publically announced that any woman found sleeping with a Chinese man would have her head shaved (mimicking what the French did to young women who had slept with German soldiers during WWII and what Germans did with young women who had slept with non-Aryans).  Many of my foreign friends had to be super vigilant while walking around with a Mongolian-looking woman (didn’t matter if she was actually Mongolian), and most Caucasian men dating Mongolian women can’t go out in UB with their significant other for fears of getting beaten up.  However, I had no problem dating Mongolian men; in fact, it was widely encouraged by everyone I met and I was even asked if I wanted to have ‘Mongol babies’ (I do not.).

A great quote by Undarya Tumursukh encapsulates the dangers of extreme nationalism regarding a woman’s agency:

“Nationalisms turn the control of women, their bodies, and their sexuality into a matter of national importance by defining patriarchy as the core of national identity” (you can find her article here).

Mongolian Sinophobia uses reactionist fear to uphold a patriarchal tradition that limits a woman’s role to a reproductive function, and, due to the need for ethnic preservation, regulates who she can sleep with and defines whose children she bares.  No wonder all the pictures of Dayar Mongol are solely of young men!

I remember the first time while living with a nomadic herder family in Bayankhongor that the father of the family came up to his kids and grabbed his 2-year old son’s penis in a loving way.  He shook it, laughed and looked at me and went “mongol.. MONGOL!” as if to tell me that this boy’s member was the key to the continuation of the Mongolian nation.   I have seen this repeated in different families several times since.   This scene has taken on a completely new meaning for me.

Just a short post while I contemplate a longer one: The Mongolian presidential and parliamentary elections are coming up in May and June, which has thrown Mongolian political participation into the limelight. It will be super interesting to see how women’s political participation becomes a hot topic in the following months considering how parliament recently reinstated a woman’s quota in parliament; the original 30 percent quota was revoked in 2007, which has now been reinstated at 20 percent after the number of women in parliament dropped to 3…

But anyway, I just came across this Mongolian news article, which discusses a recent municipal election and the previous low rates of political participation amongst Mongolian youth. The most interesting aspect to me, however, was the attached picture of a poster commissioned by the General Election Committee aimed at revving up youth political participation, which happened to prominently feature the American porn star (who, it is noted in the article, is ‘touching herself’), Tera Patrick, and the statement: “Youth, I’m waiting for you in the polling station…don’t forget your polling and ID card…”

Tera Patrick as the face of Mongolian political participation? yuck.

The article also mentions that the committee did not have to work very hard to get this poster spread quickly, which subsequently became the face of the election and elicited many comments from passing boys about the size of that woman’s breasts.

Besides not being a very politically oriented statement, the poster both utilizes a hyper sexualized female body to detract from the seriousness of political participation, and reinforces the stereotype of a dumb, helpless woman (‘I went to the polling station, but forgot my card, silly me, can you get it? I’ll just stand here and touch myself until you arrive’). Maybe the Mongolian election committee took a few notes from the following United Russia advertisement that also utilizes sex to shock people and gain votes (as if I didn’t need another reason to dislike Putin).


I suppose this shouldn’t really shock me, but a poster like this would have never have worked 15 years ago in Mongolia. Is it a sign of our (globalizing) times that a picture of an American porn star is being used to garner votes in a municipal election in Mongolia?  Uuuugggggggh.

This past week I have been itching to write about a ritualistic fire-lighting event that happened recently in the Grand Khural (meeting) hall of the Mongolian parliament building; an event being treated lightly by many women closest to it, nevertheless incredibly symbolically detrimental to women’s progression in Mongolia.

The Symbolism of Fire

If you’ve ever really thought about it, you’d be astounded by how many traditional cultures, only remotely connected to each other, are jointly obsessed with the element of fire.  Mongolia is no exception: in traditional Mongolian culture, fire represented the soul of the family, which is not surprising since the hearth is the center point of any yurt/ger.  Not to mention, life on the steppe would be quite destitute without its warming properties.

The result is numerous customs regarding stove etiquette that continue to be quite prevalent in Mongolian yurts, especially in the countryside (and have gotten me in trouble a few times!). Just as an example, your feet and shoes as the lowest and dirtiest part of the body are never allowed to touch the stove.  Never put any trash or an object considered filthy into the fire, which symbolically ‘dirties’ the soul of the family.  Don’t lean on, nor walk through the poles surrounding the fire, as it is a sacred area… etc.

The wife is the steward of the family’s fire and hearth and is accordingly the first to wake up every morning; the morning fire lighting is still frequently accompanied by an offering or ritual in either the form of grease, meat, tea or juniper burning. One traditional marriage custom is the symbolic lighting of the family’s first ‘hearth’ by the wife.  Furthermore, the ‘fire-prayer,’ or sacrificial offering, was historically a female-exclusive northern Mongolian Shaman ritual (enacted on the 29th of the last month of the year – a SUPER interesting fact in the following story).  The point is that women have historically not been strangers to the element of fire, and in fact have been traditionally a keeper of this element that was symbolically and practically tied to their everyday experience as women.

The Parliament Fire-Lighting Ceremony

It is now 2012 (whowuddathought), which marks the 100-year anniversary of when Mongolia liberated itself from the Qing dynasty and thus became a (semi) independent state.  In accordance with this momentous happening, several parliament members, led by N. Batbayar, owner of the company “Fortuna,” organized a symbolic fire-burning ceremony inside the central meeting chamber in Mongolia’s parliament building.

This ceremony – which took place on the 29th of the last month of the year like the aforementioned female-only fire-burning ritual – had apparently been ordained by a Shaman parliament member, who claimed it decreed to him by heaven.  The parliament members utilized taxpayer money to establish a ger (yurt) inside the parliament chamber and prepare a fire pit inside.  This fire was then symbolically lit in line with tradition, and the ceremony was attended by prominent parliament members and politicians (including the president and prime minister).  The lightening of the fire in the central parliament building was to be an act that symbolically represented the ‘soul’ of the government and its people, not unlike in a nomadic family or at a wedding ceremony.

‘Fortuna’ Batbayar opened the ceremony with the following statement:

“The state starts from the multitude. If the multitude has a fire, then the state, in turn, will eternally thrive.”

Symbolism abounds.  Just one problem.  Where were all the women?  Are Mongolian women not part of the multitude?

Considering what I wrote at the beginning, lighting the fire in the hearth is an action traditionally associated with women’s duties.  Yet according to ‘Fortuna’ Batbayar’s request: “Битгий галд ойрт. Гэрт орж болохгүй. Эмэгтэйчүүд хэрэггүй.” (“Don’t get close to the fire. Don’t enter the yurt. Women are not needed”).  The entire ceremony in the heart of Mongolia’s government apparatus enacted as a representation of the ‘soul’ of the people took place without either a single female parliament member or female journalist.


According to his (Batbayar’s) statement, they used dirt that had been gathered from the Burhan (‘God’) sacred mountain – a mountain for the worship of the flags of Genghis Khan’s angry soldiers – and thus he made the decision [for women] to not participate.

Two of the main participants: "Fortuna" Batbayar on the left and the singer Jawhlan on the right.

Yes, that’s right.  Each mountain in Mongolian traditional culture has a different spirit and affords different levels of respect accordingly.  And ‘sacred’ mountains with stupas are off-limits for women because of the belief (that I read was imported into Mongolia from Tibetan Buddhism) that the menstrual cycle made women бузар: dirty, filthy, ignominious.  The claim that dirt and wood for the fire was gathered from the ‘God’ mountain and that the banning of women was thus in order to keep the ceremony ‘undefiled’ was the justification for why women could not participate in this centennial governmental celebration.

The Patriarchal Backlash

The ceremony seems incredibly ironic to me especially because of the actual state of women’s participation in Mongolian society. As many of the Mongolian article writers I have read on this subject are not reticent to point out; women dominate this country.  Mongolian women are everywhere, which makes their exclusion from government affairs that much more poignant.

Because of their high rates of education and obviously salient presence in society, modern Mongolian women and their reinvention of Mongolian traditional gender roles seem to be undergoing a backlash.  As women gain more footing and prove capable of maintaining both the traditionally ‘female’ roles of child-rearing and domestic work, as well as the traditionally ‘male’ roles of bread-earning and public participation, very masculine Mongolian men seem to be clambering and overly asserting the last bastions of masculinity.

Man Fest?

Negating the feminine: Male adorers lines up to bow in front of the fire of the Mongolian people.

And the Mongolian parliament is one such bastion. Since the opening of Mongolia reinvented what it meant to be a woman, the number of Mongolian women in parliament has dropped to three, especially after the 2007 revocation of the article stipulating a 30-percent women’s quota in government (this has now been reinstated at 20 percent for the upcoming election).

Thus, the ritual seemed so ironically symbolic to me.  This ceremony, which took place on the exact day of a traditionally exclusively female fire sacrament, involved the bowing of only ‘pure’ men, in a yurt, in the parliament building, in traditional costumes, in front of the symbolic fiery ‘soul’ of Mongolia, fueled by the dirt of the God mountain of the angry soldiers of Genghis Khan… concepts of tradition and nature (unclean menstrual blood, sacred mountain dirt) were being (mis)used to show that women had never and will never belong at all.

Male Mongolian parliament members crouch in satisfaction in the yurt inside the Grand Khural chamber hall.

This event illustrated Mongolian patriarchy well in that it took a symbolically and traditionally feminine act, the lighting of the hearth, and a female-only ritual, masculinized them and thus whole-heartedly negated and rejected the female element within them. AND made it look ‘traditional.’

The Mongolian male parliament members sent an important message on that day: the complete symbolic barring of women or Mongolian femininity from governmental participation.

Side note: The upside of this event is that Mongolian women now have a very clear and well-defined example of the discrimination against them in government.  Accordingly, several women’s right’s NGOs, including Monfemnet and Young Women for Change, are now in deliberation or in the process of enacting discrimination suits against the Mongolian government.  You go girls!


Before I forget, I had the crazy experience this weekend of getting my first real exposure to the Mongolian Nazi skinhead community while at a metal concert.  If such things interest you, the photos from the concert can be found here.

The opinions in this blog reflect solely the personal opinions of the blogger and in no way represent the Fulbright Association, the Mongolian National University, the Free University Berlin, nor the Mongolian United States Embassy.

Hey lovelies! I can’t believe this year in Mongolia is almost over, and I *of course* came back from Korea and got super sick. But since I can still read (thank god!) and walk, I have been spending the previous few weeks getting ready for talks, and immersed in books, transcriptions, and 12th century adventurist writings.

Since I am a firm believer in the embodiment of gender norms through beauty ideals in any society, I thought it would be interesting for me to track down some beauty icons during Mongolia’s long and intense Soviet stage to see if the policy of gender equality had any significant effect on concepts of beauty during that time period.  I was also really interested in comparing concepts of beauty during the Soviet era to modern concepts, to see how radically everything changed in the last 20 years once the country ‘opened’ to the West.

Mongolian Communist Gender History

A little gender history for those who don’t know the first thing about Mongolia’s Soviet era (and I am guessing there are a lot of you), Mongolia, or the Mongolian People’s Republic, formed with support from the Soviet Union in 1924.  This traditionally nomadic, pastoralist society then underwent the Soviet-style process of collectivization of property in a novel way; they collectivized all livestock into agricultural cooperatives called nedgels.  Each person was required to complete a certain set of work units in the nedgel each week: men had 150 work hours, and women, 100.

The open party line was of absolute gender equality (Mongolia’s second constitution of 1940 stipulated that citizens’ rights be enjoyed by both sexes, and outlawed polygyny) and the nedgel did raise women’s position in various ways (education, work, maternity leave).  However, the work divide was highly gendered and “women became worker-mothers with double work while men had a higher-status role to play.” And women were commonly seen as ‘weaker,’ while men with harder, dirty jobs were commonly compensated by being officially recognized as state heroes (Ashwin 2000).

Iconic Mongolian Communist Beauty

Ok, so obviously it wasn’t absolute gender parity, but it did re-traditionalize women’s roles and conceptions of beauty in Mongolia.  So, I decided to try to track down two of the icons of beauty during Mongolian’s Soviet era, Tsogzolmaa and her daughter, Suvd, to see how they felt about beauty, body and women’s roles.

Tsogzolmaa was born in 1924, at the turn of the revolution, and is considered by many Mongolians to be the pinnacle of Mongolian Soviet era beauty. She starred in the movie Tsogt Taij (“The Spirited Knight”..?) in 1945. Her daughter, Suvd, born in 1948, was the lead in the film Mandukhai Tsetsen Hatan (“Wise Queen Mandukhai”) in 1989.  I am constantly told everywhere I go that they were then and are still considered two of the most beautiful women in Mongolia.

Yes, Mongolia is small enough that through two degrees of separation you can obtain the phone  number of practically anyone in the country, even the most famous of Mongolians (I kinda love this). So, I got in contact with Tsogzolmaa through a teacher’s grandmother, but Tsogzolmaa (who was born in 1924 when Mongolia became the ‘republic’ and is now at the tender age of 88) has been too sick to go anywhere or see anyone.  However, she gave us her daughter’s number without hesitation, and so I follow with a few quotes from my interview with Suvd, and a few from a similar interview on beauty and fashion done with Tsogzolmaa a few years ago.

Let me just say that this was the easiest interview I have ever done. Usually I have to sometimes wrestle answers out of taciturn people, but all I did was tell Suvd what I was doing and she proceeded to talk for 20 minutes. (Note: The lovely Nomin helped me transcribe, and the translations are mine, altered a bit to sound better in English).

On the standards of beauty in Mongolia during her time:

“According to the traditional Mongolian standard of beauty, a good demeanor and an intelligent mind are highly regarded. This may possibly be the case all over the world. Also, especially to Mongolians, a person’s status was traditionally really important.”

About physical appearance during that time:

Tsogzolmaa herself is the archetype of Mongolian communist beauty as she described: "A woman with a big face, narrow eyebrows, and red cheeks was esteemed as beautiful."

“Each group of people on this earth has their own conception of beauty.  According to tradition, Mongolians like round faces, complexions white as snow, and a round faced woman was looked at a lot, for example. External forms of beauty change with the times.”

You can compare this to the similar answer given by her mother (who is only 24 years older):

About the standards for women of your time?

In my time, women only really looked at the face and clothing. It’s not like now. Well-defined eyebrows, red cheeks like fruit, etc. were sung about. A woman with a big face, narrow eyebrows, and red cheeks was esteemed as beautiful.

On the changes in beauty ideals through globalization:

“Now, a great deal of beauty standards are becoming similar, since economies are universalizing through globalization, and thus things are carried out the same way all over the world. Through globalization, [Mongolian] beauty standards are now changing to the way it is in other countries, which I don’t like. And thus, my daughters are now aspiring to be thin, have long legs, and be slender… they really have been trying to conform themselves to this standard.”

“However, Mongolians on average still don’t overly look at the external appearance, which is a vestigial of our traditions, and is still lingering on. Now, percentage wise, I would say it’s about 50/50. Generally, the focus on the external appearance is rising… if people all around the world become the same it is incredibly boring.  Everything is heading towards this, I think this world lifestyle is boring and we are all going in this direction and thus life is becoming very boring to me. I live like this now, I went to America and lived like this and to Germany and lived like this, and it is all the same. There is nothing interesting or novel about it. Everywhere there are super thin girls who live similarly, all wear the same clothing, have the same face, have had plastic surgery, and children watch the same films like “Tom and Jerry,” and as soon as we all become like this, I feel there will be nothing interesting left. Now everyone has plastic surgery and gets the same eyes, the same nose, etc. When I now watch films, I can’t tell the difference between the contemporary actresses, I can’t tell who is who.”

Suvd's almond shaped eyes are her trademark, but would not be considered beautiful by today's standards.

On the evils of the modern media:

I asked if she agreed with the statement that beauty was much more internal during the Soviet era in Mongolia, and has now become much more external, especially in the city:

“I agree, I agree. We are now in the transition phase. During our era, the country was closed, right? We didn’t have the opportunity to see foreigner singers, like the beetles, and watch foreign movies….there wasn’t a lot that was allowed. And the blocked stuff was super interesting to us, and we would find it, listen, and watch anything we could… [but] we knew that these forms of media were part of its system and connected to it…. It was promoted to us as bad, so when we watched it we could see the good and the bad elements to it and view it objectively. Now, generally, this media is contemporary and supposedly all good, none of it is bad anymore, so like water, it can’t be filtered and 100 percent of it gets in.”

On why it is important for Mongolian women to maintain their appearance:

“There is this Mongolian wise phrase, maybe you know it: You enter the yurt through the husband’s name, but how you leave the yurt is dependent on the wife’s name (This implies that the husband is the public sphere and allows you to enter, but the care you receive and the respect you show is up to the wife). In this manner (needing to care but also entertain), a woman gets pleasure from being both internally and externally beautiful… her mind is sharp, her mien expressive, and the external is not only her complexion, but also her clothing…a woman’s external must be maintained…[which they] learn from a young age, and has been the custom until now.”

Suvd: Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful Mongolian women.

On why, despite women’s increased education, most power positions are occupied by Mongolian men:

“I also think this is connected to tradition…usually Mongolian women have regarded their husbands as higher and superior. The husbands, in return, highly respect and cherish their wives. But these days, the higher ones are propelled to the top. This is our psychology, and women still consider their sons as superior… yes, this is tradition.”

My follow up question: So, because of that traditional respect, it’s still easier for men to become members of parliament than it is for women?

“Yes, maybe. It is possible.”


Recently while in Korea, I had the impression that a lot of people I was encountering had very black and white images of what women and men think of as beautiful.  Maybe it is because I am locked away in this country where the female bonding ritual of ‘fat talk’ between women (you know the type: “omg I look so fat in this,” “omg no you don’t, but I do in this,” “on shutup you look fantastic” etc.) is something non-existent, and I have thus become overly sensitized.  Anyway, some of the statements I heard about all women supposedly wanting to be thin, and diet, and be pretty got to me, and these two answers from Tsogzolmaa were geared towards this (as well as the above statements from Suvd):

Normally all women proclaim that they are fat. Did the women from your time say this?

I was quite large at one point: 80 kilos. In order to get thinner, I worried a lot and after doing a lot of strength activities in my home, I automatically got thinner. Getting thinner was a subject for the woman of my time. Athletes officially were made to do a lot and worried a lot. During our time excessively large people didn’t exist.

Can you name what influenced the measurements of female beauty?

One side of the standard was we thought that if we just used natural things, everything was ok. A peaceful disposition, joy was important. It was called an ‘unhurried disposition.’ The other side was that eating a lot wasn’t good, and using a lot of make-up was said to be bad, especially when older. And being overly thin was also inappropriate.

So what is Soviet beauty?

So, in general it seems that Mongolian women thought about their appearance during the Soviet era, but not nearly as obsessively and externally as (city) women do now. Being thin might have been a topic, but excessive thinness was not viewed positively, and most appearance factors focused solely on the face (round), the skin (white with red cheeks), and the eyebrows.

This is super interesting when you consider that the most commonly operated on body parts in modern Mongolia are the eyes (to make them bigger – which wasn’t even a topic 20 years ago!), the nose, and the lips. The focus on which body parts are considered important amongst Mongolians have changed radically in the last 20 years with the free-market.

But throughout the two interviews, both women continually stressed the internal and collective nature of beauty; Tsogzolmaa in her longer interview talks about several women who were considered georgeous in her day due to their behavior, but did not try to dress up and look overtly feminine.  To this day, when I ask others why Tsogzolmaa and Suvd are considered knockouts, they tell me it is because of the respect they show others and their demeanors.  They have ‘royal’ demeanors; when I interviewed Suvd, she had this way of folding her hands, tilting her head, and smiling in a very fuzzy, warm motherly way. Really, their attraction then and now to all Mongolians is that they are nice-looking, peaceful, classic and warm people; nothing sexy, showy or dangerous about it.

Suvd went on a nice long rant about the evils of media and how Western media is changing beauty standards, which I appreciated. As someone who has been considered a beauty icon and had a mother who was a beauty icon, she has been inundated and surrounded by this topic since day one. So, her ascertainment of beauty in Mongolia as transitioning due to global market processes making universal beauty standards uniform, is accurate and refreshing (that I am not the only one saying this stuff!).

The opinions in this blog reflect solely the personal opinions of the blogger and in no way represent the Fulbright Association, the Mongolian National University, the Free University Berlin, nor the Mongolian United States Embassy.

Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргье (happy new year) to all!

I am back from Korea, re-energized and ready to make the descent into my last two months here in Mongolia (at least for this stint). I told myself I wasn’t going to do any research while on ‘vacation,’ but (I guess you can’t take the research out of the researcher) the lightness with which many Korean women evinced their plastic surgery stories baffled me.  Western, free-market ideals seem to drastically affect the role of women and the perception of female beauty in every culture they impact, yet unique to the cultural and historical context. In the case of South Korea, it has lead to the highest rates of plastic surgery per capita in the world (esp. for eyelid surgery).

For a great article on the portrayal of gender role stereotypes with Western and Korean models in Korean media, click here.

Is this where Mongolia is heading? I recently collected about 500 surveys from Mongolian students in the countryside (so mostly herder kids) and in the city, which depicted a set of five different ethnic eyes (Latin, Scandinavian, African, Asian with eyelid, Asian without eyelid).  When prompted to answer which eye was the most beautiful, a whopping 80 percent of both the city and countryside students chose either the Latin or Scandinavian eye (with the results seemingly split between them). Only 5 percent chose the most classic of Asian eyes (without the double eyelid) and that in combination with the statement one of my interviewees gave recently – namely that “Asian eyes are ugly” – has led me to ask what skewed women’s perceptions so severely against themselves? You tend to psychologically favor what you see the most, so why the overwhelming preference for what is ethnically unobtainable?

A "Goodali" (fashion magazine) cover of a model choking herself - not innocuous in a country with high rates of domestic abuse.

As the above article on Korean media mentions, Caucasian women represent around .01 percent of the Korean population, yet are depicted in around 40 percent of Korean advertisements. I would hazard to guess that the numbers are about the same here. And the power of the global advertising market to not only push specific (Caucasian) beauty ideals, but furthermore to almost exactly imitate the same gendered norms in advertising across the globe astounds me.

This is what I mean: These are Mongolian T.V. advertisements we (YWC – Young Women for Change and I) recently used in our beauty image workshop; just in case you thought that the battle regarding the hyper-sexualized and violent depictions of women in advertising was solely a Western phenomenon…

Here is a very gender norm stereotypical French “1 Million” perfume ad:

and its Mongolian ‘Bolor Vodka’ counterpart:

Just replace Western actors with Mongolian ones: A global advertising agency’s dream.

The Gender Politics of Alcohol

In my previous post, I talked about how drinking and smoking in Mongolian society traditionally have very strong masculine connotations. Well, to support that notion, it seems that the industry in Mongolia that has the most sexualized, gender stereotypical advertisements is the alcohol industry.  Anyone who has ever watched superbowl commercials can not help but notice the similarity these ads have to Western beer commercials…

Woman = beer bottle in this advertisement with four top Mongolian models (including Odgerel):

This advertisement for a dutch beer, “Bavaria,” is super new (just a few months old) and super infuriating *cough*:

Mongolian standard (for women)?  w/ Urantsetseg

Seriously, West, what are you exporting?

SOOOOOOOO much has happened in my life (again!), but I decided a few weeks ago that I wanted to do a series of entries on culture clashes.  Well, in my recent travels I again found myself in instances contrary to my belief in gender equality where I asked “why? Why?!” and got “well, that’s just the way it is. It’s tradition,” as a response.

So this entry is about these instances of ‘tradition’ that leave behind a sour taste in my mouth.  So, is it tradition, or is it patriarchy?  You decide:

Traditional Gender Roles Meet Modernity

Эхнэр нөхрийн эрхэм үүрэг: (the wife’s and husband’s important duties)

  • Гадаах ажлыг эр нь мэднэ external, public work the man knows
  • Гарах орохыг эм нь мэднэ go out and in the woman knows (this refers to women traditionally leaving the father’s house for the husband’s house when she gets married)
  • Саадаг нумыг эр нь мэднэ the quiver and bow the man knows
  • Сааль савыг эм нь мэднэ dishware the woman knows
  • Аян жинг аав нь мэднэ trade and travel the dad knows
  • Ааль  аашийг  ээж нь мэднэ family disposition the mom knows
  • Ардаг догшныг аав нь мэднэ the inexperienced and wild dad knows
  • Авах гээхийг ээж нь мэднэ to get and lose mom knows (referring to children)

– found in “намжил, Т. Монгол гэр бүл. Улаанбаатар: 1999”

"Mandukhai the Wise" is a very famous movie depicting the life of queen Mandukhai in the 15th century. Here she is seen sitting next to her husband, Manduul Khan. Her place next to her husband is considered self-evident to many and she is respected in Mongolian popular culture for it.

Even though the gender role descriptions above might seem archaic to some, it is important to keep in mind that Mongolians are very keen on tradition (and nomadism is still widespread!), and thus old gender roles are very much relevant to contemporary gender norms in Mongolia.

A few weeks ago when I was with Zaya in the hotel owner’s house (I discussed this in previous entries), I was trying to pass through a narrow opening between a chair someone was sitting in and the wall.  Suddenly, all the women in the room let out a huge gasp (I think it is appropriate to point out that it was the women who gasped) and covered their mouths in shock and horror, and I looked at them quizzically.  Looking down, I saw that the youngest child, a boy (around 1), was sitting on the floor between my legs staring confused at me.  I realized that I had just committed a grave offense; I had inadvertently stepped over the only male child of the household, which was akin to wishing his death.

Zaya said to me: “You just stepped over their child…and their first-born male!”

I suppose the most culturally sensitive reaction to this is to apologize profusely.  Which I did.  But I admit…I was a little peeved that this was such a big deal.

I know in the aforementioned example it is not ok to step over anyone in traditional culture, but because it was their male child, it was especially severe.  It is just one of the many many many cultural regulations in traditional Mongolian households (thus, stronger in the countryside) that preserve the symbolic superiority of men in the family and are readily maintained by women (thus the round of female gasping).  Some other examples:

  • When you visit a household and give a gift, it must be given to the husband (since he is the head).
  • When food is served, no one can eat until the male has started.  And if the oldest male is not there, even the youngest boy has to eat before any of the women (regardless of age) can eat.
  • In the yurt/ger, the back right part of the ger is considered the male sitting area and it is considered the higher, elevated part of the ger.  The female area is front right and is considered the lower part.  In Mongolian, to move or sit in the higher area is described as moving up (дээшээ сууж) and to sit towards the female area is moving down (доошоо сууж).  Family members are not supposed to sit higher than the head of household (the male).  People still sit in these divides, even in modern apartments where the divide in some households has been adjusted to apartment form.
  • Furthermore, Zaya – as a Mongolian mother – was treated accordingly in every family we lived with.  I – as a foreigner – was a bit exempt, but she was woken up at the crack of dawn to chase after kids, constantly told to make food and barely allowed to rest.  As a woman, she was forced into this role over and over again, even though she was not a member of the family.  I told her to just refuse to look after the kids the next time, but she said, “You want to do your research and not get kicked out, don’t you? That’s just the way it is here.”

I am not going to describe more than these right now (there are lots of little nuances along these lines), but I think they are sufficient to illustrate my point.  There are many things that regulate symbolic dominance in the household that are done passively and considered matter-of-fact in many Mongolians’ lives.  Women are relegated to the domestic and childrearing sphere, congratulated profusely when they ‘find’ a boyfriend, and continue many traditions (through spatial & role divides, linguistic divides and customs) that maintain the male dominance in the home.  And when I ask women why they do it, I get told it is tradition.

Speaking of tradition and gender:

Alcohol and Masculinity

Vodka is frequently the inebriant of choice - a gift from the Soviet Union

Today I was walking down the street in the center of town when I saw a well-dressed, yet disheveled-looking man stumbling towards me.  Upon realizing he was drunk and yelling “shar uctei xuuhen, shar uctei xuuxen!” (blonde girl, blonde girl – I am blonde in relation to Mongolians), I bolted into the nearest entrance, which happened to be a cheap woman’s clothing store.  The guy stumbled through the door after me – mumbling something about guns and bullets and foreigners – when I turned in this store surrounded by seven elder and very shocked women and yelled in Mongolian “Get out! I don’t want to talk to you!”  Promptly all seven women swooped down as if in a swarm of motherly birds and placed themselves between me and the drunken man, yelling at him in Mongolian to go and calling him various names.

After the women forced him to leave, one woman checked the street to make sure the coast was clear and another escorted me to the next corner as a bodyguard, and I felt like I just been ‘rescued’ by a bunch of old grannies.

This event illustrates very well my understanding of alcohol in this country, including the highly gendered and custom-laden aspects of its usage and abuse.

In the above-listed traditional delineation of what it means to be a woman and a man in a Mongolian family, the man’s role is clearly a public one that includes finance, i.e. being the ‘bread-winner.’  The expectation that the male in the household should have a sturdy, firm hand and control over the family, which includes being able to financially support the family is still very prevalent in the countryside of Mongolia.  Yet in this developing economy, where education is the key to success (and women comprise the majority of the educated class) and both men and women are forced to work to maintain a family, these gender roles are being turned on their head.

Through the course of my research, I have seen that both alcohol and tobacco usage seem to have a very gendered aspect.  Obviously, the association of both of these ‘vices’ with masculine traits – being independent, strong, determined, fearless, wild and kick-ass (think Marlboro man)– are universal.  Tie in the fact that smoking and drinking were traditional acts done amongst Mongolian men in nomadic society as a form of public relationship building (passing the tobacco bottle), and you have an action that is traditionally and modernly connoted with masculinity.  A dangerous combination.

Especially in UB, where employment for both parents is important for survival, that fact that women are on average more highly educated and capable of getting a job has serious implications.  Many men I have encountered express regret at not being able to live up to the traditional roles expected of them and drown out their sorrows in alcohol:

  • This summer in Dalanzadgad, I lived with a young family (around 28) who had just received their first child. The wife of the family was a teacher with a steady job at a local school, and had been to college. Her husband had neither, occasionally working as a driver when he found a client. His disappointment at not being able to fully provide for his family and be a ‘man’ – as he told me in an interview – drove him to disappear a lot with his friends, in order to get away.  At one point during our stay there, he disappeared for almost a week, turning off his phone and never calling to say where he was. His wife had no clue and was worried, but he showed up a week later, saying he had been ‘out’ with his friends (he had been on a drinking binge, going from one nomadic family to the next drinking fermented mare’s milk). When she got angry, he yelled back at her and she gave up, saying it was just how men were.
  • The wife of the hotel owner was exasperated with the fact that her husband was drunk around 80 percent of the time.  On the day we stayed with the family, her husband had disappeared on a drinking spree with his friends and had also turned off his phone.  He said that as a result of his success, it was necessary for him to go out, drink and hold parties to maintain public favor.  He was always drunk, and his wife, left at home running after two kids, expressed exasperation at being forced to look after kids without help, while her husband ran around throwing parties and drinking.  On our last day, Zaya and I sat in the hotel lobby when the wife rushed in asking if we had seen her husband.  He had disappeared again.  When we said no, she left whispering she wanted a divorce.
  • When we were living with a nomad family outside of Arvaiheer, we woke up one night to screaming in the next yurt.  The wife of the man in the next yurt (ger) had gotten so fed up with his drinking that she tried to stab him in the night.  He had apparently not received any money for months, but got some cash from a local company for his help that day, which he drank away in a day.  Although, I think this example is important to show that Mongolian women fight back too.
  • There are many many other examples; i.e. a drunken old nomad in the bus from one aimag center who yelled at all the women in the bus for not respecting him since he was old and a male.  He yelled at me, accusing me of working for a mining company and manipulating Mongolians, and he yelled at Zaya for supposedly being manipulated and loud.  He ended up, in his frustration, hitting Zaya and another girl on the head with a vodka bottle when we complained about him smoking in the bus.

So my theory is –which I haven’t been able to check since there is no research on this and it isn’t my personal project- is that Mongolian men frequently use alcohol in this country because of its masculine connotations (success, public sphere, etc.).  In a changing economy, where women and men are capable of being able to work and be educated, the loss of the traditional dominant public masculine sphere has driven many men to supplement the failure of the masculine role by symbolically enacting masculinity in other ways, aka alcohol usage.  And thus there is a rise in male drunkenness – and unfortunately as a result of this – abuse towards women.

And upon asking the wife of these men as to their husband’s alcohol usage, I frequently hear “it’s just how it is” or “it’s just how men are.”

Modern difference feminism – Hatan uhaan (Queen intelligence)

Mongolian queens

Most foreigners living in Mongolia have heard the stories of royal Mongolian women saving the day and uniting the country.  Chinggis Khan’s greatest allies were his wife and mother, he gave many lands to his daughters to control, Sorqaghtani Beki (a widow of a khan) manipulated and controlled Mongolian politics for 23 years, Queen Manduhai successfully raised and united the country under one khan through her skill on the battlefield, and, as the legend goes, Princess Aigiarm never married, because no man could ever defeat her in wrestling.  That is also the reason for why Mongolian wrestlers currently wear a traditional outfit that leaves the breast open, so that no woman could disguise herself and win (which they had done!).

The point is Mongolian women are no strangers to the idea that women can be powerful, intelligent, and cunning. But this power has always come within the sphere mentioned above – as the partner or supporter to a male, a khan or head of household.  And this current growing awareness amongst women – tied with the need for women to work and gender roles to ‘modernize’ – has lead to the rise of a popular difference feminist movement, “үгүйлэгдсэн ухаан” (missing intelligence), otherwise known as “хатан ухаан” or queen intelligence.

The figurehead of the movement - Ariunaa

Ariunaa, a very famous Mongolian singer (also a spokeswoman for the communist party… coincidence?), recently spearheaded a movement, TV show, and congressional committee meeting discussing the formation of the studies and support for ‘queen intelligence.’

According to them, as inspired by the aforementioned powerful Mongolian queens, women should equally aspire to be the ‘queens’ of their families and promote ‘queen intelligence.’  This stream of thought states:

–          Women are fundamentally different than men, i.e. they are naturally more nurturing, peaceful and equitable, thus less corrupt than men

–          Government could benefit from having more women, because it would correct a lot of the current problems by adding a more nurturing touch, i.e. pursuance of education reform, more socially minded laws

–          Women shouldn’t simply ‘relegate’ themselves to position number two, but should rather take pride and become the supporter of the family (the queen to the king, the neck to the head)

–          One of the most important things for women is to become intelligent, because they need to pass on that intelligence to their kids to make them positive societal actors

The historian Naranbuu (Н.Нагаанбуу) in describing his approval of queen intelligence:

“I wish for women to be second. I want to be first in my home. I don’t want my kids to carry the name of their mother. Women and men are different, and queen intelligence fits wonderfully into this second position. Throughout Mongolian history, women always lost favor when they tried to become number one.  When women become the mayor of a sum (like a province), something is missing.”

D. Arvin, one of the current three female Mongolian parliament members (apparently queen intelligence is popular amongst the few female parliament members):

“The mother needs to pass on knowledge regarding life to her kids.  However, today’s mothers don’t carry out their commitment to teach their kids morals, they give their kids to kindergarten and school. The community isn’t developing well, because people’s knowledge isn’t being utilized (implying women’s unique knowledge). There was enough time to give birth to rulers, raise them, and implant queen knowledge in [earlier queen’s] minds.”

Obviously, many people will identify this as difference feminism (although Naranbuu might be pushing that) – the idea that men and women are fundamentally different, but that women’s activities should be promoted to balance a society dominated by male approaches to problems.  By promoting women and reintroducing the mothering, nurturing hand, those problems should supposedly be corrected.

I don’t agree with this, but I can totally understand why this form of feminism is finding resonance amongst Mongolian women in light of the gendered circumstances discussed above.  The idea of queen knowledge gives those women who want to pursue a career and modern ideals of equality a way to uphold these morals in a way true to Mongolian traditional culture.  AND they get to throw in Chinghis Khan’s name to boot to lend the argument veracity.  A win win.

Obviously, the anthropologist in me feels a pang of doubt when I express my disapproval at gender roles in a culture not my own.  But alone the fact that in a society where women are much more educated than men, only 3.9 percent of parliament members are women reflects a failing of this equal, but different argument.

So… is it tradition or patriarchy?

(Und so nebenbei für all diejenigen, die sich für Gender in der Mongolei interessieren.  Ein Zeitungsartikel über die Frauenrechtsorganisation, mit der ich aktuell zusammenarbeite, wurde neulich im Luxemburger Wort veröffentlicht.  Klicken Sie hier, um den Artikel über unsere “Young Women for Change” zu lesen!)