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In: Archipel , volume 87, Female resistance is presented by historiography as a feature of Acehnese history. This work supports the view that a heroic image of the woman fighter was created by historiography. Far from representing reality, it had a damaging impact on the contemporary recognition of women combatants. The article traces the involvement of women in Acehnese politics, distinguishing three main periods. First, the seventeenth century, for which historians juxtapose the myth of the admiral Malahayati to the reality of the reign of four sultanahs.

Then, the nineteenth century, with the heroines Tjut Njak Dhien and Tjut Meutia , whose images hide the existence of other female figures who fought against the Dutch Finally, the war of independence , when common women distinguished themselves, as during the recent conflict , during which they provided a crucial support to the GAM, starting in Women warriors of the past are controversial. In Southeast Asia, the image of Amazons is not less debated.

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Studies have shown women as enjoying a particular independence, and as playing significant roles in economic and political life. Archipel 87, Paris, , pp. Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 17th century. Armed women in the palace have also been reported to be guarding and escorting royal rulers. One striking example concerns the former sultanate of Aceh, on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

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Oral tradition transmits the story of a female admiral, Laksamana Malahayati, engaged in military activities at the end of the 16th and early 17th century; and figures of widowed heroines from the 19th century, such as Tjut Njak Dhien and Tjut Meutia, have become icons of the armed resistance during the Dutch war But if these figures of extraordinary women combatants were widely transmitted by oral accounts, Dutch reports and in local publications, they have also hidden the existence of numerous others female soldiers during the Independence war and the resistance against Indonesian sovereignty If not for the intervention of the international community, women would not have been part of the reintegration program for ex-combatants.

This fact is typical of gendered post-conflict trajectories. However, in the specific context of Aceh where women and war is a common association in popular history, it raises a question. In a large measure, the selective use of history explains the present situation where the role of anonymous figures is denied.

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Official historiography has helped to build a biased and exclusive image of women combatants which was actually a barrier to the recognition of the social and political role of women in Acehnese society. This article intends to demystify the female warrior in Aceh while showing that this idealized past prevents from understanding the contemporary position and action of Acehnese women.

It starts by dealing with the period of the sultanate when women held strong political positions but very limited armed functions; then it retraces the involvement of female soldiers in the Dutch wars and during the Independence, where they were directly engaged on the battlefield. Rulers vs Female Combatants. In the region of Aceh, women rulers are relatively common. In Aceh, as in the rest of the Malay world, 9.

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It was even the opposite. The reign of the female rulers inaugurated indeed a period of calm in war activities. War was replaced with intense diplomatic negotiations, as several Dutch accounts testify. Enormous taxes were indeed necessary to finance expeditions and maintain the hegemony of the sultanate over the neighboring kingdoms. And if the glory of Aceh was ensured by military conquest, the population grew poorer.


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With the new policy of the sultanah, the kingdom of Aceh lost its hegemony on the Malay Peninsula and western Sumatra, but the prosperity of the port never decreased and the stability of the economy was preserved. The Dutch blockade of the harbour of Perak on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, then under Aceh supremacy, in the s, is a good example to illustrate this change of policy. This blockade aimed to gain a monopoly on tin, but after a short period of confrontation, Taj al-Alam soon gave in to Dutch pressure when she invited the Dutch East India Company representative, Truijman, to negotiate.

This example was followed by her successors who would similarly favour a diplomatic approach. Despite the highly doubtful character of her existence — she appears to be a recent construction incorporated in Acehnese historiography — it is essential to consider this figure. It is an example of historical re-narrations creating an idealized past in popular history. Contemporary biographies 18 present Malahayati as being of royal blood. Internal maneuverings to remove the sultan from power would have led him to prefer Malahayati who is presented as having been more neutral than the men of his circle.

Biographies claim that her naval forces prevailed over a fleet commanded by the brothers Cornelis and Frederick de Houtman in These accounts on the female admiral are problematic because none of them can be verified.


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  • The biographies that claim that Malahayati personally killed Cornelis de Houtman and captured his brother Frederick refer to the account of the English traveller John Davis ? Its author, Marie Van Zeggelen — , had accompanied her military husband to the Netherlands East Indies at the end of the nineteenth century and followed him on his various postings, including in Aceh.

    The work of Marie Van Zeggelen has therefore been quoted for decades as a primary source of information, rather than as a body of historical fiction that creatively draws on past events and local oral traditions. The mistake spread from one publication to another, as shown in J. Despite her fictive existence, Malahayati remains in the popular consciousness and she is with no doubt the only admiral whose name, real or not, has been kept in memory.

    According to Umar, this proverb relates four historical figures to the four principles on which the sultanate was based in the 17th century. Al-marhum — stands for Sultan Iskandar Muda r.


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    • But this is not the case for Malahayati. There is no apparent reason to link her with the title of Laksamana admiral which does not refer to any precise historical figure. Moreover, while the historical figures quoted lived at the same period — that is to say during the days of Iskandar Muda r. This fact supports the idea of an historical re-narration of the past in which the figure of the female admiral would have been included. One of the motivations for such a thing might be the will to associate Malahayati with Iskandar Muda.

      According to some unclear oral traditions she would have helped him ascend to the throne. Din Riayat Syah. The name of this woman is unknown, as are her exact functions, but assuming she had the functions of a regular admiral, she must have been in charge of the sea security and trade routes. Unfortunately, in the actual state of research, nothing allows us to draw further conclusions. Their supposed headquarters, a fort, is up on a hill in Krueng Raya, Aceh Besar. Close to the place, on another hill, a tombstone is believed to mark the grave of the famous admiral.

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      We can only be sure of the high rank of the person buried there, the stele being carved in the Batu Aceh style reserved for the elite. The local tradition dates the construction of the fort to the end of the 16th century, under the reign of Sultan Ala al-Din Riayat Syah r. According to contemporary biographies on Malahayati, 31 the female admiral would have asked the sultan to form an armed regiment entirely comprised of 2, female soldiers: some were married women following their husbands in battles and fighting in other units, and others young girls and widows.

      The only excavation conducted on the site in does not confirm female occupation, war activity, nor bring any historical data. As for the admiral, it is highly probable that these accounts result from nationalist historiography based on popular history. To have clear evidence of women guards we have to wait a few more decades.

      During the reign of the sultan Iskandar Muda r. Female Palace Guards.

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      Several European accounts inform us on the women position and role in the palace at the beginning of the 17th century. The security of the. The female servants were unmarried orphan daughters brought to the sultan, war captives from conquered Malay states, as well as a few slaves from India.

      They were exclusively employed for mounting guard in the dalam or waiting on the sultan. They came onto the carpet with great solemnity, to the rhythm of drums and voices, where they immediately fell down on their knees before the king. Then, having made the. Sometimes they put their hands to the kris and some other times did as if they were shooting arrows; after that, as if they had a buckler or dagger in hand. This lasted about half an hour, then they kneeled before the king, in my opinion very tired, because I felt that each had over forty pounds of gold on them.

      When arriving in the palace he found the sultan torturing five to six women, Beaulieu asked the syabandar 39 why he was doing this:. Upon hearing this, the king asked about what was happening; he was answered that nothing had happened and realising that some of his other questions were not answered precisely, he made the women in his room watch over the rest of the night, giving them the charge to listen through doors, which he closed firmly, to see if they heard anyone.

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      He kept silent until daybreak and then sent to fetch those who had shouted; once in front of him, he asked about the reason of the noise. Some responded that it was nothing; but seeing that he became furious one of them said that the woman beside her had shouted. Mostly living in the inner part of the palace, women guards also appeared for some occasions outside. The death of the sovereign was one of them.

      During the funeral of the sultan Iskandar Muda, Peter Mundy, a British traveler who visited Aceh in , reported that the female palace guards accompanied the funeral parade, armed with bows and arrows. A few years later, a similar scene was witnessed by the Dutch surgeon De Graaff in during the royal funeral of the following sultan, Iskandar Thani. These female guardians were an impressive sight for European visitors who were not accustomed to such female palatial defence forces.