Genghis Khan, Asian conqueror, on women’s rights

March 10, 2010, Wednesday/ 16:55:00
If anyone in central Asia 800 years ago could be called a feminist, one was Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan was a bloody oppressor who killed a prospective son-in-law because the man refused to marry one of his daughters. The Great Khan killed thousands with even less excuse. That was how things were in 13th-century Asia.

Genghis Khan was born to the Mongols, a small population of herders north of the Gobi desert. They taught both sexes to defend their stock. He grew up to father at least 11  children, mostly girls. At their weddings, he defined marriage in a Mongol metaphor, echoing the Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky.”

“If a two-shaft cart breaks the second shaft, the ox cannot pull it,” he would say. “If a two-wheel cart breaks the second wheel, it cannot move.” Carts were indispensable to the nomadic Mongols. Women drove them; men were not permitted to ride in them unless they were sick. Women also made the felt tents that the carts carried and the Mongols lived in.

Healthy men, presumably, did better to get exercise on horseback, training for the cavalry that conquered the biggest empire the Eurasian continent has ever known.

“As an extension of a married woman’s ownership of the cart, the wife handled all issues related to money, barter or commerce,” writes Jack Weatherford, who has many sources for enticing stories that make “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire” enjoyable.

Mongol troops spilled much blood to control the Silk Road route between China and western Europe, but they shunned doing business themselves.

Weatherford researched his subject while teaching cultural anthropology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Additional anecdotes and oddities that already make the book hard to put down might have come from a mysterious gap in one of his main sources: “The Secret History of the Mongols,” from Genghis Khan’s own time. The manuscript tells of a speech he made at another wedding, where he detailed the titles, lands and other benefits he had bestowed on his sons. “Let us reward our female offspring,” he went on. Just at that point someone -- chronicler, copyist, censor, principled misogynist? -- clumsily cut out part of the manuscript, leaving it uncertain whether Genghis Khan had  seven or eight daughters.

Genghis Khan saw to it that the bride got a better deal than the groom. She was named a princess. The service of a groom took the form of an army post from which he was often  sent on dangerous missions. The prestige was high, and so was the casualty rate. The  consorts were quickly replaceable, often by a son, brother or nephew of the deceased.


“The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire,” by Jack Weatherford, published by Crown Publishers, $26 in hardcover ISBN: 978-0307407153 Carl Hartman AP
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