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Negotiating Ambiguities: Female Rule in Muslim Asia during the Early Modern Period

Barbara Watson Andaya

     Despite reservations about the appropriateness of the time span “early modern” (roughly 1450-1800) when applied to societies beyond Western Europe and the Americas, historians agree that during this period the increase in global communication intensified cross-cultural interaction to an unprecedented degree. One significant aspect of this increased interaction was the spread of religious influences, most notably the expansion of Islam from the Muslim heartlands into central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Malay-Indonesian world. The long-term repercussions of this development remain highly relevant, for whereas the Middle East is regarded as Islam’s cultural core, the majority of the world’s Muslims now live in South and Southeast Asia. Indeed, Indonesia currently has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, comprising 88% of around 273 million citizens. Accordingly, some authorities have advanced the idea of a “Muslim Asia” that is certainly part of the wider Islamic community, the ummah, but also displays distinctive concerns and shared features, one of which is the increasingly important role of women.1 In this context, scholars of gender have reminded us that although questions about female capabilities have been central to debates about leadership in Islamic communities, women have served as heads of government in Asia’s three largest Muslim majority countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.2

     Notwithstanding fierce criticism from those who have argued that gender considerations make women fundamentally unsuited to such roles, an apparent toleration for female leadership in some Muslim societies has attracted academic interest. In 1965 the Turkish historian, Bahriye Űçok, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Ankara, submitted a path-breaking thesis entitled Islâm Devletinde Kadın Hükümdarlar (Female Rulers in Islamic Countries).3 Although she identified twenty such women, she only included sixteen who met her criteria for sovereignty: first, that their names were included in the Friday sermon (khutba), and second, that they minted their own coins.4 Judged by these criteria, all the women she regarded as sovereign queens ruled in places outside the Middle East. By 1973 an Arabic translation was available, which eventually led to a response by the Moroccan feminist, Fatima Mernissi, first published in French in 1990 and subsequently translated into English.5 Because coinage was not always minted by sovereigns, Mernissi argued for a wider coverage that would restore other “forgotten” queens like those in Shiite Yemen as well as seven in “the Indies.” 6 She was understandably unaware that this topic had long since attracted male attention, especially in regard to the Netherlands Indies, where articles by Dutch scholars had appeared well over a century earlier.7 Until recently, however, researchers displayed little interest in exploring this theme east of Persia and Turkey, even though the historian Anthony Reid argued that in the past some Muslim societies in Asia actually showed a preference for women as rulers.8 It is thus encouraging to see that several scholars have returned to the topic of female leadership in Muslim Asia, and that the overlap between gender studies and world history can lead to fruitful comparisons.9

     The current article is intended to contribute to this conversation by exploring the phenomenon of “female rule” in the Muslim societies of South and Southeast Asia in the early modern period. It begins with the premise that men were normally privileged as rulers, but that the presence of sovereign queens has links with pre-Islamic traditions, through which they were accepted and sometimes welcomed. Yet this tolerance could be unsettled by underlying ambiguities, especially regarding the extent to which female governance should follow a male model. In Muslim Asia ambivalence towards women in positions of authority was reinforced during the early modern period when increasing interaction with the Islamic heartlands introduced reformist pressures that regarded toleration of female rule as deviating from orthodox teachings. In consequence, the Muslim view that spiritual or political leadership lay outside the boundaries of a woman's social role was strengthened, and by the nineteenth century the installation of a Muslim queen was almost (but not quite) unknown. In recent times the election of a handful of Muslim women to positions of political authority may suggest a revival of a much older tradition,10 but the obstacles they face are daunting in societies where patriarchy still exercises a strong influence over popular attitudes towards female leadership.

Women as Rulers and the Muslim Encounter

     Trading connections between the Indian sub-continent and Muslim societies to the west were well-established during the first centuries of the Common Era, but Islam did not begin to take root in what is now India until the rise of Muslim sultanates in the twelfth century. By this time views on gender relationships in Islam were largely uncontested, for although the Qur'an devotes an entire chapter to the Queen of Sheba, she is presented as a misguided sun worshipper who accepts the faith of King Solomon after he demonstrates his powers. Muslim scholars generally agreed that “female political sovereignty” was incompatible with women's social role.11 The Persian scholar al-Mawardi (d. 1058), one of the most influential medieval jurists, invoked the much-cited hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet) which asserted that people who entrust their affairs to a women will never “female political sovereignty” 12 Al-Mawardi’s contemporary, Nizam al-Mulk (1018-92), who wrote extensively about Muslim kingship, echoed similar views, contending that “wearers of the veil” should not be allowed to assume positions of power since their intelligence was limited. Women's primary purpose in life was to bear children and thus ensure that the line continued. . Any assumption of authority in governance would cause “the utmost harm” by destroying the king’s “splendor and majesty. . . In all ages, nothing but disgrace, infamy, discord and corruption have followed when kings have been dominated by their wives.” 13

      The idea that men were the natural leaders of society was of course not alien in the Asian cultures that were introduced to Islamic teachings. Nonetheless, any notion that women were fundamentally unsuited to assume positions of authority was countered by long-standing memories of female leadership, often rooted in legend. Occasional references to women (especially older women) who held positions of power are commonly linked to a stereotype of maternal care and of beneficial and generous governance, but do suggest that in some situations they could independently take the helm of government. For instance, although Hindu beliefs reinforced the patriarchal norms of medieval India, it is possible to locate tangible evidence of female rule in ancient times. A cave inscription in Sanskrit found on India's Deccan plateau about a hundred miles east of Mumbai was apparently commissioned by Naganika, the wife of Satakarni (ca. 180'“170 BCE) of the Satvahana dynasty. It is believed that, after her husband's death, Naganika ruled the kingdom during the minority of her sons.14

      Fragmentary evidence from Southeast Asia also suggests that a widow, respected because of her longevity and experience, could be accepted as ruler when no suitable adult males were available. The official records compiled by China’s Tang dynasty even give a date (equivalent to CE 674) for the installation of a queen, Sima, in a vaguely located “Java.” She probably succeeded after her husband died, and according to the Chinese account her rule was “most excellent,” and her subjects so honest that even if a bag of gold left lying on the road was not taken. 15 Other stories similarly encapsulate the cultural paraphernalia attached to the rule of some wise grandmother figure, like the “great raja” Wan Sri Benian, the only female ruler in the Malay classic, Sejarah Melayu. Governing the kingdom of Bintan (an island near Singapore), she was intimately associated with the very foundations of Malay sovereignty, for it was she who instituted the nobat, the drumming by which a ruler was installed.16 On the other hand, such images are challenged by the recurring representations of women as pliable and subject to manipulation, self-seeking and jealous, cruel and unfeeling, or operating in a decidedly unmotherly way. Despite her “excellent” rule, the Chinese reported that the Javanese queen Sima cut off the toes of the crown prince when he stepped over the bag of gold left on the roadway “as an example to the nation.” 17

Historical Accounts

      Although there are many gaps in our knowledge of the pre-Islamic past of South and Southeast Asia, it does appear that in certain circumstances female rule could be acceptable. However, the earliest documented account of a reigning Muslim queen, which comes from the early years of the Muslim Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1526), highlights the ambivalences surrounding female succession. In 1236 the dynasty's third ruler died, but his will specified that his firstborn, a daughter called Radiyyah, should be installed as sultan. Her claim was overruled by her younger half-brother, who had disappointed his father but was nonetheless supported by a court faction. He proved unable to deal with the fractious elite, and after only six months he was displaced by Radiyyah, who ordered his execution. Though still young, around thirty years old, the support of powerful men enabled Radiyyah to retain her position for over three years. However, opposition grew as she became more assertive in political matters, while she lost support among urban elites when she began to wear men's clothing, abandoned veiling and seclusion, and appeared in public riding on an elephant. Even when deposed she remained defiant, but was killed following an unsuccessful attempt to regain power.18

      A more favorable climate is evident in the Maldives, a group of islands about four hundred miles southwest of Sri Lanka. When the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta arrived here in 1342 he found that although Islam was well entrenched, the local population had accepted a queen, named Khadija, as sultana. This acceptance would have been partly due to the compliance of local Islamic leaders, since her husband was the khatib, who led the Friday prayers and delivered the sermon, the khutba. On such occasions he asked that his wife receive divine blessings, describing her as “chosen” by Allah, who had made her “an instrument of grace” for all Muslims. Despite opposition (in fact, led by her husband, who Ibn Battuta says “took over the reins of power”), Khadija reigned for over three decades. After her death she was succeeded by her sister and then her niece, which means that for forty years the Maldives was ruled by women.19 Not so far away, in northern Sumatra, a gravestone dated 14 Zulhijjah AH 781 (CE 1389) refers to “the chosen one’, a “royal daughter” who passed away in the mercy of Allah; another, dated 17 Zulhijjah 823 (1428) extols “a brilliant holy woman, a queen respected by all.”20 European imagination was apparently captured by travel accounts of a Muslim domain where queens were acceptable, for the depiction of “Jana” (assumed to be Sumatra) in the celebrated Catalan Atlas, compiled by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques around 1375, features a queen surrounded by mosques. 21

     Despite early references to Muslim communities, Islam's percolation into the social fabric of Asian societies came slowly. For example, Ibn Battuta admitted that he was unsuccessful in convincing Muslim women in the Maldives to cover the upper part of their body, and in other Islamizing areas the difficulties of persuading entire societies to change habits as basic as food consumption and spirit veneration are attested in several local accounts. In this vein Hikayat Patani, the history of the Malay kingdom of Patani (now in southern Thailand) acknowledges that the local raja agreed to adopt Islam after being cured by a visiting sheikh, but some time passed before he reluctantly honored his promise and pronounced the confession of faith. Even then, the hikayat says, “it is true that he became a Muslim inasmuch as he gave up worshipping idols and eating pork but he did not alter a single one of his heathen habits.” 22 Although he and his male successors were now termed “sultan,” none of the four women (including three sisters) who ruled Patani between 1584 and 1651 actively promoted Muslim scholarship or culture, or implemented syariah law.23 They all used titles linked to colors, allegedly of the rainbow-green (ijau), blue (biru), purple (ungu) and yellow- (kuning)and only one (Raja Ungu, the purple queen) adopted an Islamic-style honorific, Paduka Syah Alam (Ruler of the Universe), also used by her counterparts in neighboring Aceh (north Sumatra). Europeans spoke highly of the eldest sister, Raja Ijau, who was around sixty years old when Peter Floris, an Englishman visited Patani in 1612. He described her as a “comely olde woman” and “tall of person and full of majestie, having in all the Indies not seene many lyke unto hir.” 24 Yet it seems that she too faced opposition from her male subjects, for the Hikayat Patani describes how the bendahara, the prime minister, claiming invulnerability for both himself and his followers, led a rebellion. Though Raja Ijau was abandoned by her ministers, it is perhaps significant that she confronted the bendahara wearing a green jacket, a visual symbol not only of her own name but of the prophet's favorite color, as well as a yellow scarf, denoting gold, the color of Malay royalty. In any event, she managed to maintain her position, apparently by allowing the bendahara to go unpunished.25 Islam may also have paid a part in intensifying the animosity of the third ruler, Raja Ungu, towards Patani's overlord Siam, for she adopted a more Islamic title, cultivated relations with neighboring Malay rulers, and launched a campaign against her overlord, the ruler of Siam, whom she denounced as a usurper, murderer and traitor.26 It may not be coincidental that by this time the slow but steady infiltration of Muslim teachings had exercised a significant influence over understandings of male-female roles and the qualifications of past rulers. For instance, Malay copyists of the Sejarah Melayu, anxious to assert the Islamic credentials of Wan Sri Benian, inserted the claim that she had visited the country Sham (Syria) and taken the Muslim title of Sakida Syah, extending her biography deep into what scholars would now see as a pre-Islamic past.

Sources and Problems

     This textual adjustment highlights one of the major difficulties in studying Islam and its significance in the lives of elite women-the paucity of information. For example, it is clear that the Portuguese attack on the renowned Malay port of Melaka in 1511, the eviction of Muslims and the town's new role as a dissemination point for Christianity fueled hostility towards intruders regarded as infidels. Yet the information regarding one celebrated figure whose fleets participated in several anti-Portuguese campaigns-Ratu Kalinyamat, queen of the Javanese town of Jepara-is tantalizingly slim. Although her birth and death dates are unknown, an eighteenth-century Javanese text, Serat Kanda, identifies her as the daughter of the ruler of Demak, a port on the north coast of Java, and briefly notes her marriage to the founder of Jepara, a Chinese convert to Islam. However, her reaction to his murder, thought to have occurred in CE 1549, is in keeping not with Islamic practices but with the asceticism of Hindu-Buddhist hermits referenced in Javanese manuscripts. Discarding her clothing. she retreated to a nearby hill with only her long hair covering her nakedness, vowing to remain there until the death of her husband was avenged. The man who successfully took up this challenge was granted all the concubines of her deceased spouse, while Ratu Kalinyamat herself returned to Jepara and there succeeded her husband as ruler. Describing the “Rainha de Japara” as “rich and powerful” Portuguese chroniclers record that she participated in attacks on Melaka and joined other Muslim campaigns against the Christian newcomers in eastern Indonesia. Popularly believed to have supported the spread of Islam along the north coast, she is sometimes included as the sole woman among the celebrated wali songo, the “friends of God” credited with the introduction of Islam.27 Nonetheless, though her standing in Javanese history is formidable and her grave outside Jepara a much-visited pilgrimage site, details of her personal engagement with Islamic beliefs remain a complete mystery.28

      By the same token, we know little about the religious views of the long-living Ratu Mas of the Sumatran state of Jambi. Another widow, she controlled this pepper-rich polity for several years from 1630 while her son was a minor. She must have exerted some influence on the young man's attitudes, since (like the queens of Patani) she had close relations with Dutch and English traders and when her son succeeded he was able to dissuade the Sultan of Banten from attacking Christians, arguing that "the shedding of human blood did not please Allah.” 29 Furthermore, while Ratu Mas became a revered figure in Jambi history, the ambiguous view of female governance often surfaced, and elsewhere the elimination of male rivals through poisoning (an archetypical female weapon) was often cited when a woman came to power. For example, in the early seventeenth century, Giri Kusuma, the ruler of the diamond-producing Borneo state of Sukadana, adopted Islam. It appears that his wife, Putri Bunku (originally from the non-Islamized region of Landak), did the same, for Sukadana is described as “Muslim.” However, according to contemporary Dutch accounts, Putri Bunku, said to be an “old” woman, poisoned her husband “out of jealousy” and arrogated all power to herself. Even the nobles did not dare disobey her.30

      Probably the most telling problem for historians is that fact that virtually all surviving records were compiled by men, often Europeans, and reflect their own views and biases. We typically learn little even when we do have at hand texts by a woman. Around 1587 a senior woman of the Mughal court, Gulbaden Begum (1523-1603), a daughter of the first Mughal emperor, Babur, was commissioned by her nephew, the great Akbar, to write an official history of events during the reign of his father Humayun, Gulbaden's brother. Certainly, the Ahval-i Humayun Badshah (literally, “Conditions in the time of Humayun Badshah”) goes much further than its title, recounting details of the personal lives of Babur and Humayun, the situation of royal women and the domestic world of the Mughal court. Sadly, although Gulbaden and a party of senior women made the pilgrimage to Mecca, spent over three years in Arabia, and returned to the Holy City four more times, she left no account of her travels, nor any indication of her emotional response to her participation in the numerous rituals associated with the haj, which is after all a religious obligation for Muslims but at that time one rarely accomplished by women.31

      On the other hand, though she was never a ruling monarch, Gulbaden's seniority among the ladies of the Mughal court attests the continuing influence older Muslim women could exert at the highest levels of government, especially when they were unmarried or widowed. Raja Ijau of Patani, Gulbaden's contemporary, came to the throne as a widow of sixty, an impressive age at a time when life expectancy was low. Her successor, her sister, Raja Biru, was fifty years old and apparently unmarried at the time of her succession.32 Like Aceh, Patani developed a reputation for strong rule by “virgin queens,” but the opposition that could be mounted by male courtiers if a marriage took place was graphically demonstrated during the reign of Raja Kuning, the “yellow” queen (1635-1651?). Lacking support from her nobles, she was displaced when an invasion by the neighboring state of Kelantan led to the installation of a male ruler. After his death (or perhaps deposition), Patani reverted to female rule with the succession of his wife, Raja Emas Kelantan. She was in turn followed by her daughter and another queen, apparently tolerated by the leading chiefs as long as they remained unmarried. Yet although Chinese merchants commented on the “chastity” of these women, and the lack of a “husband king,” both were deposed, apparently by a faction-riven oligarchy. In 1718 female rule in Patani came to a definitive end.33

Challenges and Responses to Female Rule

      The Hikayat Patani provides considerable detail about the tensions that could develop when opposition to female government, usually led by ambitious men, was intensified. Suggestions of resentments and potential challenges are also evident in a Chinese report of 1687, which notes that despite the presence of a “first” and “second” ruler who were both women, the actual government of Patani was in the hands of a third ruler, a man.34 A well-documented example of similar tensions concerns the individual known by her title of Nur Jahan (“Light of the World”), who married the Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1611. Though his twentieth wife, she became the favored consort of a man who became increasingly less able to rule because of his addiction to opium. Effectively a widow, Nur Jahan became the most powerful Muslim queen of this period, to all intents and purposes operating as an independent ruler, defending the borders of Mughal territory, mediating in family feuds, minting her own coins, and suppressing rebel uprisings.35 While she made a significant contribution to Mughal arts and architecture, the sources reveal little about her religious beliefs. She was probably instrumental in encouraging Shiite influences and supporting Sufi practices, and it seems that by maintaining the more tolerant and eclectic traditions associated with Akbar she was able to resist the influence of those who promoted a stricter interpretation of Islam.36

      Nur Johan was forced into seclusion following the death of Jahangir in 1628, and died in 1645 at the age of 77, but her very exceptionalism points to the ambivalences infusing female rule. The chronicle compiled during the next reign is openly hostile, contending that Nur Jahan "acquired such unbounded influence over the mind [of Jahangir] that she seized the reins of government and abrogated to herself the supreme civil and financial administration of the realm, ruling with absolute authority till the conclusion of his reign."37 Even the coins stamped with her name were removed from circulation. Mughal historians continued to ignore her achievements as ruler, blaming her for the chaotic conditions of Jahangir's last years-views that were picked up and echoed by European commentators.38

      A contrasting history of female rule comes from the northern Sumatran kingdom of Aceh, which emerged as a flourishing trading port and a center of Islamic scholarship. Its powerful ruler, Iskandar Muda (1607-36), extended his control down both coasts of Sumatra and established his authority over several states on the Malay Peninsula. His successor and son, Iskandar Thani, unexpectedly died in 1641, to be succeeded by his widow, Taj al-ʻAlam Safiyyat al-Din Syah, a daughter of Iskandar Muda, and then only 29 years old. Particularly intriguing, however, is the fact that despite Aceh's reputation as center of Muslim orthodoxy and patriarchal authority, Safiyyat was followed by no less than three women in succession. It was only in 1699 that a male ruler was once again placed on the Acehnese throne.39

      In seeking to explain this apparent paradox, a recent study by Sher Banu Khan rejects the view that rule by a woman was supported by Aceh's male elite because they were thereby able to limit royal authority. The evidence shows that Safiyyat, far from being a “weak” successor to powerful male predecessors, adroitly managed trade negotiations with the rival Dutch and English and skillfully defused the tensions that arose in relations with the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Descriptions by European travelers and the records left by VOC officials leave little doubt that Safiyyat was an effective and forceful ruler, who maintained her authority not only in Aceh itself, but among her often restive vassals.40 At the same time, the pomp surrounding royal appearances that had aroused European admiration during the reign of her husband and father was preserved, even to the hunting parties and duels between elephants.

      Because the records for her reign are relatively detailed, it has been possible to reconstruct some sense of the Islamic climate in which Safiyyat operated. She would have witnessed the violence of the 1630s, when a Gujarati who had been appointed head of Islam ordered the execution of Muslims whom he alleged followed unacceptable mystical practices, including the veneration of spirits. By the time she came to the throne these tensions, though not fully resolved, had eased. Safiyyat was known for her patronage of Islam and of religious teachers, and for her personal piety (“always praying five times a day” and “reading the Qur’an aloud”). She commissioned the first Malay text detailing fiqh (laws relating to ritual obligations), and sharia courts were strengthened.41

      The acceptance of Safiyyat's queenship by Aceh's Muslim scholars was a key element in her long and generally peaceful reign. Although male leadership was always preferred, Acehnese texts from this period agree that a woman could become ruler in the absence of a qualified male because without a monarch the country would be thrown into chaos. Local ulama thus interpreted Islamic teachings pragmatically, adjusting precedent to the needs of the moment. Indeed, the lack of controversy is suggested by the fact that Safiyyat was installed on the very day her husband died.42 In addition, she never forgot that she was a woman; her style was very different from that of her father, and she was always careful to observe conventions governing female self-presentation, including her use of appropriate honorifics. Whereas the Sanskrit-derived term “raja” could be applied to either sex, Safiyyat’s seal correctly and deliberately renders her Muslim title in the feminine form, “al-Sultanah,” a word which only now entered the Malay lexicon.43 Her seal also names her “the shadow of Allah on earth” and includes a Quranic ayah (verse) that recalls the letter received by another female sovereign, the Queen of Sheba (Qur'an 27:30).44 The choice of this particular quotation (“It is from Solomon and says ‘In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful’”) was surely deliberate.

     Both European and Malay sources affirm that during her daily audiences Safiyyat was normally hidden behind a curtain, although there were occasions when she spoke directly to foreigners. While visitors from the Arab lands were inclined to disparage Islam as it was practiced in what they saw as peripheral regions, one traveler who spent time in Aceh described Safiyyat as a “perfect” Muslim woman, both learned and pious who was “completely veiled when she went out hunting or made public appearances.” 45 Nevertheless, Dutch accounts mention that she joined European visitors in amusements of various kinds, and even report one episode when she asked a Dutch envoy to entertain herself and her ladies by dancing.46 She obviously felt participation in such activities did not detract from her standing as a Muslim sovereign. In a letter to Charles II, written in 1661, she described herself as "the raja who calls all Allah's servants to the path of Allah , . . who gazes on the creatures of God with mercy and sympathy . . . who metes out the justice of Allah and His punishments . . . who silences those who complain and who forgives those who have sinned." 47 Yet even as her letters emphasized her empathy with her subjects and her tolerance for their shortcomings, her rulings invoked not only the full authority of her religious faith but called on much older traditions as well. Reminding her subjects that she possessed the power of the curse (sumpah serapa), she employed language that recalls the threat of punishments found on pre-Islamic inscriptions as a means of enforcing compliance with royal commands. According to one such decree, "Whoever contravenes this order will be destroyed by Allah as long as they live, down to their children and grandchildren" and will be cast into "cursed hell."48

      Safiyyat established a formidable precedent for the three women who followed her on the Acehnese throne-Sultanah Nur al-ʻAlam Naqiyyat al-Din Syah, r (r. 1675-78), Sultanah ʻInayat Zakiyyat al-Din Syah (1678-88) and Sultanah Kamalat Zaynat al-Din Syah (r. 1688-99)-especially as the doctrinal mood in the Acehnese court became more conservative. Public appearances were apparently fewer, although when the queen did appear it was always impressive. In the words of Captain Thomas Bowrey, who was in Aceh in 1678, following the succession of Sultanah ʻInayat Zakiyyat (then about sixty years of age): She went down the River of Achin in soe admirable a Grandure of Worldly State, that the like I believe was never paralleled in the Universe.' Accompanied by courtiers, eunuchs, and her women, the royal procession proceeded on barges decorated with gold, as 'varieties of musick, and delicate Voices . . . sange to the great Honor and Majestie of their great Virgin-Princess'49

     Though she was a strong supporter of Islamic scholars and rigorous in her application of syariah law (the hands and feet of a man found guilty of heresy were amputated), this third Acehnese queen encountered her greatest opposition from religious leaders. Debates over the interpretation of Qur'anic teachings and their adaptation to local traditions had raged back and forth in Aceh since the early seventeenth century, but despite some scholarly disapproval the question of female rule did not become a contentious issue until the 1680s, after several Arab emissaries arrived in Aceh at a time when its prosperity was beginning to decline. Rebels openly declared that they wished "to have a Kinge to rule and beare dominion over them” and that "the true heire to the Crowne is yet alive and hath Several sons, and him they will obey.”50 Matters came to a head after the succession of Sultanah Kamalat Zaynat al-Din Syah in 1688; there were reports of opposition to the queen by interior groups, but the decisive factor may have been outside intervention. Local chronicles allege that in 1699 a fatwa arrived from Mecca decreeing that no women should be permitted to rule, since this was against the law of Allah. It is hardly surprising that Sultanah Kamalat Zaynat was succeeded by a ruler of Arab descent.51

     It is significant that outright condemnation of female rule in Aceh and elsewhere generally came from outside the region, for sources from within Southeast Asia, carrying echoes of much older attitudes, are more ambiguous. It is well known that Javanese Islam incorporated many aspects of pre-Islamic practices, but both European and indigenous sources from the early eighteenth century point to indications of a heightened Islamic consciousness. Ratu Pakubuwana (1657?-1732), the wife of Pakubuwana 1 (1705-19), was considered to have had "the leading role in the government of this king since its beginning.” 52 However, regarded as a person endowed with special powers, she also assumed a prominent role in the sponsorship of Islamic texts, such as the Serat Menak, a Javanese version of the stories about the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad.53 A pious and devoutly religious Sufi, when her ailing husband neared death she gave active support to one of her younger sons, said by the Dutch to have "an excessive zeal for Mohammedanism” to be named as the next ruler.54 Although unsuccessful, she continued to wield extraordinary influence in court circles, presumably because of her advanced age- she was already her late sixties when her grandson Pakubuwana II became ruler in 1726 at the age of sixteen.55 By this time she was completely blind, but her influence over the new king was soon evident when he ordered that all residents of the capital should attend Friday worship at the mosque, or risk punishment.

     The literary works that Ratu Pakubuwana commissioned were all intended to promote the court circle as a center of Islam, and indirectly to demonstrate her own piety. In the words of one such work, the Carita Sultan Iskandar she was “outstanding” because “she is beloved of the Most High [God],” and because the Prophet himself had interceded on her behalf. Indeed, she was nothing less than "the amulet of all the people of Java.” 56 Nonetheless, even this affirmation did not erase the ambiguities generated by the Islamic-cultural synthesis. For example, the Kitab Usulbiyah, dated to 1729, directly addresses the question of whether women can assume authority. In an environment where the obligations of being Muslim had generated intense discussion, the text employs the voice of Ni Donya, a female spirit who is a companion of the Prophet, to emphatically deny that a woman should be paid honor by a man, even her own son. On the other hand, a high born and capable woman is deserving of male respect, and a ruler can accordingly grant his mother the status of one “freed of obligations.” When Ni Donya asks the Prophet if a man can honor a woman who has the attribute of lordship (asifat gusti), he replies ". . . She may not be paid obeisance/yet it is partially allowed/to pay obeisance to such a woman.” However, he goes on to qualify this endorsement by declaiming that, "Authority is not given,/ be it known, to a woman/ by God the Most Holy./ The earthly community/ has been given notice:/ it is compulsory to follow a male/ If the ruler is a woman,/ for example, there would be injustice/ and the state would come to be destroyed"57 Unlike earlier Javanese chronicles, the texts produced under Ratu Pakubuwana's patronage never refer to the outsize figures of Javanese legend believed to imbue royal authority with spiritual power, and are implicitly disapproving of Javanese spirits. The late M.C. Ricklefs, the foremost authority on Java during this period, even referred to her as head of an "Islamizing clique."58

     Yet Java also throws up contrasting cases, for the opinions of Muslim legists were not always rigorously followed, even in areas that had maintained a strong Islamic tradition. This was evident in eighteenth-century Banten (west Java), where sometime before his succession in 1733 the sultan had married a woman born of the union between a respected Arab scholar and a local commoner. Previously wife to a Malay lieutenant in the VOC garrison, the new queen's worldly experience, her ease in Dutch company, and her undoubted charm made her a formidable force. Threatening a divorce, she even negotiated an arrangement whereby she would receive the royal title of Ratu Syarifah Fatimah, while the Sultan's other wives would be known by much lower honorifics. She is also said to have engineered an estrangement between her husband and the Crown Prince, who was exiled and replaced as heir by her own adopted child. Although the sources are largely hostile towards Ratu Syarifah, she was obviously a politician of some ability. At her instigation, the Dutch East India Company deposed her husband (allegedly because of his deteriorating mental condition), allowing her to assume complete control and to govern as sovereign queen following his death in 1750. The rebellion a year later and her subsequent banishment, were due more to the withdrawal of Dutch support, political misjudgment and the alienation of the nobles than to the unacceptability of a female ruler.59

Political Authority and Male Dominance

      By the beginning of the nineteenth century female rule had effectively disappeared from Muslim Asia, although the personalities of legendary queens continued to figure in communal memory. For instance, the kingdom of Palembang in southeast Sumatra had emerged as a regional center for Islamic studies, but a seventeenth-century queen with no obvious Islamic connections, Ratu Sinuhun, was still thought to exemplify the ideal qualities of a ruler-wisdom, benevolence and justice-and her grave was a site of extraordinary power.60 In neighboring Minangkabau, a dowager queen, Bundo Kanduang, dominates the cultural stage as a sovereign ruler who is simultaneously possessed of a divine essence, the equal of the world's greatest kings.61 The picture is more complicated than might at first appear, for in some areas of the Netherlands Indies Muslim communities were still willing to accept women as the community's foremost authority. This acceptance was most marked in the numerous small Bugis kingdoms of South Sulawesi, where Islam had been adopted at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but where the transgender priests of pre-Islamic times, the bissu, were still retained. A second element may have been the relatively small “gender gap” between men and women that had allowed elite Bugis women to assume positions of high authority. John Crawfurd, a man with many years of experience in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, thus remarked that Bugis women "are consulted by the men on all public affairs . . . Those in authority sit in their councils when affairs of state are discussed, possessing, it is often alleged, even more that their due share in the deliberations.” 62 In some cases their domestic arrangements seem quite extraordinary, for there are reports of lesbian households and one queen who had "a harem of men, whose infidelity was punished with death."63 In 1852 the intrepid lady traveler, Ida Pfeiffer, encountered several female rulers as she traversed Sulawesi, and in one place she was told that the Bugis generally preferred to be governed by women; "they say that the reigns of queens are less disturbed by wars and more honest as well as more tranquil, than those of the men."64

      Such views have not been typical of modern attitudes towards female leadership in Muslim societies, and the four women who have succeeded to the highest levels of government in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have been caught up in controversy and confrontation, which in the case of Benazir Bhutto led down a tragic path to assassination. Questions are raised about commitment, qualifications and favoritism, especially in regard to their political rise, for the legacy of a powerful father or husband undoubtedly contributed to what has been termed the "transfer of charisma." Like the late Benazir Bhutto (elected prime minister of Pakistan in 1988 and again in 1993), Megawati Sukarnoputri (president of Indonesia from 2001 to 2004) and Sheikh Hasina (prime minister of Bangladesh 1996-2001 and 2009 to the present) are daughters of men who had played leading roles in the national story, while Khaleda Zia (Bangladesh's prime minister 1991-96 and 2001-2006) is the widow of the country's former president. Nonetheless, the obstacles they faced were and are formidable. At the more restrained end are those whose opposition is due less to questions of gender than to policy differences or a view that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Far more outspoken are conservative Muslims. When Khaleda Zia emerged as a viable candidate for prime minister in Bangladesh (89 per cent Muslim), right wing parties announced they would regard anyone voting for a woman as an infidel.65 Even when pragmatism and political realities have compelled a reluctant capitulation, as in Indonesia, influential Muslims still reiterated the traditional hadith about the damaging effects of female governance. In the words of one politician, "it will become one cause of the destruction of the nation and the country."66 At the more extreme end are those willing to kill both themselves and others in defense of their beliefs; in January 2018 the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 because of her alleged cooperation with the United States and her plans to move against militant Islamist groups.67 Finally, it is not yet clear whether the leadership of these women, even when accepted, indicates significant changes in public attitudes, and whether a more “female” style of governance can have any political purchase in today's world. Sheikh Haslina may have hoped that her prime ministership would serve to break down the gender barrier, but her initial orders that she be addressed as “sir” rather than “madam” are a telling comment on the ambiguities of being a female leader operating in a world controlled by men.68


      Of all the world religions Islam has arguably the most to say about the relationship between men and women, an ongoing conversation that over the centuries has engaged some of the most learned Muslim scholars. The women in South and Southeast Asia who have wielded political power in modern times may, as Anthony Reid suggests, stand in a continuum, but they still face religiously-based opposition that has gain traction over the last two hundred years. This article began by recalling the fragmentary evidence of pre-Muslim attitudes towards female leadership in Asia. These glimpses suggest that although male leadership may have been preferred, older women could assume positions of authority, building on perceptions of longevity as a source of wisdom and of maternal care as a core element of “femaleness.” Although women in power could be as ambitious and as ruthless as their male counterparts, motherly stereotypes persisted even as Islamic teachings established the gendered boundaries that endorsed the male position as society's natural leaders. While these ambiguities help explain the early tolerance for female rule in Islamized Asia, attitudes began to shift from the eighteenth century as ideas about the danger posed by women who stepped outside their assigned role became more entrenched. Yet in some areas of Indonesia, most obviously the island of Sulawesi, women continued to wield cultural and political authority; one of these Muslim rulers, Basse Kajura (1857- 1859) registered her own contribution to the growing anti-colonial mood by ordering her subjects to sail their vessels with the Dutch flag upside down. 69 Nonetheless, although there were still five women ruling in small Sulawesi kingdoms in 1901, their powers were limited by colonialism and no woman in any Muslim country assumed a position of independent leadership until the late twentieth century. 70

      By this time much had changed in global perceptions of women's place in society, but it did not prevent the reiteration of the old questions expressed by scholars such as Bukhari. While political pragmatism has muted these objections, and groups opposed to any female hold on political authority have been willing to compromise, in Muslim societies the position of female leaders is still tenuous. On the one hand, more liberal elements who hope the elevation of women will contribute to greater gender parity are often disappointed; on the other, there are always critics who disparage female capabilities and are quick to attribute any failings to innate weakness. As we move further into the twenty-first century a return to public acceptance of female leadership in Asia's Muslim societies remains a distant goal rather than an imminent reality.

Barbara Watson Andaya is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i, teaching South and Southeast Asia. In 2005-06 she was President of the American Association of Asian Studies. She is currently working on a book entitled Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia and is also General Editor of the new Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. She can be reached at



1 John O. Voll, "Conclusion: Asian Islam at a crossroads," in Asian Islam in the 21st Century, ed. John L. Esposito, John O. Voll, and Osman Bakar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 282-84.

2 Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, " Introduction,'' in Contesting Feminism: Gender and Islam in Asia, ed. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 6.

3 This was published in Arabic in 1973 as Al Nisa' al-hakimat fi al-tarikh ("Women who Exercised Power in History"), but soon became unavailable. Over thirty years later it was revised and translated by Milena Rampoldi as Bahriye Üçok, Female Sovereigns in Islamic States (Berlin: epubli GmbH, 2014).

4 Üçok, Female Sovereigns, 61.

5 Fatima Mernissi, Sultanes Oubliées: Femmes Chefs d’État en Islam (Paris: Albin Michel, 1990), published in English as The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

6 Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens, p 71-74, 107, 115.

7 P. J. Veth, "Vrouwenregeeringen in den Indischen Archipel," ("Female Rule in the Indonesian Archipelago") Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië, Series 3, 4, part 2 (1870), 354-69. See also a section on female rule in L. W. C. Van den Berg, "De Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch-Indië" ("Muslim Kings in the Netherlands Indies"), Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 53, 1 (1901), 36-40.

8 Gavin R.G. Hambly, ed. Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety (New York: St. Martin's Press, New York, 1998); Anthony Reid, Charismatic queens of southern Asia," History Today 53, 6 (2003), 34.

9 Stefan Amirell, "Female rule in the Indian Ocean world (1300-1900)," Journal of World History 26, 3 (Sept, 2015), 443-89 and most recently, recalling Mernissi, Shahla Haeri, The Unforgettable Queens of Islam: Succession, Authority, Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

10 Reid, "Charismatic queens," 34.

11 Barbara Freyer Stowasser, Women in the Qur'an: Traditions, and Interpretations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 62. For Sheba in the Qur'an, see Haeri, The Unforgettable Queens, 39-40.

12 Karen Bauer, "Debates on women's status as judges and witnesses in post-formative Islamic law," Journal of the American Oriental Society 130, 1 (January-March 2010), 1-21.

13 Hubert Darke, trans. The Book of Government or Rules for Kings: The Siyāsat-nāma al-Muluk or Siyar al-Mulūk of Nizām al-Mulk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 179-80.

14 Upindar Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century (New Delhi: Person Education), 382; S. R. Kattimani, , ”A study of historical Inscriptions in ancient Deccan,” Aayushi International Interdisciplinary Research Journal 5, 2 (Feb. 2018), 262-63.

15 W. P. Groenveldt, Historical Notes on Indonesia & Malaya Compiled from Chinese Sources (Jakarta: Bhatara, 1960), 14; Masatoshi Iguchi, Java Essay: The History and Culture of a Southern Country (Kibworth Beauchamp, UK: Troubadour Publishing, 2015), 23.

16 C. C. Brown, “Sejarah Melayu or ‘Malay Annals’,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 25, 2 and 3 (1952), 28.

17 Groenveldt, Historical Notes, 14.

18 Fouzia Farooq Ahmed, Muslim Rule in Medieval India: Power and Religion in the Delhi Sultanate (London: I. B. Taurus, 2016), 76-81. For more detail, see Haeri, The Unforgettable Queens, 106-38.

19 H. A. R. Gibb, Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1929), 244-45.

20 Claude Guillot and Ludvik Kalus, Les monuments funéraires et l’histoire du sultanat de Pasai à Sumatra (XIIIe–XVIe siècles) (Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2008), 62, 101; Willem van der Molen, “The syair of Minye Tujuh,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 163, 2/3 (2007), 356-375.

22 A. Teeuw and D. K. Wyatt, eds., Hikayat Patani. The Story of Patani (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970) II, 152-55.

23 Stefan Amirell, "The blessings and perils of female rule: New perspectives on the reigning queens of Patani, c. 1584-1718, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 42, 2 (June 2011), 308.

24 Peter Floris, Peter Floris, his Voyage to the East Indies in the Globe 1611-1615: The Contemporary Translation of his Journal, ed. W. H. Moreland (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1934), 62-63, 87, 96; H. A. van Foreest and A. de Booy, ed. De Vierde Schipvaart der Nederlanders naar Oost-Indië onder Jacob Wilkens en Jacob van Neck (1599-1604) ("The Fourth Dutch Voyage to the East Indies under Jacob Wilkins and Jacob van Neck") (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981), 227, 260. See also Amirell, "The blessings and perils of female rule," 310.

25 Teeuw and Wyatt, Hikayat Patani, I: 100-01; II: 173-77; see a different view in Amirell, "The blessings and perils of female rule," 306, n. 9.

26 Amirell, "The blessings and perils of female rule," 314-15.ADD Period

27 Chiara Formichi, Islam and Asia: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 60.

28 H.J. de Graaf, De Regering van Panembahan Sénapati Ingalaga (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1954), 29-33; Purwardi, Jejak para wali dan ziarah spiritual (Jakarta: Buku Kompas, 2006), 187-197.

29 Barbara Watson Andaya, To Live as Brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1993), 59, 70.

30 Peter Borschberg, ed. Journal, Memorials and Letters of Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge: Security , Diplomacy and Commerce in 17th-century Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015), 446, 580; Samuel Bloemaert, “Discours ende ghelegentheyt van het Eylandt Borneo, ende ‘t gene daer voorgevallen is in ‘t jaar 1609,” in Begin ende Voortgangh van de Vereenighde Nederlantsche Goectroyeerde Oost-Indische Compagnie, ed. Isaac Commelin (Amsterdam: Facsimile Uitgaven Nederland, 1969; orig. ed. 1646 ), Volume III, 98-104.

31 Annette Beveridge, TThe History of Humāyūn (Humāyūn-nāma) (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1902),71-72.

32 Amirell, “The blessings and perils,” 310, 313.

33 Amirell, “The blessings and perils,” 318-20.

34 Ishii Yoneo, The Junk Trade from Southeast Asia: Translations from the Tôsen Fusetsu-gaki 1674-1723 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies/Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, 1998), 112.

35 Ellison Banks Findly, Nur Jahan: Empress of India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 3-4.

36 Ibid., 206-12. See also Ruby Lal, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Johan (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2018).

37 Cited in Lal, Empress, 220.

38 Lal, Empress, 21; Findly, Nur Jahan, 287.

39 Sher Banu A. L. Khan, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom: The Sultanahs of Aceh, 1641-1699 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017, 1-2.

40 Sher Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, passim; Peter Riddell, Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World, 129; L. Andaya, ‘“A very good-Natured but awe-inspiring government”: The reign of a successful queen in seventeenth-century Aceh,” in Hof en Handel: Aziatische Vorsten en de VOC 1620-1720, ed. Elsbeth Locher-Scholten and Peter Rietbergan (Leiden: KILTV Press, 2004), 59-84.

41 Sher Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, 189-192; Peter G. Riddell, "Aceh in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: ‘Serambi Mekka’ and Identity,” in Veranda of Violence, The Background to the Aceh Problem, ed. Anthony Reid (Singapore: NUS Press, 2006), 46-47; Su Fang Ng, "Genealogical Memory: Constructing female rule in seventeenth-century Aceh,” in Gendered Temporalities in the Early Modern World, ed. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 135-58.

42 Sher Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, 46, 55.

43 She Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, Figure 4.

44 Annabel Teh Gallop, Malay Seals from the Islamic World of Southeast Asia: Content, Form, Context, Catalogue (Singapore: NUS Press, 2019), 61.

45 Sher Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, 192, 201.

46 Sher Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, 15, 87-88.

47 Annabel Teh Gallop, “Gold, silver and lapis lazuli: Royal letters from Aceh in the 17th century,” in Mapping the Acehnese Past, ed. R. Michael Feener, Patrick Daly and Anthony Reid (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2011), 254; a slightly different translation is in Sher Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, 178.

48 Annabel Teh Gallop, “Sultanah Tajul ‘Alam’s tarakata of 1666: The earliest known original royal decree from Aceh," in Yusny Saby Sang Motivator: Menelusuri karakter pemimpin jujur dan ikhlas dalam membangan umat, ed. M. Hasbi Amiruddin, Kamaruddin Bustaman-Ahmad and Baiquri (Banda Aceh: Lembaga Studi Agama dan Masyarakat Aceh, 2016), 312-32.

49 Thomas Bowrey, A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679. Ed. Richard Carnac Temple (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1905), 289, 310, 325.

50 Bowrey, A Geographical Account of Countries), 313-17.

51 “Translation of the Annals of Acheen, ” "Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 4, (1850), 599; Sher Banu, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom, 249-53.

52 M.C. Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries (Norwalk, CT: Eastbridge 2005), 85.

53 Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis, 86.

54 Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis, 92.

55 Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis, 103.

56 M.C. Ricklefs, The Seen and Unseen Worlds in Java, 1726-1749: History, Literature, and Islam in the court of Pakubuwono II, 1726-1749 (Honolulu and Sydney: Allen & Unwin and University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998), 41-42.

57 Ricklefs, The Seen and Unseen Worlds, 70-72.

58 Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis, 205.

59 P. J. B. C. Robidé van der Aa,“De groote Bantamsche opstand in het midden der vorige eeuw” (The great rebellion in Banten in the previous century”), Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 29 (1881), 62-71.

60 Andaya, To Live as Brothers, 113.

61 Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002), 32-50.

62 Barbara Watson Andaya, “Gender, Islam and the Bugis Diaspora in Nineteenth-and Twentieth- Century Riau,” Sari, 21 (July 2003), 77-108; Amirell, “Female rule,” 467; John Crawfurd, History of the Indian Archipelago. Containing an Account of the Languages, Institutions and Commerce of its Inhabitants (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1971, orig. ed. 1820), 74; see also Thomas Stanford Raffles, History of Java (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1965; orig. ed. 1817) Volume II: Appendix F, clxxxv.

63 Veth, “Vrouwenregeeringen in den Indischen Archipel,” 361.

64 Ida Pfeiffer, A Lady's Second Journey Round the World, translated by J. Sinnett (New York: Harper and Brothers 1856), 252-256, 272; Mary Somers Heidheus, "Women on the road: Ida Pfeiffer in the Indies,”Archipel 68 (2004), 289-313.

65 Najma Chowdhury, “Lessons on women's political leadership from Bangladesh,” Signs 34, 1 (Autumn, 2008), 10.

66 Bernhard Platzdasch, Islamism in Indonesia: Politics in the Emerging Democracy (Singapore: ISEAS, 2009), 270-74. See also Haeri, The Unforgettable Queens, 183-218.

67 The Economic Times, 18 January 2018 at Accessed 30 January 2020. See Haeri, The Unforgettable Queens, 141-82.

68 Habibul Haque Khondker, "Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh: Politics, personality and policies," in Women Presidents and Prime Ministers in Post-Transition Democracies, ed. Verónica Montecinos (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 231.

69 M. T. H. Perelaer, De Bonische expeditien. Krijgsgebeurtenissen op Celebes in 1859 en 1860. Volgens officiëele bronnen bewerkt (The Boni Expedition. Incidents of War in Celebes in 1859 and 1860. Edited according to Official Sources (Leiden: Gualth Kolff, 1872), 113-14.
70 Van den Berg, "De Mohammedaansche Vorsten," 39.

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