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'Warrior Queens Are in My Blood': Meet Mongolia's Notorious Female Archers

Female archers are not only raising eyebrows— they’re raising hopes that all of Mongolia's Olympic style games will be open to women once again.

by Lila Seidman
Jul 22 2016, 7:40pm

All images by Lila Seidman

Archery, one of the so-called "three manly sports," along with wrestling and horse racing, is practiced at Naadam, the country's Olympics style festival, which is held every summer. The sports are given a masculine edge because of their linguistic roots: The full title of the games is eriin (man's/strength) gurvan (three) Naadam, which can translate to "the three games to challenge strength and vigor" or "the three games of men" because the word root for "strength" and "male" are the same. Women have only been allowed to compete in archery for last few decades; their presence is not only lifting eyebrows, but also raising hopes that all the games will be open to women once again.

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It's believed that Genghis Khan used the games to cultivate able warriors when he founded the Mongol Empire in 1206. Many of the warriors in his army were women. In the late 13th century, Khutulun, a Mongolian princess warrior and great-great granddaughter of Khan, reigned as the undefeated wrestling champ of the kingdom.

"Khutulun was unusual, but not unique," historian Jack Weatherford writes in his essay The Wrestler Princess. "Mongol women rode horses as skillfully as men, often carried a bow and wore a quiver, and they repeatedly appeared in early reports as fighting alongside men."

In Mongolian culture, "as soon as there's a woman who is clever, who is a good leader, she is also a good archer," says Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, former Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The Mongolian queen Mandukhai, who is credited with reuniting warring factions of Mongols in the 15th century, is depicted in literature and legend as inseparable from her bow and arrow.

Historical claims notwithstanding, women were only allowed to re-enter Naadam, and only as archers, in the 1960s – more than seven centuries after the death of Khutulun (Young girls can now also participate in horse racing.)

In the intervening centuries, women's rights eroded significantly. The rise of Buddhism saw the replacement of shamans (spiritual leaders of both sexes) with lamas (male only). A woman's place in the ger (a traditional nomadic dwelling), as well as her place in society at large, gradually downshifted.

Ironically, the Communist People's Revolution of 1921, which brought its own set of cultural repressions, "at the same time brought new beginnings," Oyungerel says. "Among them was women's equality." The first day of Naadam coincides with the anniversary of the People's Revolution, which liberated the country from Chinese rule.

Yet under Soviet rule, any talk of Genghis Khan or traditional Mongolian culture was banned as "anti-revolutionary."

"That's why, since the 1990s, when we can freely visit our history, we started visiting 13th century history and seeing that women had way bigger equality in 13th century than in the 16th century," Oyungerel explains. "Then we started having inspirations from our 13th century history and all its legendary women. We started inserting our traditional place, which is very important for national sports."

This awakening extends to modern female archers. Many competitors in this year's Naadam stressed the direct bloodline between them and warrior princesses of centuries past. They assured me their traditional place was on the field alongside men, not on the sidelines.

This year, there are even rumors circulating that the one form of Mongolian archery women are have always been forbidden to practice, Uriankai, may reinvent itself as a coed sport.

Below are five of the female archery competitors in this year's games.

Nyamdavaa Jugderkhuu
Age: 49
Place of birth: Khuvsgul Province
Occupation: A former talk show host, Nyamdavaa is now secretary to the National Archery Commission.
"Women must practice archery," Nyamdavaa says In Mongolian history, there are many queens and women who reigned, ruled and led men to defend the country with a bow and arrow. We must be good enough to keep and protect this history. We must measure up to their standards, and do the things that they had done, if we're capable."

Tsetseg Dondognyam
Age: 67
Place of birth: Dornod Province
In her youth, Tsetseg practiced tennis, volleyball and skiing, but gave up sports once we was pregnant. While on maternity leave, she visited her neighbor, an archery teacher. She asked him to teach her to pull the bow. He felt she had a natural ability and encouraged her to continue training. Thirty-seven years later, she still is.
"There were hard times [competing] as a mother, but that's human life," Tsetseg says. There were times when I would have two [children] on both of my arms and one on my back. But overall I've had a very nice life. Everything works out in the end when you've set your mind to something. We have to pull the bow at least three times a year. Mongolians believe that doing so revitalizes the soul and brings good fortune. I plan to practice archery and pull the bow until I physically can't."

Davaajargal Khishigt
Age: 49
Place of birth: Dornod Province
In 21 years of practicing archery, Davaajargal has won Naadam five times and holds the highest ranking of all female archers in Mongolia.
Her ranking, Dayaar Duurash Mergen, means "a name that shall be echoed forever."
"There's no obvious discrimination [in archery] as of now. There's no basis for men to discriminate because women are very strong. If we were not allowed to practice archery then we would refuse to accept it and fight for it."

Bulgan Tsagaanzaan
Age: 30
Place of birth: Ulaanbaatar. Her family is from the Govi-Altai Province
Occupation: Deputy inspector at the state tax department.
Despite only taking up the sport two years ago, Bulgan is determined to be the best female archer in Mongolia. She has already achieved the rank of Sports Master and placed sixth in this year's Naadam.
"There's been a lot of queens in Mongolian history, like Queen Anu and Queen Mandukhai, that took control and protected the country. Those queens are in my blood," Bulgan says. "My brother has three children and I'm training them in archery. When I have my own children, of course I'm going to teach them.And when I die, my grandchildren will continue the tradition."

Bayartsetseg Radnabat
Age: 33
Place of birth: Dornod Province
Bayartsetseg has been practicing archery and competing in Naadam since 2006. She hails from the Dornod Province, which is sometimes called "the country of archers" because of its inhabitants' famed dedication to the sport. Her father and grandfather were both proficient archers.
"I believe that we're passing this tradition down to our younger generations and also promoting the sport to the public, as well as the international audience and the world," Bayartsetseg says. "Since we've been born human, it's our duty to the country."