Modern Mongolian
Women of
the Mongol Court
Rural Mongolian

Women of the Mongol Court
These edited notes were taken from a lecture by Morris Rossabi, presented as part of lecture series on Mongolia, “The Legacy of Chinggis Khaan”, in conjunction with an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum.
The most important accomplishment of Chinggis Khaan was uniting the Mongols not so much by conquest as by bringing together Mongols who were scattered throughout the country in the desert of the south, in the steppe lands on Central Mongolia, and in the forested and mountainous regions along the northern frontier.
How were the Mongols able to establish the largest contiguous land empire in world history?
The Mongols had other advantages. They had a powerful military force based on the horse. They had the mobility to initiate full-scale attacks, invasions, and hit-and-run raids. If they met a formidable enemy, they could retreat quickly. Another factor that led to their success was that the Mongols never had any intention of creating an empire. Each one of Chinggis Khaan’s discrete attacks was based on specific circumstances, such as trade disputes or the treatment of Mongols or Mongol merchants. One of his first campaigns was directed at Yanjing (modern Beijing) in northern China. It was one of his greatest successes. In 1215, he laid siege to Yanjing, the capital of the Jin Dynasty, and succeeded in taking it. But instead of capitalising on that victory to control northern China, when he got what he wanted, he simply went back to Mongolia. He barrelled through Central Asia in a period of five or six years because of a dispute over trade. When he had conquered the whole territory, instead of going further west, he returned to Mongolia. Chinggis Khaan did not have any vision of becoming a world Khaan.
How did women playa role in Mongol invasions and expansion?
In a nomadic society, each member was critical to the survival of the group. Another explanation for Mongol success is that women played a very important role in the economy; they took care of the animals, if need be. The Mongols had total male mobility for warfare. This made the Mongols a more daunting force than they might have been. Women also played a role in the military. Many women actually took part in battle and were mentioned in Mongol, Chinese, and Persian chronicles. Women were trained for the military. Mongol women had rights and privileges that were not accorded to most East Asian women. They had the right to own property and to divorce. Although we don’t know about ordinary Mongol women, we do know about prominent Mongol women among the elite. They were mentioned repeatedly in Mongol, Chinese, and European chronicles of the 13th century.
Probably the most famous of these women was Khubilai Khaan’s mother, Chinggis Khaan’s daughter-in-law, Sorghaghtani Beki. She is mentioned in so many sources as one of the great figures of the 13th century that we are assured that she was as remarkable as she is portrayed. European missionaries who visited the Mongols in the middle of the 13th century remarked that she was the most renowned of the Mongols. Persians wrote about her. A Middle Eastern physician wrote, “If I were to see among the race of women another who is so remarkable a women as this, I would say that the race of women is superior to the race of men.”
She set the stage for all four of her sons to become Khaans. Although she herself was illiterate, she recognised that her sons had to be educated. Each one learned a different language that the Mongols needed in administering the vast domain that they had conquered. Although she was a Nestorian Christian, she recognised that if the Mongols were to administer this vast empire that they had subjugated, one of the ways of doing so was to ingratiate themselves to the clergy of these various religions. So she and her sons protected and provided support for each of the religions within the Mongol domains. She supported Muslims, Buddhists, and Confucianists. She introduced her son Khubilai to the ideas of Confucian scholars to help him understand and be prepared to rule China. Her third contribution to Mongol rule was that she recognised that pure exploitation of subjected peoples would make no sense. Ravaging the economy of the conquered territories would ultimately be self-defeating. Instead of turning China into one big pastureland, she supported the Chinese peasantry. If the Mongols bolstered the local economy, eventually that would lead to increased production and increased tax collection. Each of her sons followed the same philosophy. Religious toleration, support of the religions, support of the indigenous economy, and literacy – all proved crucial to her son Khubilai, the man who really bridged the transition from nomadic steppe conquest to governance of the domains the Mongols had conquered.
Khubilai identified with the Chinese. He realised he would have to make concessions to them in order to rule China. There was no way for the Mongols to succeed on their own; 100 million people can’t be ruled with twenty thousand Mongols. Mongols had no experience in collecting taxes. In order to get that support from the Chinese, he began to act like a typical Chinese emperor. In the 1260s, he began to restore Confucian rituals to the court. He moved the capital from Mongolia into China. He was responsible for selecting the site of Beijing for the centre of the Mongolian empire. He patronised painting and painters in the Chinese tradition, and supported Chinese drama. Chinese theatre went through a tremendous cultural efflorescence during Khubilai Khaan’s era.
In all of these efforts, he was helped by his wife Chabi, who played as important a role as his mother had done. Chabi supported Tibetan monks, who began converting the Mongol elite to Tibetan Buddhism. When Khubilai conquered southern China, Chabi was influential in preventing revenge. She took measures to maintain the Song imperial family, to provide them with funds and a palace, not to enslave or kill them. She too played a critical role in Mongol rule.
One other extraordinary woman in Khubilai Khaan’s era was Khubilai’s niece Khutulun. She relished the military life and loved combat. She even impressed Marco Polo, who described her as so strong and brave that in all of her father’s army, no man could outdo her in feats in strength. Her parents were a little concerned when she didn’t marry by the age of 22 or 23. They were constantly beseeching her to enter into a marriage arrangement. She said she would only consent if a prospective suitor bested her in a contest of physical strength. She agreed to accept any challenge as long as the young man gambled 100 horses for the chance to beat her. Within a short time, she had accumulated about 10,000 horses. Finally, a very handsome, confident, skilful young prince arrived at the court to challenge her. He was so confident of victory that he gambled a thousand horses, rather than just the hundred she demanded. He bet he could beat her in a wrestling match. The night before the contest, Khutulun’s parents implored their daughter to let herself be vanquished, but she would have none of that. She said that if she were vanquished in a fair contest, she would gladly be his wife, but otherwise, she wouldn’t do it. So on the day of the wrestling match, the contestants appeared pretty evenly matched. The combatants grappled for quite a time. Then, in a sudden movement, she flipped the prince over and won the contest. The prince took off and left the 1000 horses behind. She actually never did marry. She accompanied her father on all of his campaigns.
While some of the stories may be hyperbolic, what they are telling us is that women in the elite were confident, were not about to be bowled over by men, and played an important role in Mongol society. There is so much emphasis on women playing military, political, and economic roles in this period, that we’re fairly sure this stretched beyond the elite woman. It trickled down to the ordinary women as well. Interestingly enough, by the 14th century, there are no more Mongol women playing roles as leaders. They become increasingly acculturated. In the next generation after Khubilai Khaan, the daughters and granddaughters of Khubilai Khaan are no longer prominent. They began accepting some the restraints imposed on Chinese women.
What was the significance of the Mongol conquest in world history?
The Mongols brought together East and West. For the first time, the Europeans were in touch with East Asia. Not just Marco Polo, but many Genoese and Venetian merchants, as well as Persian astronomers and doctors came to China. In fact, four Persian hospitals were started in Beijing in the 13th century. The exchange of textiles and artisans influenced the art and culture of all Asia. The tremendous flow of ideas, products, and people that occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries is the most important contribution the Mongols made.

The Modern Mongolian Woman
Female Focus: Oidov Oyuntsetseg, UNIFEM
Interview conducted by Lucy Collins
Oyuntsetseg is the UNIFEM Programme Manager for Mongolia. UNIFEM is the United Nations Development Fund for Women. She studied in Moscow, England, and Sweden before beginning her career in the media as an editor for Montsame News Agency, and as acting chief of the Foreign Department at Mongol TV before moving into the world of academia, lecturing at the Institute of Administration and Management Development. She is the Steering Committee Chairperson of the Gender Centre for Sustainable Development (GCSD). In December 2000, she became the first holder of the Woman Leader Award for her contribution to empowering women and developing civil society in Mongolia.
Oyuntsetseg is leading a team working on a book of one hundred outstanding women of Mongola, which is due to be published in Mongolian and, she hopes, English.
How did you make the switch from working in the media to working in development for an international organisation?
I worked for seven years in mass media; working for these types of organisations, you never have any spare time, and I had two little boys whom my mother brought up, and she she said to me, “You need to work in a less stressful job.” I then got the offer from the Management Institute to lecture. When I was working there, I got an offer from the UNDP’s resident representative, who asked me if I wanted to work for the United Nations. My background was in journalism; I didn’t have any experience in working in development. At that time in the early 1990s, very few people spoke English, and I was offered the job. I’ve been working in development since.
In 1997, Oyuntsetseg took a year’s leave from her role to care for her ill mother. When her mother died, she says, I realised I’d lost everything, and I felt so lonely. I decided I needed to use this year and stay at home and try to experiment. I went to my mother’s birthplace in Ulan-Ude, and met her friends and her sister, and spent about two months there. I wanted to work freelance, maybe write books on social issues. I immediately got offers from organisations and worked freelance. Then I became involved in NGOs, such as the Gender Centre for Sustainable Development, which was then called the Women’s Information and Research Centre (WIRC). I was one of the founders of that NGO, and also the National Centre Against Violence (NCAV). These NGOs are my babies. I became full-time at WIRC, and we wanted to make the centre more useful and more of a resource centre, so after a year of really hard work, we decided to change direction – we wanted to become a part of the development process, and decided to rename the centre.
Last summer, I got an offer from UNIFEM asking me to work on the situational analysis of women in Mongolia. I agreed, because I wanted to write about the progress of women and where we are now. The objective of the study was to analyse the situation of women, particularly in terms of the unique challenges facing women in transition. The study also identified critical issues affecting women from the perspective of their overall empowerment and prospects for achieving gender equality in the specific context of Mongolian society. In July last year, we held a two-day national workshop to launch the UNIFEM report, The Progress of the World’s Women, and The Situational Analysis of Women in Mongolia.
I’ve been working for UNIFEM since October 2000. In November 2000, the project Strengthening the Capacity to Implement the National Programme of Advancement of Women began.
Is there a set time scale for the project?
This is a two-year project. The project has four immediate objectives. Since the beginning of the project, a gender training workshop has been conducted based on the gender analysis framework of the Situational Analysis Report and the critical issues identified for the group of national experts to review the NPAW. UNIFEM is also going to work with the UNDP on the rural sector survey.
Do you work very closely with the government?
Oh yes. The government’s focal point if the National Council on Gender Equality, which was established very recently, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. At the same time, there are over forty women NGOs whom we intend to work with.
Is Mongolia a sexist society?
In the Situational Analysis Report, we described it as a male-dominated society in terms of power, although we have equal rights. The provisions of different laws say that equal opportunities and equal participation and equality shall prevail, but in many cases, there are different systems of equality. The report used three key indicators: the ratio of girls’ to boys’ enrolment in secondary education; women’s share of parliamentary representation; and women’s share of paid employment in industry and services.
Women have a higher enrolment ratio than men in education. This ratio increases at higher education level, but women continue to be employed at lower management levels and occupational grades. Women’s employment in formal sector manufacturing, education, and health has declined. To give an example of higher unemployment rates for women, 54% of women are self-employed in the informal sector.
Why are fewer women involved in politics since democracy?
Although percentages of women in parliament were higher during the previous regime, they were appointed roles. In the election of 1992, numbers of women increased slightly, and in1996 and 2000, about 10% of parliament was female. The National Programme of Action is calling for 20% of parliament to be made up of women.
Fewer women leaders are being trained; maybe society is still having difficulty in trusting women in positions of power. Several women’s NGOs are now training women leaders for such roles.
Is there a glass ceiling in Mongolia?
Yes, When you look into the legal provisions, you see many different equality provisions and equal opportunity options, but in actual fact, you would definitely obserbe the glass ceiling as being very effective. Most women’s NGOs now include in their mission statements their desire to raise the status of women.
Do you think Mongolian women want to become career women?
In the ‘90s, we’ve experienced lots of different phenomena, including having more choices and opportunities which were not previously known to us. Democracy brought all kinds of new arenas to choose from. I think many young women want to have a career, but extended families take up a lot of time.
What opportunities are there for women in the countryside to better themselves?
Rural women have more limitations than urban women, due to their lack of access to information and the burden of their workload, making it harder for them to be successful as farmers or businesswomen. However, many of them are trying hard to overcome the obstacles and become good farmers, herders, and businesswomen. The modern phenomena is that more and more women are engaged in the informal sector – many women are trading between China, Russia, and different aimags. The government needs to focus on creating a favourable legal and social environment for these people. They’re doing these jobs to survive.
Do you think the nomadic lifestyle hinders the process of women?
I wouldn’t say that. For rural Mongolians, this is the only way to survive. It’s a hard life, all year round, non-stop work, and changing their lives could be done in terms of introducing new technology to make their lives easier – solar energy, for example. Maybe the ideas of the Green Revolution Party could change their lives.
What are the most common jobs for women in Mongolia today?
Most women are engaged in the soft sectors, like light industry, education, and the health sector. Most doctors and teachers are female; most directors of hospitals and schools are male. An interesting fact is that in most countries, lawyers are mainly male; but here, 70% of lawyers are female, mostly working at a primary level. The higher the position, the more men; the lower the position, the more women.
Whom do you admire?
My mother, definitely. And many other women. I’m really proud of writing the story of 100 women in Mongolia.
Does it represent a cross-section of Mongolian women?
Yes. Herders, professionals, and businesswomen.
What do you think is the secret of your success?
You think I’m successful? I don’t know… I work really hard, my mother made my life easy by taking on the responsibility of raising my children, my husband is supportive of my career, and I have always worked with wonderful teams. Credit should go to my colleagues and friends. I have a good team!
What are you most proud of?
I admire my family, and I’m proud to be Mongolian.
What changes that affect women do you envision in the next few years?
Ever since the democratic process began, people have had more choices and more opportunities. Mongolia has opened up to the rest of the world and broader views, so we can compare ourselves. These discoveries help us to judge where we should go. Men and women are the major players of the development process; without each other, we cannot succeed. Women’s NGOs promote women’s activities, and the government has approved a national programme of action, lending importance to the empowerment of women. In society, people are becoming more aware and interested in gender equality and partnership. In the coming years, I think this trend will continue. I think Mongolia can achieve a lot of things. I view the future with optimism – we’re part of the whole globalisation process.

The Role Women Play in Rural Mongolia

From the Women’s Information and Research Centre
According to official statistics, over 40% of the population are nomadic and engaged in herding. This plays an important role in the national economy. Privatisation has offered both advantages and disadvantages to the herding community. The disbanding of the state agricultural co-operative system led to the distribution of animals and equipment among the families who were registered members and workers of the cooperatives. Most families in agricultural regions had one or two animals, which usually included a horse – the principal form of transport – and one or two cows, but were not allowed to own more animals than this because the notion of private property was anathema in the communist period. The distribution of livestock and equipment was based on the number of family members and the status of individual workers in the cooperatives. Now herder families were classified as self-employed workers, who, within a short time, needed to expand their herds in order to meet their subsistence needs, as well as produce food for urban markets. Their success depends on a wide range of factors, many of which were outside their control.
Women constituted 45.2% of those whose principal occupation was herding. The majority of men and women said that herding had been their profession of choice, although all of the respondents engaged in herding came from herding families. More men than women had been pressured into taking up herding by their parents. A significant number of men and women, 11.9% and 15.6% respectively, had taken up herding as their principal occupation after privatisation when they had lost their jobs. Although many of these men and women had not worked as herders under the old system, they had worked in the agricultural cooperatives or the agricultural service industry. Moreover, twice as many women as men had become herders through marriage.
Without exception, the increase in the size of herds was achieved through breeding rather than buying in extra cattle. In recent years, one of the fundamental changes in herding has been the diversification of herds through the increase in or introduction of cashmere goats. This change has been principally driven by women, and in the southern regions, is a major source of income for female herders. The diversification and expansion of herds has relied on the skills and expertise of herder families.
Herders are officially described in the national statistics as workers rather than self-employed people. Although they are no longer state employees, they do not come under labour legislation in terms of working hours and conditions, or pay or other benefits-related employment. Yet as self-employed people, they do not necessarily operate within a cash economy as we know it – that is, through banks or financial institutions – and have little access to credit. Part of what they produce is used directly for family subsistence; the surplus is sold to intermediaries, who sell agricultural by-products, such as skins, in the urban markets. The opportunity to sell dairy produce, for example, depends on the geographic location of the herding community. One of the principal disadvantages for herding communities has been the breakdown of the service industries, and most especially the dairy industry in many rural areas. This represented a significant loss of employment and marketing of one of their principal products. The success or failure of herder families has therefore relied on their expertise and skills in expanding their herds, and bartering and selling goods on the open market, both locally and regionally.
Herding is one of the most arduous occupations undertaken in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world. Herders are nomadic and shift with the seasons; depending on the quality of pasture and the local environment, herders move location between twice and four times a year. In most cases, the entire family is engaged in herding, both young and older children are expected to undertake their chores and contribute to the family economy outside of school hours. Herding is, therefore, co-operative work involving long hours engaged in physical labour, day in and year out. There is a clear division of labour within families, but women have the highest workload in the family business economy, as well as the subsistence economy. In the family subsistence economy, the work is divided between men and women on the basis of inside work/outside work. Women are primarily engaged in the former, but men are engaged exclusively in the latter. In other words, women are engaged in both inside and outside work, whereas men rare, if efer, engage in work that is undertaken inside the home.
The division of labour among male and female herders is also fairly distinct, but in many areas, they work together. Moreover, seasonal work, such as shearing, combing, and hay-making are undertaken in conjunction with relatives and neighbours. The care of the animals, for example, is also shared with the larger cattle taken out to pasture, and attended by men and the smaller animals, which tend to graze near the home, cared for by women.
Women and children process dairy products such as milk curds, cream, butter, and cheese for both home consumption and for sale in the urban centres, although the quantity of dairy products sold is quite small. The main problem for herders is the question of transport, distance from the market, and price. Dairy products are low-value goods, and to send large quantities by road or air to urban markets, due to inadequate infrastructure, is expensive, and therefore unprofitable. The national drink, airag, fermented mare’s milk, is also distilled by women, usually for home consumption, although some women do sell this locally. This is indicative of the triple workload that female herders are expected to undertake, and their working hours exceed those of urban women.
In the first instance, herder families aim to be self-sufficient, but they need to sell part of their produce on the market to raise a cash income to provide for various family needs. Nevertheless, herder families dealt in cash on a small scale, usually to buy in flour, candles, matches, tobacco, and salt each month. Often, these goods were obtained through barter or deals with merchants. Money is a scarce commodity in the steppes of Mongolia; herders trade as they have for centuries, bartering goods or labour for basic goods and services.
There were many exchange relation existing in herding communities, and especially within and between families. The rural exchange economy was especially important for female herders who were widowed or divorced, who could exchange animal products, airag, prepared foods, shoes, and clothing for the labour of male neighbours or relatives. This has, in many ways, shielded female household heads from the vagaries of the market economy in which rural intermediaries were more than willing to exploit the herding community as a whole - because they represented a captive market – but most especially its most vulnerable members, such as the elderly and female-headed households.
Without a doubt, herder families needed to engage in the cash economy far more in the transition period. Herders were most affected by the change in state provision in the education sector, whereby herder children of high school age no longer received full support from the state when they moved to the urban centres to complete their secondary education.
For most herder families, the opportunity to increase their cash income from sources other than raising livestock was limited, and 68.9% of those interviewed stated that they did not engage in any economic activity other than herding. Again, this is dependent on regional factors. For example, in the west, 73.8%, and in the east, 33% or herders supplemented their income through other activities, while only a very small percentage of herders in the central and southern regions do so. Hunting is the principal activity for income generation, although this is seasonal, and, in some regions, strictly controlled. Women and children in some regions collect deer antlers or berries to make preserves for trading in local and regional markets. Small-scale trading providing clothes, shoes, and basic commodities to the rural community is also undertaken by a small percentage of women. The question of transport and access to market is crucial to a herder’s income, and this is reflected in the data from the survey. Over 54% of herders sold their livestock and animal by-products on the local market; 20.6% in the aimag centres; and 14.1% in the major cities. Yet the level of income in herder families was only half that or urban households.