As kids cheer riding past a line of Jeeps that follow, a familiar trail of dust forms. “Giingoo!” one child rider yells, a traditional onomatopoeia believed to urge the horses to go faster.
This is a familiar and intimate scene from Naadam, the annual summer celebration of national Mongolian identity celebrated since the days of Chingghis Khan. As archers, wrestlers, and horse-racers come together to celebrate tradition, there is a sense of national unity, a series of rites and customs connecting us across generations.
However, as Mongolian society changes and adapts in a globally connected world, Naadam also takes on varying implications and raises several questions, including, what should we keep as part of our social identity and what should change?
Naadam is closely tied to Mongolian history. The oldest finding to date comes from the Mongolian Secret History. It mentioned that Naadam happened during July (Khuran Sar), and that Yesunge, son of Khasar, shot an arrow in 500 yards. Later in the 1700s, the Bogd Khan’s kingdom celebrated Naadam as the “Games of Ten Aristarchies” until the king passed away in 1925. In 1922, the military leaders decided to celebrate Naadam on July 11th as the “Anniversary of National Independence Revolution”. Recently, anniversaries of the Xiongnu Empire, the Great Mongol Empire, and the Victory of National Independence Revolution have all been celebrated during Naadam. Historically, the Three Manly Games – archery, wrestling, horse racing – make up Naadam. In 2001, the president passed the bill to add ankle bone shooting to Naadam, making it 4 manly games (National Association of Ankle Bone Shooting).
Of the four manly games, wrestling and ankle bone shooting do not allow women to participate. In horse racing, a small number of girls participate, as mostly young boys ride race horses. Women have been able to compete in archery since 1958, when the Mongolian government opened it to female participation. Today, the women’s archery games are as equally attended, participated in, and discussed as the men’s.
Despite this relatively recent improvement, Naadam reveals a conflict between progress and tradition. In a country that boasts a high number of educated and working women as well as proud traditions, every Naadam season there are limitations placed upon women that are unknowingly celebrated (with the announcement of the manly sports) and expected (with the exclusion of women within some of these sports). Even the tale of why women don’t participate in wrestling is one of protecting the male presence.
The story goes that a woman (sometimes credited to be Khutulun the great-great granddaughter of Chinggis Khaan) beat hundreds of men in wrestling matches. It is said that Khutulun announced that she would marry the man that beats her in wrestling, but if they lose to her instead then they must pay up in horses. To prevent further humiliation of men, the design of the traditional wrestling clothes was changed to expose the chest, easily identifying the wrestler as man or woman.
Mongolian women have made great strides in sports. There are several high-profile Olympic medal judo wrestlers (such as Dorjsürengiin Sumiyaa who won a silver in 2016 Summer Olympic games in judo) and freestyle wrestlers (Soronzonboldyn Battsetseg who won bronze in 2012 Summer Olympic games), but tradition continues to largely exclude women. Naadam celebrates our tradition through the exploits of our men, veering our identity towards one ultra-masculine form. Who knows, the next great Mongolian wrestler could be a woman – it has happened before. But how do we make sure that the avenue is open for this to happen?
Naadam reveals an essence of Mongolia – it reminds us that despite economic and political crisis, we are strong, we are fighters, and we are united. But it also reveals a weakness – that we only think of our identity in masculine terms, and continue to disenfranchise large swaths of our population in an anemic attempt to project power under the guise of tradition.