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Sorghagtani Beki and Toregene Khatun: Female Power in the Mongolian Empire

The Mongol empire stands in stark contrast to many other empires during its peak for many reasons, one of the most interesting being the freedoms that imperial women were granted in its ruling process. The majority of Western European countries did not allow women to have roles that gave them power because they were seen as inferior and less intelligent than men. In the Mongol administration, however, this was not necessarily the case. Many noble women were able to wield real power, most visibly during interregnum periods, which happened between the death of a Great Khan and the election of a new one at a quiriltai, a gathering of descendants of Chinggis Khan. The men and women at these quriltais would discuss and vote who should succeed next, an important Mongol tradition tied to the rule of Chinggis and the heart of Mongolia. Other women derived power from their familial connections and leveraged this to insert themselves into positions of power and provide counsel to their husbands and sons, who were descended from Chinggis Khan. Through the use of familial connections and interregnum periods, imperial women in Mongolia found great success in their ability to wield social and political power. Women such as Sorghagtani Beki and Toregene Khatun were able to capitalize on these opportunities and changed Mongolian political life by creating impactful legislation and counseling male relations as to what was the best policy to pursue.

Many of the women that could to rise to power were able to so through powerful male relatives. Women like Sorghagtani Beki, who married Tolui, a descendant of Chinggis Khan, often inherited property that they themselves could control upon their male relations’ deaths and derive legitimacy from this if they ever rose to be a regent. When Tolui died, Sorghagtani Beki gained control of his ordo, the court and property that he had. She used this to generate income to educate her sons. She was never nominally regent, but her diplomacy generated significant support for her sons, all of whom would go on to hold high positions in the Mongolian administration. Most notably, she was well connected enough to refuse the Great Khan, Ogodei when he proposed marriage between her and his son, Guyuk. Bruno de Nicola notes, “…it illustrates that Sorghaghtani was strong enough to oppose the wishes of the Great Khan, benefitting from her kinship and marriage connections.”[1] Clearly, who one was related to could provide a lot of stability, and the financial security that she had from inheriting Tolui’s ordo helped tremendously, providing her with the money to educate her sons and promote their political careers. Through refusing marriage, she fundamentally altered the Mongol line of succession, and it allowed her to wield power and impact true change simply because of who she was related to.

Primary sources reveal sincere praise for Beki’s leadership and wisdom. Juvaini, a Persian historian, wrote that, “all were put to shame save only Beki and her sons, who had not swerved a hair’s breadth from the law, and this because of her great wisdom, self-discipline, and consideration of the latter end of things, whereof even men are negligent.”[2] This quote is interesting because it not only compares her in a way that makes her seem more intelligent than most men, but also because it portrays her as inextricably linked to her sons, reflecting the importance of family connections, which could help or hurt a woman’s case in seeking political influence. Her sons were clearly good men and developed leaders, reflecting her positive influence and increasing her political power significantly.

Toregene Khatun also demonstrated strength derived from her relations. She married Ogodei, and though she was not his oldest wife, she bore five of his seven sons, and was therefore able to ascend to an influential role in the family ruling structure. After his death, she became regent, and her relation to him as well as his sons gave her legitimacy. However, in contrast to Sorghaghtani Beki, the primary sources on her are not favorable at all. Juvaini and Rashid al-Din acknowledge that she was, “a very shrewd and capable woman, and her position was greatly strengthened by this unity and concord.”[3] In this way, al-Din acknowledges that she was well-connected, especially to her sons, which allowed her a powerful position where she could generate change, despite the fact that many disliked how she used it.

Interregnum periods, where women took over as regents between Great Khans, offered imperial Mongolian women a great deal of power. They were seen as the ideal choice for a regent, as they would (at least in the eyes of the men that appointed them) not hold onto the throne and try to promote their own agendas. Although Sorghagtani Beki was not a regent, Toregene Khatun is a good example of how powerful a woman in the regency could be. She was not an isolated case: there were several women who were named regents, and many others, like Sorghaghtani Beki, ruled over vast territories without the name “regent.” Toregene Khatun was named regent and interfered with the succession order, as her husband wanted his grandson Shiremun to succeed him, but she was able to secure the throne for her son Guyuk. These actions led to criticism, as mentioned above, with al-Din writing that, “…having been offended by certain persons during the Qa’an’s reign, and these feelings of resentment rooted in her heart, she resolved, now that she was an absolute ruler, to wreak vengeance upon each of these persons.”[4] she was able to use her influence to determine who was in charge in her administration and get rid of certain officials that she did not like, which speaks to the amount of power that women could wield in their regency she was able to change the entire succession, meaning she had capitalized on the opportunity given to her and created impactful policy that directly benefited her. De Nicola expands on this notion, writing that, “the direct intervention of the empress regent in all these matters suggests that Toregene’s reign was not a simple female interregnum between male rulers. On the contrary, she took an active role in protecting her reign from internal opposition and actively promoted a restructuring of the empire’s administration” (de Nicola). This once again shows the massive amount of power and influence that Toregene was able to have as a result of being regent, creating a change in the line of succession and therefore altering the Mongolian political landscape. We can take her as a case study that showed the wider ability of female regents who were able to take charge and exercise relative autonomy over what they wanted to get done. The interregnum period thus represented a unique opportunity for Mongol women to generate and wield real power for themselves, outside of male relations.

Imperial Mongol women were able to hold significant power as a result of their placement in society and enjoy the relative gender equality that was offered to them. Due to this, they were able to access significantly more freedoms than many other women outside of the empire. Through the use of familial connections, interregnum periods, imperial women in Mongolia found great success in their ability to wield social and political power. Women such as Sorghagthani Beki and Toregene Khatun were able to capitalize on these opportunities and impact Mongolian political life by creating meaningful legislation and counseling male relations on policy decisions.



Notes

[1] De Nicola, Bruno.Women in Mongol Iran: The Khatuns, 1206-1335, 90–129. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

[2] Juvaini. 1958. The History of the World Conqueror. Translated by John Andrew Boyle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[3] Al-Din, Rashid. 1971. The Successors of Genghis Khan. Translated by John Andrew Boyle. New York: Columbia University Press.

[4]Al-Din, Rashid. 1971. The Successors of Genghis Khan. Translated by John Andrew Boyle. New York: Columbia University Press.


Bibliography


Al-Din, Rashid. 1971. The Successors of Genghis Khan. Translated by John Andrew Boyle. New York: Columbia University Press.


De Nicola, Bruno. Women in Mongol Iran: The Khatuns, 1206-1335, 90–129. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.


Juvaini. 1958. The History of the World Conqueror. Translated by John Andrew Boyle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


May, Timothy. “Commercial Queens: Mongolian Khatuns and the Silk Road.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 26, no. 1-2 (2015): 89–106. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1356186315000590.

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