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Can bleeding women lead?

“The more women gain equality, the more men run to football”
— Feminist slogan painted in the streets of London, 1997.

A SELF-PROCLAIMED religious ideologue once wrote about why women could not and should not be allowed to have the same roles and jobs as men. I shan’t get into the details of the book (I’ve lost the reference, I confess) but it soon became a classic among men in particular. In the text, the author anticipated all the advances that society would make in the future, and did his utmost to close the door of equality for generations of women to come.

judge gives out death penalty for double parking, plaintiff requests male judge

I am paraphrasing here, but I recall passages of homespun male wisdom declaring that women should not be bus drivers or bus conductors. The day will come every month when their wiring gets crossed and “lady bus driver” will end up driving on the wrong side of the road and “lady bus conductor” will over-charge passengers. There are others — “lady judge” will pass the wrong sentence (say, the death penalty for double-parking) and “lady pilot” will end up flying to Cuba rather than Beijing once a month.

Which brings us to the sorry state of Malaysian affairs, where some of our leaders have opined that women should not aspire for higher office, and certainly not the office of state premier. Of course it goes without saying that the prime minister’s office is simply beyond the horizons of possibility at this stage of Malaysian society’s evolution.

In Aceh

But forgive me for being a historian and for doing things that historians are wont to do: shedding some light on today by exploring the past. There is an account of the 17th century Persian embassy that was despatched to the court of the Maharaja of Ayudhaya, Siam. As fate would have it, the ship that carried the Persian ambassador was blown off course by strong winds as it crossed the Bay of Bengal. Unable to make landfall on the Malayan peninsula’s western coast, the ship was blown all the way to Sumatra’s north-eastern coast instead, where it finally found safe harbour at the port of Aceh.

The Persian ambassador was forced to stop his journey for a while as the winds continued unabated. In time, an emissary from the court of Aceh arrived to call upon the ambassador and invite him before the presence of the ruler of Aceh. The Persian ambassador was pleased with the invitation and replied in the affirmative. As the ambassador approached the ruler’s palace, he noted the progress and development of Aceh that was then one of the most important port-cities of Southeast Asia. Aceh traded with countries as distant as China, India and Europe.

woman holding keris saying 'mmmm this feels so good'
Drunk on power once a month?

Finally he was brought to the presence of the ruler of Aceh, but was struck dumb when he gazed upon the ruler. It turned out that the Sultan of Aceh was in fact a Sultanah — Sultanah Safiatuddin of Aceh (r 1641-1675)[1]. The ambassador noted in his diary that the ruler of Aceh was a woman no less, and that she was armed with several kerises. Her bodyguards were made up of men of equal martial prowess and demeanour.

The ambassador was also amazed by the fact that Aceh’s aristocracy (Orang Kaya) would submit to the rule of a woman, no matter how competent she may have been. In fact, Aceh would later achieve something matched by only one other country — Greece — by having a woman command its naval forces, Laksamana Koemalahayati, in whose honour an Indonesian navy battleship is named[2].

Across the region

Let us remind ourselves, however, of some basic facts: During the anti-colonial struggles across South and Southeast Asia, women were key and important figures. Throughout the Vietnam War, women fought alongside men in their struggle against US military hegemony. Vietnamese women were fighting there, in the front lines, in a guerrilla war against the most powerful military force on the planet. Did they complain of period pains? Did they tell their commanders, “Sorry, dear, but today I can’t control the rocket launcher against the Yankee helicopters because I’ve got a cramp and my tampons just ran out?”

Burmese, Indonesian and Filipina women were likewise working and struggling with their male counterparts throughout the anti-colonial struggle. They pioneered new initiatives such as education and mass literacy in fighting against the colonial forces and defending their newly-independent homeland. Did these women complain of period pains? And were the Burmese and Indonesian wars of independence stalled because some female guerrilla fighters had to run off to the sundry shop to buy sanitary pads before loading their rifles?

He figured it was just the wrong time of the month

Why, even in the relatively sedate climes of Malaya, women were key figures in the early nationalist movements like the Malay Nationalist Party and even the Malayan Communist Party. When the Malayan Indian Congress was formed under the leadership of John Thivy, many of is founder-leaders were themselves former members of the Indian National Army. There was Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan, the second-in-command of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment who later rose to the position of senator in the Malaysian government. Another member of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, Rasammah Bhupalan, rose to become one of the first women’s rights activists of Malaysia and a welfare activist.

So under what scientific and/or historical basis are we to accept this claim that women are not fit to serve and work alongside men, and to have the same aspirations and ambitions as men? One of the most insidious things about patriarchy is the manner in which it strives to normalise and re-present itself in the same packaging of outmoded conventionality and tradition. But this is why we need to be attentive to the voices of history that continue to speak to us. Then perhaps we would see that Southeast Asian history is also a history of women who have played visible and important roles in the development of their respective societies. As a Southeast Asian, I’m rather proud of that. favicon

Dr Farish A Noor is a historian and school teacher heading for early retirement. He believes that all men should be feminists, and some women, too.


1    For a detailed account of the life and times of Sultanah Safiatuddin of Aceh, see the presentation by Sher Banu Latiff Khan, (Panel 1, Dominant Ideas in Scholarship on Religion and its Impact), for the Conference on Religious Activism and Women’s Development in Southeast Asia: Highlighting Impediments and Exploring Opportunities, 20-21 Nov 2009. The conference was organised by the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs in collaboration with the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Singapore.

2    For a cursory overview of the prominent women in Indonesia’s history, particularly Laksamana Koemalahayati and the sultanahs of Aceh, see: Ismail Sofyan, H Hassan Basri, T Ibrahim Alfian (eds), Wanita Utama Nusantara: Dalam Lintasan Sejarah. Jayakarta Agung, Jakarta, 1994.

Perhaps the only weak aspect of the abovementioned text is that it is a compilation of the histories of queens and commanders. There is almost no mention of the biographies and histories of subaltern women from the Southeast Asian region.

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6 Responses to “Can bleeding women lead?”

  1. T-Boy says:

    Oh, yeah! I remember the Aceh Sultanah story.

    Had a male teacher who opined, several times, and to the disgust and annoyance of several of my classmates, that the reason for Aceh’s later downfall was that Aceh’s ruler was a woman.

    This same teacher also, in another position (he was teaching Malay language in my secondary school, and then took up teaching Islamic studies in my college — yeah, small town, kan?), opined that people who wore ear-rings “could not be trusted”.

    That day itself I got my left ear pierced, just to show him what for.

    And you know what? I can’t even remember [his] name.

  2. Melissa says:

    Your pieces are always great, but this time, I especially appreciate it not just because of the very relevant topic, but because this is the first piece of yours in a long time that I can fully understand without opening 🙂 So thanks, Farish!

  3. Fiona Lee says:

    I am sympathetic to the argument Dr Farish is making and appreciate being enlightened on the historical bits mentioned above. However, I found myself bristling at the way menstruation is discussed above. But before anyone rolls their eyes at me and accuses me of not having a sense of humour, I think my reaction points to the way sexual difference has been handled (too simplistically, I think), much to the detriment of the issue at stake. This is not about PC-ness but rather bears on how we go about understanding a “history of women” and a history of subalterns, as well as why we often fail to do so.

    I’ll try to explain. The author supports his argument that women should be allowed to assume the highest seat of state power by forwarding two points: 1. The argument against it is just plain ludicrous and is sad evidence of why Malaysia is in a “sorry state” and lagging behind 2. History tells us that women have worked alongside men and have helmed what we conventionally think of as masculine positions perfectly well.

    I get that the sarcastic tone deployed to discuss menstruation is intended to underscore point 1. I also get that it’s not making fun of women — in fact, the very opposite. However, it seems to reinforce the clumsy notion that the difference between men and women can be reduced to biology. Of course, point 2 emphasizes that even though men and women might be biologically different, they are nonetheless equal because hey, despite getting monthly cramps, they perform just as well as men who don’t “bleed”! The different but equal argument only reinforces a problematic reduction of sexual difference to biology.

    The question of what constitutes sexual difference has been the stuff of much productive debate among feminist theorists and it is far from a settled one. To state the obvious, it is a complex matter. More significantly, I think it’s important to keep this complexity in mind if we are to take the project of making a history of women heard seriously. Why? Because the argument that Dr Farish makes fails to answer why a sexist argument such as Datuk Hamidah Osman’s continues to persist despite the many advances that women have made in fields dominated by men (including Datuk Hamidah herself!).

    I find the answer that people don’t know their history, that’s why they’re doomed to repeat it — the premise on which point 2 is founded — unconvincing because it dismisses the paradoxical position that Datuk Hamidah occupies as irrationality. Now I know the exco is far from being a subaltern, but to see her argument simply as being behind the times strikes me as not unlike one reason why subalterns rarely make it into history textbooks: their thoughts and actions don’t make sense within dominant historical frameworks; rather than questioning those frameworks, the subalterns are conveniently left out. I think to treat an argument like Datuk Hamidah’s as simply being backwards is to accept liberal, progressive notions of gender equality a bit too unquestioningly.

    My sense is that the question as to why patriarchy continues to insidiously repackage the same old sexist argument cannot be answered by history alone. Though it is an indispensable part, it must also be accompanied by a rigorous consideration of the ontological question of sexual difference (egads, philosophy!). Otherwise, we risk espousing a flatfooted feminism, one that unfortunately tends to get outpaced by ye olde patriarchy.

  4. Farish A Noor says:


    While knowledge of the past does not necessarily lead anyone to enlightenment (and there is no teleology to social evolution, hope nobody believes that), history is nonetheless important because it serves us with counter-factual possibilities to the present and future. Simply put, if things were different in the past, then they can be different now and in the future as well.

    My biggest worry about the state of history and history-writing in Malaysia today (like many postcolonial societies) is that the past is presented as given, determinate and essentially fixed, with almost no counter-current voices. Failure to recognise the role of women in the past is the easiest and perhaps most convenient way to erase their presence now and in the future too.

    I agree that the politicians – including female politicians – hardly count as subaltern, in fact quite the opposite. But as we have seen with the selective entry of minority representatives in the US for instance, those who ultimately come to assume positions of power have themselves been vetted by a process that renders them the same. Some use/abuse/manipulation of the official narratives of national history has to be part of this process as well, as these ‘national leaders’ (or those who claim to be so) must have their own skewered and blinkered understanding of what constitutes the nation’s past as well.

  5. Fiona:
    “The different but equal argument only reinforces a problematic reduction of sexual difference to biology.”


    “My sense is that the question as to why patriarchy continues to insidiously repackage the same old sexist argument cannot be answered by history alone. ”

    I don’t think Dr Farish was trying to investigate the history of women or sexual differences. I think he was simply trying to challenge the current metanarrative of women being incapable leaders because of their natural-born tendencies — something which I can go to great length on due to its presence in the Abrahamic religions — by reminding us of several incidents of history which, as T-Boy expressed, have so often been presented in one manner alone. I for one was always thought that the Sultanahs of Aceh were weak.

    It’s Dr Farish’s voice that is the subaltern, not Datuk Hamidah’s, and if the roles appear reversed it is only because voices like his find their home in an academic environment, the only environment where a tag like ‘post-feminism’ can be used (despite the still prevalent culture of violence against women) and the concept of ‘accept(ing) liberal, progressive notions of gender equality a bit too unquestioningly’ can make sense.

    Why do views like Datuk Hamidah’s persist in spite of her achievements? Simple — because that is what she is taught to believe, and because she has functioned well in that system of values despite its detriments to others. When I was an undergrad at UM, I saw posters promoting a pro-women campaign which was run by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. The posters said something to the effect of women needing to be honoured because they were your mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives. This incident, among other incidents I’ve encountered as an undergrad, affirms my belief that post-feminism is a myth as far as a Malaysian context is concerned.

    If Datuk Hamidah believes certain patriarchal concepts, it is probably not because of some form of an ontological question regarding sexual differences (which are probably relevant, just not as relevant as you suggest) but rather because the patriarchal concepts have simply never been addressed and challenged beyond an elite community of Westernised intellectuals in the country. The story of the female rulers of Aceh is at least part of that reinforcement of the patriarchal narrative.

  6. Val says:

    Dear Farish,

    Thank you for this article.

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