Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Selection Of History – The Malay Amazons

History is selective, Marina Mahathir of the Sisters of Islam probably wanted to say. It is the reason why we learn in school about the emancipist, Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904) but nothing about the great Malay queens and warriors who predated her from centuries earlier and those who came after her, the Amazons. These are the Malay Shikandi or Sri Kandi of the Mahabharata, the character who had been a woman, Amba, who then attained manhood by prayers and fought alongside Arjuna and the Pandavas in the epic Battle of Kurushetra.

In Aceh they are simply the Inong Balee or widow warriors. They are widows who took over the helm following their husbands fall in battle, some becoming admirals, others guerilla leaders and tens of thousands more as soldiers and guerilla fighters.

But was it Hindu influence that had turned the Malay women into the Amazons we removed from our history books in school?

That isn’t altogether clear. There’s the Farsi (Persian) connection in the Malay genesis. There’s also the possibility it was all in the Malay nature.

Malays have fallen since from being the only people in the world who had dared to insult Kublai Khan and then gave the great Khan a beating in East Jawa in 1292.

The great Mongol sent more than 12,000 soldiers to teach Kertanegara a lesson in the art of might he had himself to bitterly learn.

Kublai would have become blind if he were to see them now – a motley of colonizeables drowned in orthodox and patriarchal Islam making them all screwed up over deviant teachings, interfaith, beer and women liberation movements for the want of the right to polygamy and to marry a child of eight or nine because their 7th century Arab Messenger of God had done so, may peace be upon him.

To observe the Malays of Nusantara fall into a subsidence of such historical magnitude from the high watermark to become a people as colonizable as they are today is to touch a note of history of a corruptible, power-debauched and mentally captive society.

So we learn about Raden Ajeng Kartini and touch nothing about Laksamana Keumala Hayati, or of Cut Nyak Din or of Cut Meutia in Aceh, or of the Ratu-Ratu of Pattani, one of whom could have taken Ayuthia by force but turned back upon seeing the king of Siam under attack from Burma.

And in Kelantan there was Urdugu Wijaya Malasingha, or Cik Siti Wan Kembang ibn Batuta visited. She led her own all-women cavalry.

Because Kartini was “relevant” to our Occidental history, we and our children are taught about her in school.

She is one among the Indonesian national heroes. She is displayed on a denomination of the Rupiah.

Kartini (1879-1904) had been relieved of Dutch education half way in a Dutch colonial school and then, at age 24, was married to a man twice as old and as his fourth wife, a seasoning of women under Islam that she salted into her letters to Dutch friends in Holland and thus became an emancipist.

Backed by Dutch Liberalists the letters burned into Indonesian history and Kartini Day was born when the Indonesian state constitution declared the genders in Indonesia as equal. Kartini Day is April 21.

But that’s merely a whiff about the historical roles of the Malay women in determining the destinies of their countries and of the region as a whole.

Presidents Aquino, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Arroyo Macapagal are recalls of this historical role.

Historical Distortion

History had become distorted by the selection of facts, leaving the bulk falling into disuse because the pages of time had been turned by the grand artifices of imperialism, Islamic and Western.

The natives must retrieve their own reality and rebuild it or the “truth” will be dead.

It is like this:

It was found after the dust had settled in many a battle during the War of Dipo Negoro (1825-1830), that among the corpses were women dressed in silat (martial) attire with their breasts fastened tightly to their chests.

It is documented history. But the Dutch did not want to awaken the fact and later many Islamist, fearing what those facts would do to the integrity of gender bias in Islamic Law, rejected them as well.

Dipo Negoro, as it is popularly known, traced his ancestry to Prophet Muhammad and so it was best to let the Malay women’s role in the war rest in oblivion, ignorance in cases of this sort being a heavenly bliss.

The Malay had no sense of gender bias. Malays did not adopt Hinduism or Islam without tampering with the basics. They “brought” Mahameru, which is the Hindu Mountain of the Gods, to Sumatera and Jawa. These are the two Gunung Sumeru.

In a similar insistence of this sovereign cultural nativity, the Malays had and have their concept of Adam as in the several Babab Jawa, tracing from him the lineage of the Javanese Raja.

Among the Malay Rajas of the Peninsular and Andalas (Sumatra), this lineage is traced to Gayomart, the Persian Adam, which Wilkinson recorded in his Malay Papers.

The Malay heritage isn’t a squared bundle of joy taken from the scripted prose of the Arabs and deposited into a round hole of history as a rude awakening to imperial reality that sprung from Hadramaut or Mecca.

While a sprinkle of Islamic laws were observed for a number of centuries, the Malays had never imposed the whole of the Shariat (Islamic Law) on their communities.

The 99 laws of Perak and of Pahang were not based on the Shariat. They were native Malay laws with a bit of mix-up.

Malays led their lives according to their own values, not along the rude demands of the Malay Arabic-educated intelligentsia, some mentally warped by the mesmeric trance-culture summed as rites and traditions into becoming an excessive appetite for power and for abuse.

When these flakes of the moribund are removed and Malay history is seen clearer, what rises above the historical scams is a sensational history of empires being built by men and women together, without the slightest nuance of gender bias.

President Obama, who lived as a child in school in Jakarta for some years, would have read about this, him a keen student of history too. He is someone close to us.

First Woman

The first woman known to have been an Admiral was Laksamana Keumala Hayati of 17th century Acheh. She had an armada of more than 400 ships and drove off, among others, Cornelis de Houtman.

She had built an efficient intelligence network and secured John Lancaster from a Dutch planned attack on his ship in Aceh harbor.

Keumala Hayati was succeeded by another woman. Her navy, of course, consisted of men and women.

And it had been the practice in Aceh from the time of Iskandar Muda to use women as the king’s bodyguards, not unlike what Gadhafi introduced in Libya.

There were also the palace guards, more than 500 of an all-women commando unit which, on every Friday, would accompany the sultan and his elephants to the mosque in Banda Aceh for the weekly prayers.

We are talking about the 16th century and when Aceh was recognized as the leader of the eastern chapter of the Islamic world and a partner of the great Ottoman Empire in the face of Western expansion.

It was a time of Jihad to protect the territories of Islam.

Do you believe they, the members of the all-women Aceh commando palace guards, would have covered their faces or their hair? Would these Malay troopers have covered the aurat parts of their arms?

It could never be fitted into Islamic Law, surely. But in today’s Malaysia is a mix-up of the tightening of Islamic law against military and police forces that have women jogging up sharp hills to keep fit, wearing short-sleeves and ass-tight pants, or flying faster than the speed of sound in a fighter jet we have yet to manufacture ourselves.

You’d need to somehow override the confusion, which means you will have to let the Malays enjoy the freedom of conscience and choose not to remain Muslims of the 7th century AD and somehow adjust to the new millennium.

Keumala Hayati was succeeded as the Admiral by a woman, whose deputy was also a woman.

When the Dutch finally captured Aceh and the national forces had to fight from the mountains, women took the leadership from their fallen husbands, as Cut Nyak Dien and Cut Meutia had done, two from thousands of liberation fighters.


The Malay cultural scenario had begun to change drastically in the early 19th century, with the outbreak of the Padri Wars (1815-1830). Padris were Malay Wahabis.

It wasn’t the Dutch or the English who were the main cultural contestants. It was the Padris.

They fought a war of attrition in Minangkabau to break the matriarchal stranglehold.

Pagaruyung, the tip of the Malay pantheon, was surrendered to the Dutch, the raja becoming the regent and settling himself in Batu Sangkar a few kilometers away.

Malay-Islam was never the same since. Even after their defeat in 1830 (by the Dutch) the Padris spread.

In Langkat, Sumatra, where the largest spiritual school in the region (Tareqah Naqshabandiah) was settled, the political struggles for power over the highly influential bodies of followers consequently became more observant of the Arab Shariat.

The contrasts between Arab and Malay Islam were reaching to a head. Malay religious teachers of the new breed never seized to attack Minangkabau traditions or the Adat Pepateh until Umno predominated and took the lead in the 70s under Tun Razak.

But the tenor had been set. The religious orthodoxy had made itself the custodian and arbiter of religion, the miniscule Vicegerents of God on the good earth.

These attacked Islamic religious minorities as they still do in a crystallization of the mental warp in heads bundled in towels in the tropical heat and humidity.

The brains can enjoy seminal splendor but are often unable to appreciate abstractions, making the word of the law overwhelming to the remains of the mind.

Who said Gadhafi has at all been a nuisance? When a Libyan had come to complain to me about Gadhafi’s unorthodox Islam in 1976, I remember telling him that Gadhafi’s Islam is very much like Malay Islam and I suspected, I said, he had learned something from the Malays.

The Libyan religious man never came back. He failed to see the light.

We are Malays and we have to be of our own nature and not ape into the heavens a tribal Arab spiritual awakening of the 7th century that has, to many of us, exhausted itself and fallen into sectarian distresses Pakistan and Iraq are displaying everyday since the War of Mr. Bush and of Dick Cheney.

We are Malays. We are a composite community that had never had any gender bias.

When Aceh was ruled by queens in a row, they were not called sultanah (feminine for sultan). They were in their own rights, sultans and were referred to as such.

The last of them was deposed on the fatwa (religious ruling) of the Sheriff of Mecca.

Quo Vadis Melayu? Into bewilderment?---a. ghani ismail, 17 March, 2011

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