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.

Justification?

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.