Foreigner’s perception of Naadam and women

Article written for the UB Post during Naadam, detailing my impressions as a foreign woman and addressing the progress of gender equality in the nation as well. Link to original currently unavailable. Picture credits to Sebastian Zusi.

For Naadam, the city bloomed with silk and color. Mongolians wore deels with bright hues and intricate patterns. By the National Stadium, people milled about on the grounds, drifting from tent to tent with khuushuur in their hands. And inside the Naadam grounds, on the field, there were four women. They all wore blue cotton deels and straw-colored hats, and they marched up to the line that marked their position. They raised their bows, pulled back the string, and then an arrow hurtled through the air. They were beautiful and graceful.

When I first arrived in Ulaanbaatar, one of the first things I noticed was the progressive gender dynamic. I’d heard about it overseas — “Mongolian women are really strong” — but coming here, I see it first-hand. That being said, while women are respected for their strength, I could also still sense the overall patriarchal lean. This is also made especially evident in Naadam festival, which hails the “three manly sports.”

I am a student at an all-women’s college in the US, which as expected maintains a very feminist atmosphere among the study body. Truthfully, I feel that I’m not always necessarily as vehemently “feminist” as other students at my school are. However, being in Mongolia has demonstrated the complex position of women in society — especially in a traditionally-masculine nation that is developing.

When I first heard of it, I was a little bit surprised to learn that Naadam honors the “three manly sports” of archery, horse-racing, and wrestling. Initially, women could not participate in these festivities at all, but in recent years they became eligible for archery and horse-racing competitions. However, they are still not permitted to partake in wrestling matches.

The wrestling match that I saw at the National Stadium was indeed a sight for a foreigner. We stood on line for half-an-hour since there were so many people. Nearly all of the seats in the stadium were filled. The arena erupted in cheers when the wrestlers first began to line up, wearing leather boots wound up with string, small briefs colored bright red, and tight, red or blue chestless jackets snaking across their arms and backs.

This jacket, called a zodog, apparently is made in such a way because a woman wrestler once rebelliously participated in the men-only wrestling tournament during Naadam and actually won the match. To prevent women from sneaking into the competition again, legend has it that the uniform was redesigned. Now the jacket must reveal the chest area.

I thought about this as I watched the men push one another across the field like bulls. It was always a tight-locked, head-to-head battle — shoving one another back and forth, stumbling, coming apart and then starting the whole process again till someone fell to the ground. Whenever one man buckled to his knees, the entire stadium would erupt in cheers.

It was fascinating to watch. But I did wonder how it would differ if women were able to participate.

In fact, female wrestlers such as Soronzonboldyn Battsetseg have competed in wrestling in the Olympics and earned medals for their achievements. This is another reason that many people lobby for including women in Naadam festival wrestling.

However, though I feel that excluding women from Naadam wrestling may be somewhat problematic especially given Mongolian women’s achievements in Olympic wrestling, compared to the USA, Mongolia is just as or perhaps even more progressive in some ways. I recently attended the #HeForShe campaign launch, for example, and was pleased to hear about all of the progress that has been made with regards to gender equality.

At #HeForShe Mongolia, the speakers emphasized including and cooperating with men rather than vilifying and thus alienating them. By reaching out to Mongolian men and addressing their needs as well, we can work to create a truly equal society in which both genders are taught to build one another up rather than tearing each other down. We sometimes don’t see this sort of cooperative attitude in the US.

Furthermore, historically, women have enjoyed more respect in Mongolian society than they have in other cultures. Jack Weatherford, in his 2010 book “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens”, discusses female descendants of Chinggis Khaan — khatans — that held the empire together, such as Khutulun and Mandukhai.

“The royal Mongol women raced horses, commanded in war, presided as judges over criminal cases, ruled vast territories, and sometimes wrestled men in public sporting competitions,” says Weatherford. “They arrogantly rejected the customs of civilized women of neighboring cultures, such as wearing the veil, binding their feet, or hiding in seclusion.”

In the vein of the tradition of these royal Mongol women, girls are permitted to enter the horse races as well. During the races, the girls held themselves high, perhaps thinking about those ancient khatans racing their horses across the steppe.

While women may not be allowed to participate in the wrestling tournaments of Naadam festivities, they still perform with poise and skill in the archery and horse racing tournaments. Additionally, I am still impressed not only with Mongolia’s rich, interesting culture showcased during this holiday, but also with the social progress of the nation. Though problems certainly still do exist, overall Mongolia has the potential to become a leading voice in advocating for gender equality in a truly equitable way.

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