Women are often associated with nature.
While some like to say it’s because of the cycle of fertility, it is an undeniable truth that the masculine mind often feminises anything it delights upon. We have enough Renaissance art to confirm to that.
And since the majority of our history has been controlled and written by men, women usually became a silent object of romantic poetry and art. The standard for an agreeable woman was someone who was simple and amiable; someone who quietly complied to the wishes of the men in her life.
Of course not every woman could adhere to the mild and meant-to-be-seen-not-heard stereotype. While the preferred role for a woman was to sit at home and bear offspring while men ran the world, women also took charge. Yes, women ruled, women fought and protected. They left legacies of heroism and lessons of strength that are like hidden gems in our oh-so-intricate history.
A normal Spartan woman, for example, was everything a woman elsewhere was not. Having an infamous reputation for its war-oriented lifestyle, Sparta expected toughness in its women to produce hardy offspring suited for battle. So they bid all propriety (definitely not a social construct) farewell when the women trained themselves to be athletic and independant. Being sharp tongued and rivalling their male counterparts in combat skills, Spartan women were a subject that horrified a man living anywhere else in ancient Greece. The other Greek women may have been more than a little envious of the status their Spartan counterparts held, but whoever could blame them for that?
While war was a department often exclusive to men, the tale of Boudicca shows that gender doesn’t define your capability to lead. When the king of Iceni (Boudicca’s husband) passed away and divided his land, his ally, the Romen Emperor Nero, annexed the land that belonged to Boudicca’s daughters. Upon resistance to his intentions, Nero had Boudicca flogged, her daughters raped in front of her as his soldiers ravaged the Iceni tribe. While it was a savage attempt to break Boudicca’s spirit, it actually roused her anger. Determined to never let the man who devastated her and her tribe walk away in smug triumph, Boudicca led an uprising with her army of Britons. She attacked the weak links in the Roman territory all while catching them off guard. From there, she and her army pushed forward and fought to the bitter end.
You would learn that it is not wise to cross a fierce woman, especially when you have wronged her, because underestimating a woman as tender and weak can prove to be dangerous to one’s health, if not deadly.
It was that mistake the Drevlyans made when they began their conquest of Kiev. After murdering Igor, the regnant of Kiev, they believed they could woo his wife, Princess Olga, into marrying their own prince (who just happened to be the murderer) and then take over the kingdom as their own. The matchmakers sent to propose to the regent never made it to her presence, as Olga would tell the Drevlyans, conveniently forgetting to mention that they were thrown into a trench and buried alive. When another band arrived, soldiers locked them into a bathhouse to be burned alive. While this happened right under their noses, the Drevlyans welcomed Olga into their homeland for a ceremony, also inviting the fate of being victims in a mass slaughter while the rest of their territory was set on fire by burning paper flown over the rooftops. The cruel irony of using doves to spread the burning paper, coupled with the brutality of the revenge itself made it abundantly clear that Olga was not someone to be toyed with.
And what comes to your mind when you hear the name ‘Cleopatra’? Beautiful, powerful, manipulative, seductive goddess? Julius Caesar’s lover? Or maybe Mark Antony’s? …Right.
People in power, throughout history, have always had such an inherent fear of change that they bury any good that change brings under the lies they construe to be true. It is important, hence, for us to delve back into the reigns of historical eras and find out what the truth actually was. Or, plausible explanations of it.
For example, Cleopatra, one of the greatest leaders to exist, did what 300 years of her ancestors couldn’t: brought Egypt nearly 22 years of stability and had the support of both Greek and Egyptian subjects. She was the first of her ancestors to learn the Egyptian language and culture to be able to better rule her people. She knew some dozen languages altogether, was knowledgeable in the sciences and liked to mingle with some of the greatest scholars in the country, leading armies at 21 and an entire fleet against the Romans.
History, though, paints her out to be someone she wasn’t, ‘a beautiful goddess who seduced two of the finest Roman generals and caused the end of an entire republic.’ Most of the art and literature that we now come across came after her time or through the eyes of hateful Romans that quite literally painted her to be this scheming, beautiful, sexual entity, who convinced those around her into obedience, just to discredit her. As if the Romans couldn’t have been terrified of anything less.
We now find that Cleopatra, in fact, wasn’t up to the general standards of beauty. Or the fact that a relationship is not one sided and it is rather hard to trace back exactly who instigated it; Cleopatra or the so-called ‘finest Roman generals’? It is always simply assumed that she instigated the affairs she had because it is only the women who are defined by their sexualities.
Taking double standards for example, another way of morphing history to suit what preserves the ruling agenda, we come to the reign of Wu Zetian, the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule as empress. In many historical observations, Wu is seen as this ruthless usurper who brought terror to all those around her. And while, there is no justifying any person’s crimes, it is rather amusing to see the hypocrisy when reading historical accounts of the two genders.
Wu did what any other emperor of China before or after her had done. In fact, it is noted, she may just have done it better. Recent historians note that ‘without Wu there would have been no long enduring Tang Dynasty and perhaps no lasting unity of China.’ Her reign had been one of the most peaceful and prosperous one, with the introduction of meritocracy, lower taxes, women’s rights (in 705 CE, can you imagine that?) and much more.
Yet, for going against the Confucian philosophy by simply being a woman, Wu Zetian invited more critics from all over the world than any of her male parallels had. And mostly, in a negative context.
But history, myth or legend, can be seen as guidance; as a lesson as to what can be achieved and what can be avoided. And it shines through that whatever the norms may be, a brilliant character can seldom be hidden from the light, and that women have always broken through the shell that society creates for them and nothing can really be more extraordinary than that. If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that women were never weak. They were either socialized to believe so or morphed through history into evil witches so no one else could dare want to be them.
Hadassah Khurram & Wania Sadiq