Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom

Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom

The Sultanahs of Aceh, 1641-1699 By Sher Banu A.L.Khan. NUS Press, Singapore. 332 pages, soft cover

Given the generally subservient position of women in most Muslim societies, unsurprisingly it is barely known that there have been occasions when women have been rulers in their own right, and effective ones at that.

It is a particular surprise for those unfamiliar with the details of Southeast Asian history to find that Aceh, traditionally viewed as the most conservative part of the region and the one most impacted by stern traditions brought from Yemen and Arabia, should have been ruled by four successive Sultanahs spanning 50 years. These were also years when Aceh was still a formidable trading power, albeit one continuously having to cope with the increasingly aggressive Dutch.

Hitherto more attention has been paid to the four Sultanahs of Patani than to those of Aceh. Between 1584 and about 1649, Patani was ruled successively by four sisters, known by their colors – Hijau (green), Biru (blue), Ungu (purple) and Kuning (yellow). European visitors remarked on their “majesty” and bearing. The first was noted for going boar hunting at the age of 60 and for patronizing the arts. This was a period when Patani was an independent trading state, not a vassal of Siam.

Historians have, until now, tended to portray the Aceh Sultanahs as less significant than the Patani ones. They were regarded as figureheads, installed and manipulated by the orang kaya (rich nobles). However, this author gives a different and more flattering picture. His intensive research in voluminous contemporary Dutch archives, plus those of the English East India Company, as well as Malay writings, provides a vivid picture not simply of the sultanahs but of the relationship between Aceh and the Dutch and others jostling for control of trade. 

This was a time when the Dutch, with the world’s most powerful navy, were expanding their presence in Asia, seizing Batavia (Jakarta) in 1619 and in 1641 driving (with some help from Johor) the Portuguese out of Melaka. They also sought to muscle in on the trade in tin from Perak, then under Aceh’s sway.

The first and most significant of the Sultanahs, Safiauddin Syah, had come to the throne at a very difficult time. Her father, Iskandar Shah, had presided over Aceh when its power was at its peak, but failure to conquer Melaka in 1629 began to weaken it. He was succeeded briefly by the foreign (Pahang) born Iskandar Thani. When Thani died with no apparent male heir, Safiauddin was chosen. By then Aceh faced the Dutch irritation that it had failed to deliver on promises to help capture Melaka, whose conquest then strengthened Johore at a time when it when it already controlled Pahang.

Safiauddin acquitted herself well in dealings with external challenges, despite having to give ground over the Perak tin trade, and also in keeping her balance in domestic politics where orang kaya rivalries were active and disputes over foreign policy frequent. 

Her strength was that she ruled not as an autocrat and by force but through consultation with nobles, advisors and ministers. Due process reigned in accordance with both Islamic principles and Malay adat (customary law). In short, good governance.

It remains, however, an open question whether acceptance of female rulers was a product of Islam or of the much older traditions of Austronesian peoples, who include the Malays and most other inhabitants of maritime southeast Asia, as well as those of Polynesia and Madagascar. Historically these societies have tended to give women more status than most others, including the right to rule.

Whatever the cultural origins of the 16th and 17th century flowering of female rule in Muslim Aceh and Patani, this book provides a fascinating insight into an era which deserves to be much better known, and perhaps partly emulated by modern political systems.