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Chapter Six: Ironies of Gender Egalitarianism

Social life proceeds in a context of an ever-shifting set

of persons, changing moments in time, altering situations and
partially improvised interactions. Established rules, customs, and symbolic
frameworks exist, but they operate in the presence of areas of
indeterminacy, ambiguity, of uncertainty, and manipulability. Order never
fully takes over, nor could it. The cultural, contractual, and technical
imperatives always leave gaps, require adjustments and interpretations to
be applicable to particular situations, and are themselves full of
ambiguities, inconsistencies, and often contradictions.
Sally Falk Moore, Law as Process (1978; 39)
I encountered some of the stories of the female shamans Genen and Handa while
still networking with shamans in the countryside in 1996-1999, the early days of my
research. My days passed in the company of male shamans, their families, and clients.
Female shamans, however, were absent. Only stories and the spirits of female shamans
were present. I inquired about the existence of female shamans and did not get any direct
answers. Tmr, for example, diverted my attention to the dead female shamans while
noting that the existing female shamans were insignificant. Luvsan had already let me
know that he was not excited about talking about other shamans, regardless of their
gender. Other people, however, warned me that it was crucial that I do not talk about
other shamans because of the jealousy and competition among them.
I had hoped to meet female shamans with little effort, and preferably, at the center
of the rituals just as I had encountered male shamans. I do not think my expectations
were all that nave. After all, the shamanic system was gender egalitarian. So egalitarian,
in fact, that it had seemed to dissipate all the differences between male and female
shamans. Both perform the same rituals, are possessed by male and female spirits, have
disciples and clients from both genders, and use the same ritual paraphernalia. The
structure not only welcomed, it even seemed to facilitate womens empowerment. To

acquire the highest title of zaarin, male shamans must complete thirteen shanar. In order
to acquire the equally powerful title duurisah women need only complete seven shanar.
Unlike in the overall structures of gender, where women were seen as inferior to men, in
shamanism women were considered to be inherently powerful and needing only seven
shanars to become as powerful as men.
Where were the female shamans? Only once, at one of the rituals of the male shaman
Tmr, did I encounter two women who stopped by for a short time, then left
suddenly. I managed to talk to them just as they were getting into their car to leave for
Russian Buryatia. They were unsure when they would return. In addition to this
transient encounter, I met a female shaman Chimeg, then lost touch with her while
she, too, traveled in Russia for two years. The male shamans were engaged
informants and gracious hosts. Yet I grew impatient about finding and meeting
female shamans, who, I thought, certainly existed somewhere in Bayan-Uul. Yet as
the days went, I seemed to be in a world where women were gloriously present in
poetry and myth, but scarce, sporadic nearly invisible in the realms of power and
real life.i
This chapter explores the obstacles that female shamans face in the egalitarian
practice of shamanism through the biography of the female shaman Chimeg. As
Chimeg tries to pursue her practice, she has to fight the established norms of kinship
and family, prejudices and dangers associated with womens travel, the gendered
division of labor including the duties and expectations associated with motherhood,
the disadvantages that came with the shift from state production (mens and womens
employment in state farms) into domestic production that re-created the traditional

household roles and had undermined womens equal earnings. But to better
understand the obstacles to power that Chimeg encountered, some specific remarks
about gender and power among the Buryats and in larger Mongolia are necessary.

<Gender and Shamanic Powers>

The discrepancy between the gender egalitarian rules of shamanism and its actual
hierarchy in a daily practice reflected the irony of the larger society in Mongolia
including among the Buryats. Many people in Mongolia like to argue that compared to
other places, the country is gender egalitarian. It is true that by law, women in Mongolia
have equal access to education, jobs, and other resources, and have the right to vote and
become elected. And yet, due to the patriarchal structures that rule the microcosm of
everyday life, these rights become suspended in most spheres of life.
Shamanic practices vividly illustrate how egalitarian rules become diluted in real
life through mundane structures of life. Gaining equal rights for women in the sphere of
law and rules are crucial. But that is only half of the matter. Perhaps the most difficult
and lingering problem in the Mongolian society today is a refusal to acknowledge the
gender hierarchical attitudes and rules that are deeply embedded in the microcosms of the
everyday. Without that acknowledgement, the rules of equality only mask the structural
inequalities. The egalitarian rules become an excuse to blame women for their lack of
personal engagement and strive, without acknowledging the structural obstacles.
Everyone can become a powerful shaman, many people told me. It does not matter
whether a person is a man or a woman. In the same way, in the larger society, most
people say that the opportunities are open for both men and women and that womens

under-achievements are a result of their personal fault. Cultural and social constraints
remain invisible.
Officially, shamanic powers consist of completing thirteen levels of shanar
(degree elevating ceremonies) for male and seven for female shamans along with
obtaining corresponding paraphernalia. Consequentially these achievements also include
the shamans mastery of his or her origin spirits, each of whom sediment the shamans
growing paraphernalia. The shamans stage their rituals of shanar with an interval of two
to three years, and thus the entire process of becoming zaarin (full-fledged male) or
duurisah (full-fledged female) shaman usually takes anywhere from a decade to two.
Besides Luvsan, all the shamans I met were still in the process of completing their
shanars. Their influence in the area, economic situation, and reputation were not always
correspondent to their official shamanic levels. Shamanic powers were not strictly
restricted to the number of rituals completed or spirits mastered. Rather, it was shamans
ability to create a structure that enabled them to convert their spiritual powers (shanars
and spirits) into economic resources and political influence. Although spiritual and
politico-economic powers are related and support each others acceleration, sometimes,
the shamans with fewer numbers of shanars were already better-known and well-off
compared to shamans who had completed more shanars. Thus when I refer to power,
or empowerment, regarding shamans, I mean specifically the combination of spiritual
and socio-economic achievement. Powers among male shamans differed vastly, but one
aspect was clear. Among well-known and economically successful shamans who were
well on their way to becoming full-fledged shamans, women were absent. Many female
shamans I met were half-way through in their completion of shanars and most were

below that level. But most importantly, these female shamans shanars and spirits did not
translate into socio-economic power.
Unlike male shamans, female shamans in the town of Bayan-Uul possessed neither
appropriate space, nor the most lucrative time for rituals. The nomadic countryside
was a convenient and thus the preferred space; it allowed the staging of large-scale
rituals. The most profitable time to practice was from May 15 through September
15th, when the most expensive rituals of shanar were staged and the doors to the
celestial world were open for accepting clients gifts of sheep and birch trees.
Powerful male shamans took advantage of these aspects of shamanic practice. With
clients often poorer than themselves, female shamans staged their rituals within their
dimly lit gers or log houses that were enclosed with wooden fences. Neither of these
could not accommodate a large number of clients and the more complex rituals that
involved a sheep sacrifice.
Many were highly skilled, their performances were dramatic, poetic, and entertaining.
But most of their rituals were limited to smaller-scale activities, like appeasing a spirit
or calling a lost soul. That was not because they lacked shamanic skill or were less
able, but because they lagged behind many males of equal skill in obtaining the
official manifestations of their shamanic powers, the shanar, and the paraphernalia
that accompanied them.
Because of their marginal positions in patriarchal and patrilocal households as wives
and daughters-in-law, they lacked material and social support to advance in staging
shanar and obtaining paraphernalia. With fewer shanars (two or three out of seven)
and poorer audiences, female shamans meager gifts -- cheap fabric, a prayer scarf, or

just enough cash to buy a loaf of bread were insufficient for obtaining further
spiritual powers. Unable to obtain the requisite paraphernalia and stage their next
shanar, female shamans struggled to attract an audience that could support their quest
for power. Over the years of living and traveling in Bayan-Uul it became clear to me
that after socialisms collapse, when shamanism became a prestigious practice, male
shamans were able to obtain power and economic rewards, but female shamans
remained on the margins.
Over the years, I did encounter isolated examples of female shamans
empowerment. I refrain from celebrating these singular and often only short-term
achievements in order to avoid giving an impression that all female shamans were
empowered overall. For female shamans, shanars were not enough to attract and
maintain able and devoted audiences. At the end of the day a question that sympathetic
people asked, was: What is the use of a shamans numerous origin spirits, if she does not
have meat for dinner and milk for tea? This question might seem trivial in places with a
decent economy. But during the market economy, it became the central question of
survival. By presenting the stories of Chimegs turbulent quest for power, I explore why
women do not gain power equal to men in an egalitarian practice of shamanism. And
why, even if female shamans were able to gain power, money, and recognition, they
tended to lose them.
<Transgression >
I met Chimeg, a female shaman in her late forties, at Tmrs shanar, in the
summer of 1997. Tmrs disciple, she had already completed her three shanars, only
one less than her teacher. During the ritual, she shielded Tmr from the intrusions of

outside spirits with her origin spirits. During a break, I saw Chimeg and Tmr arguing
with each other, while keeping their distance from the rest. Then Chimeg suddenly
walked away from the argument crying. Since I was more closely acquainted with
Tmr at that time, I asked him what happened. Tmr refrained from giving details,
saying that the matter was trivial and that it was something that regularly happens
between a teacher and a disciple. She is being difficult, said Tmr. When I went to
Chimeg and inquired about the situation, the only thing she said was: These male
shamans always dismiss women. They think that just because we are women we cannot
be as good shamans as them. I was unable to learn more about the issue, however,
because she left suddenly and unannounced, taking an opportunity to squeeze into a
jeep that was leaving for the next district.
I lost touch with her for the next two years, because she was traveling and did
not visit Bayan-Uul, where her teachers and clients were, or Bayan-Dun, the
neighboring district, where her family lived. Chimeg was divorcing her husband and
swore never to return to him or to the district of Bayan-Dun. In late October in 1999,
when I was in the midst of my year-long fieldwork, I heard that Chimeg had returned
from her trip to Russia. Dolgor, her distant cousin, told me that Chimeg was living
alone in Enkes house that the latter lent her, and was eager to see me.
I knocked on her window and Chimeg greeted me. She wore a close-fitting purple
sweater with an embroidered collar, sleek black trousers, and red velvet slippers. It
looked as though she was doing well, but I soon saw that I was mistaken. For the next
few months, as I closely followed her, I saw that Chimeg suffered from lack of
money and loneliness. Without any income except her shamanic practices and limited

support from her cousin Dolgor, she struggled to make a living in impoverished
Bayan-Uul. Her shamanic practices stagnated.
Over time, I realized that Chimeg was transgressing the accepted norms of gender and
propriety on several levels. Chimegs sexuality was dangerous: she was divorcing her
husband, lived alone, wore fashionable clothes and make-up, and traveled on her
own. She was also staging her rituals and however small they were, the shamans saw
her as a competitor.
As a traveling female shaman who was getting divorced in a place where womens
identities are defined as belonging to men, and where womens travels have meanings
that are different from mens travel, Chimegs shamanic practice was prone to much
more complex stagnation. In order to begin to appreciate the complexity of Chimegs
situation we need to first, unpack the meaning of womens travel in Mongolian
culture and its impact on the travel requirements of their shamanic practices.
Travel is an arena where men may gain advantages over women. Most cultures seem
to have places that are prohibited from womens visitations.ii In Mongolia, however,
including among Buryats, both men and women travel almost everywhere. In fact, I
met fewer female Buryat shamans precisely because many of them traveled so
extensively. Buryat male and female shamans travel to get paraphernalia from
blacksmiths and seamstresses, to consult with their teachers, and to visit their clients.
Despite womens accessibility to travel, female shamans still lagged behind males in
their quest for power. Why? What was so different about womens travel from that of
men that it did not add to their powers as much as it did for men?

The same travels were perceived differently. Womens travel differed from that of
men not in physical distances covered and routes taken, but in different meanings that
people ascribed to them. Travel for men is an opportunity to gain prowess,
knowledge, and networks. A popular Mongolian proverb says that men keep a
saddled and bridled horse in their minds, which means that through travel men keep
their intelligence vast and foresight extensive. Thus it is accepted that traveling men
engage with their surrounding: they converse with strangers, party with
acquaintances, and stay overnight in their friends gers. These activities also
correspond to the shamans travels, who gain clients, knowledge, and support through
Such activities, however, contradict to the expected behaviors of women. Most
married men expect their wives to travel to return to their homes, but not to pursue
empowerment in public. Womens minds must stay bound to their household, even if
their bodies are crossing the same geographical terrain as men. While traveling, they
are supposed to maintain self-protective, closed demeanors in order to avoid male
advances and even influences from bad women (i.e., going to a party with
girlfriends). The knowledge, networks, and fame that women gain from travel must
be limited only to the immediate purpose of the travel. Even if women do travel, their
intelligence is not expected to expand.
But contrary to these expectations, when womens travel in real life they gain
both the social network and the needed economic resources for empowerment. Chimeg is
a vivid example. She was one of the first few shamans who emerged in late 1980s, even
before the collapse of socialism in the early 1990s and was in demand among the Buryats

in Russia and Mongolia. She traveled through Russian Buryatia because there she had the
support of her maternal kin. A dramatic performer, she quickly gained prominence. She
was received royally and was showered with gifts. People competed with each other to do
favors for her.
The early 1990s were also the peak period of small-scale individual trading. The
states in both Russia and Mongolia withdrew their previous socialist services and
provisions to the people. As a means of survival for some, and gaining wealth for others,
travel became a routine part of everyday life. Through her shamanic practices Chimeg
accumulated enough start-up capital to engage in trading during her travels between
Russia and Mongolia. At that time, Mongolia was suffering from a shortage of wheat
flour. Chimeg brought truckloads of flour from Russia to her home district of Bayan-Dun
in exchange for herds of sheep. Through the combination of her successful shamanship,
entrepreneurial drive, and the right timing, within two years, Chimeg had accumulated a
large number of livestock including a camel caravan. She built a new log house, and
filled it with expensive carpets, furniture, and dishes. The early 1990s were the height of
Chimegs power. Her economic and political success was compatible to and sometimes
even exceeded that of the shamans Luvsan, Tmr, and Tsend. In her district she was
known as a rich shaman.

<Intimate Subjugation>
Yet Chimegs absences as a traveling shaman infuriated her husband. She told me the
story of her violent marriage. In the light of that abuse, humiliation, and oppression, I
thought that her shamanic practice was also Chimegs way of escaping her violent

marriage. Among many graphic descriptions of abuse that Chimeg (and Dolgor) had
told me, a few examples convey the kind of terror Chimeg experienced in her
Her husband threatened to kill her if she dared to leave the house or divorce him. He
did this every time he sharpened a kitchen knife. He pressured her to have sex even
when she was attending to a sick child. She got up first in the morning, made the fire,
prepared tea, and brought her husbands breakfast to his bed. He would get up only
after he had his morning tea in bed and after the house warmed up. He found every
excuse to beat her: his jealousy, her mean mouth, a late dinner, or her frequent
Chimeg had no place to which to escape to from her marriage. She had tried to
return to the home of her adopted parents with her firstborn baby in her arms. Her
parents refused to take her back, saying she would be a burden, absorbing the resources
needed to bring up her younger siblings. Chimeg was devastated: My father even
contacted my husband to take me back on the condition that he will treat me better. It
was a deal between the two men. Chimeg also sought help from her biological father,
but he dismissed her. He had never married Chimegs mother and had no emotional
connection with Chimeg, since she had been given for adoption.
Due to Mongolias pro-natal policy (1957-1986), birth control was largely
banned, excluding instances where a pregnancy would be fatal for the woman in
question, or for women who already had four or more children. Motherhood was already
a cultural expectation, an economic necessity, and an emotional value. These traditional
attitudes towards motherhood were further enhanced by the states pro-natal policy,

which encouraged and tacitly forced women to give birth to as many children as
possible.iii The Mongolian state provided monetary rewards, help with housing, childcare,
and other amenities for families with four or more children. Women with five or more
children were awarded a state medal that proclaimed them Mother Heroine.
Based on Mongolias fear of Chinese absorption, the Soviets interest in
increasing workers along its Far-Eastern economic boarders, and the Mongols anxiety
about under population,iv Mongolias pro-natal policy was tremendously successful. Its
population tripled from 647,504 in 1918 to over two million people in 1989v, and much
can be said about the policys political and geopolitical contexts. It was an integral part of
the nation-building, economic development, and the construction socialism.
But its success came at a high personal price for the women who bore the physical
and emotional burden of the policy. Not only did the bodies of women go through
tremendous stress, but motherhood became a convenient, unacknowledged way for men
to exert control over women in their families. Men openly observed that women, piled
up with children, cannot really move, and so must put up with their husbands. The state
pro-natal policy, in this way inadvertently contradicted to its claim of equalizing men and
women. Womens identities as mothers were so enhanced politically and culturally that
they were expected to sacrifice themselves for their children, whether by giving up their
careers or putting up with family violence. There is also a fine line between a womans
desire to have many children and the effects of external pressures on her to do so. I heard
many women complain about the burdens of motherhood. After the late 1980s, when
women were given more choices about motherhood, the average number of children in
rural households dropped from six to two.

With limited control over her body, Chimeg became pregnant almost every other
year throughout her twenties and most of her thirties. Chimeg described her life as that of
a child-bearing machine, stranded with the children she produced. Each time she wanted
to leave her marriage, she realized she was pregnant with another baby, so she waited to
leave until the child could care for its own basic needs. Chimeg gave birth to more than
ten children.
One violent episode made Chimeg serious about seeking a way to leave. She
worked as a part-time district nurse. Her trip home from seeing a patient one rainy day
was prolonged by the muddy roads. Soaking wet, she came home to a cold house and
hungry children. She took off her rubber boots, made a fire in the stove, put on the water
for tea, and held her two-year old to her chest to warm him up. Her husband entered, took
their child from Chimegs hands, then threw Chimeg on the floor where he beat her,
kicking and stepping on her with his hard-soled work boots. When their five-year old son
ran to his mother, Chimegs husband threw the child against the wall and continued to
beat Chimeg. She recounted: I could not do anything. I only screamed, Kill me! Kill
me! You always threaten to kill me. Now it is the time!
When he had finished beating her, Chimeg could not get up by herself, so her
husband had to pick her up from the floor and then nurse her in bed for several weeks.
Two of her ribs and her left arm were broken; her kidneys were injured and she urinated
blood for two weeks. I will leave, just wait, the kids will grow up and I will leave, she
said. I promised myself. I understood that I cannot and I should not live like this. The
children, except her oldest son, however, were growing up emotionally distanced from
her, as their father continuously propagated negative attitudes against their mother.

According to shamanic epistemology, people become initiated as shamans

because they are chosen by their origin spirits and not by their own free will. In
anthropology, womens spirit possession has been explained in variety of ways,
including as a female sub-culture where women use trance as a strategy to speak the
unspeakable (Lewis 1971: 99). Lewiss insights have been criticized as functionalist
and narrow in scope. Anthropologists offered other meanings such as shamanism as
womens creative empowerment (Tsing 1993), a temporary shift in identity (Steedly
1993), and gender complimentary domains of ritual tasks (Boddy 1989; Kendall 1987).
While these studies illuminate the advantages and meanings of shamanic practices for
women, to a certain extent and for the specific instance of women becoming shamans
as a form of resistance in the abusive relationship and way to escape it, Lewiss insight
remains valid. Shamanism encompasses multiple meanings as different people engage
in it with their individual purposes and understandings. We need to shift gears
dynamically and point to a meaning that suits a particular instance the most. On another
The shamanic practices of Chimeg were set against the subjugation by kinship and state
politics. The strange part is that despite her turbulent marriage, her success as a
shaman had been dazzling.
<Downward Mobility>
Yet her glamorous success as a shaman declined with the end of her marriage.
One evening, my clients, disciples and I returned home from a trip to Russia to get the
rest of my shamanic paraphernalia from the house. We were about to go to the
countryside for a bigger ritual. My husband was not home and I went to the local store

to buy bread for my family and guests. When I returned, my guests were sitting quietly,
each embracing parts of my paraphernalia that had been stored in separate cases. I
asked what happened they answered that my husband tried to burn them in the stove.
They had to wrestle with my husband to save my paraphernalia. I thought that I should
leave before my husband burns my paraphernalia one day.
Chimeg framed the story of her divorce as being not by her choice, but
something she was forced to do. She did so as a response to the communitys
disapproval of her actions -- divorcing her husband. By leaving her husband and
pursuing her shamanic practice, Chimeg had expected she would gain even more power
and expand her practice. Having done well in the past, she was confident she could
survive on her own, have a home, and bring her younger children to live with her. But
her shamanic practice declined after her divorce, because now she was a threat to the
community by traveling and practicing as a single woman.
Marriage in Mongolia, including the Buryats, offers a boundary between the
private and public spheres of womens lives. It brings prestige and status for women
and protects them from public intrusion. By attaching women to the domestic sphere
and to a husband, marriage tames womens sexuality that provides their biological
needs. Womens attachments to their husbands and children make them responsible,
tying up their desire to seek sex since they must then protect their honor. But worryfree single women have untamed sexuality a potential source of danger and conflict.
Married women were suspicious that Chimeg might attract their husbands and so bring
shame to their families. Unexpectedly, Chimegs freedom was detrimental to her

In addition to any social conflicts her divorce may have created, Chimegs travel
was also interpreted differently after she left her husband. Men, allowed to speak more
freely in public, have better opportunities to narrate their own travels. They have firstspin rights to give their experiences the most favorable interpretation possible. But
others may comment on womens travels even before they have a chance to narrate
their own experiences, or become aware of what others are saying about them. Mens
travel tends to produce stories, while womens generate gossip, which often zooms in
on womens under-blanket-lives.
The gossip around Chimeg was little about her shamanic abilities, but more
about her promiscuity. A traveling single womans autonomy was a threat to men, as
she was invading the male-dominated public sphere without a man who would control
her actions. Womens mobility and visibility challenged the male-domination in the
public sphere, brought shame to their husbands, and set a bad example to other wives.
Chimeg was able to acquire wealth and succeed as a shaman while she was a married
woman. But as a divorced woman she lost her moral value and became an object of
suspicion and danger. By leaving her abusive household, Chimeg tried to get away
from the domestic sphere. But the idea of domestication of women was so pervasive,
that the domestic sphere traveled with her, extending far beyond its actual physical
presence. Men carried their social spaces wherever they traveled, but women were
associated with the domestic sphere even if they were away from their households. In
the eyes of men Chimeg was just a woman, like anyone else. Chimegs credibility
diminished, since her failed personal life did not warrant her capability of attending to

other peoples problems. Her services also became less and less valuable because of the
increasing number of shamans in the area.
Chimegs reputation especially suffered when she became involved with other
men. The male shamans, pointing at Chimegs relationships, claimed she was using
shamanic practices for personal gains to find a new husband. Indeed, Chimeg dreamed
of a romantic love, a caring husband, and a household based on an equal division of labor
between husband and a wife. She contrasted her oppressive husband with her new gentle
lovers. Her dreams challenged the patriarchal system, where women complained that as
workers and servers, they had become barlag (slaves) and togoonii bariul (pot
holders). She became involved with men much younger than herself a transgression
detested by many. Her interest in perfumes, lingerie, fashion, and cosmetics also
challenged the boundaries set for middle-aged married women. She refused to give up on
herself as a woman, as expected of a woman in her fifties. Older women were supposed
to be modest, displaying little or no sexuality, and caring more about other family
members than themselves. Chimegs fashionable clothing, cosmetics, and attracting
young men, were unusual for her clients, who looked more for comfort from their humble
shamans, rather than for someone who was trying to display personal sophistication.
<A Hungry Freedom>
Among many kinship, family, and economic situations that led to Chimegs
decline, her relationship with her husband was the most damaging. Chimegs husband
refused officially to divorce her, so she could not claim her share of their household
property. She had no livestock, house, or access to her garden. Chimegs employment
as a district nurse, taken up in the short intervals between her ten pregnancies, did not

add up to enough time to qualify her for a state pension. Chimegs husband convinced
the younger children that their mother left them so they resented her. Her oldest son,
who grew up watching her being beaten, and who supported her flight, unfortunately
lived in patrilocal residency with his father due to their collaboration in managing the
familys livestock. His family lived in a ger next to his fathers; the two families
cooked separately, but the father controlled both families livestock, and oversaw their
common meat and flour storage. The father warned the son that if he gave anything to
his mother, he would not receive his share of the property. The son secretly slaughtered
sheep for Chimeg, and occasionally sent her meat, butter, and milk in the winter
months. But Chimeg was far away and transportation was scarce, so such shipments of
food were rare. Her oldest son asked Chimeg to move in with his family, but she did
not want to be so near her husband, even living in a different house. Two other grown
sons also sympathized with their mother, but they, too, lived with their father and had
little to offer her.
Chimeg had no other means to make a living except by the minuscule payments
she received for her sporadic rituals. By leaving her husband, she had lost the status and
prestige of a married woman, almost entirely undermining her shamanic practice. By
leaving her domestic sphere, she also lost her site of production for material, cultural,
and social values. A shamans household functions as a center for social activities like
banquets, parties and casual gatherings all of which contribute to convening an
audience. Unable to summon an audience with such entertainments, Chimeg had hard
time attracting and maintaining clients. Without a permanent station, Chimeg could not

accommodate clients from afar if she needed to perform rituals that lasted for several
days at a time.
Most importantly, her poverty precluded her from completing her paraphernalia
-- obtaining her last and most important parts -- ih amitai (antelope skin gown) and
uulen amitai (metal headdress). Chimeg could not obtain enough resources to stage her
next shanars. She could not invite teachers to lead her shanars or follow up her rituals
followed by parties. Unable to stage her shanar and acquire additional paraphernalia,
Chimeg could not compete with the male shamans, and so fell far behind them;
shamans who had started much later than she had already obtained more of their
paraphernalia in the past five years. Without displaying her paraphernalia she could not
attract new clients.
In the meantime, new spirits in her paternal and maternal lineages also emerged
threatening to harm her if she did not complete her paraphernalia. Each time Chimeg
was possessed by them, they requested a shanar. So far, Chimeg had completed four
shanar (black initiation ceremonies) and five shandruu (white initiation
ceremonies). She needed to have three more shanar and two more shandruu to become
a fully accomplished shaman (duurisah). But even for a shaman who had accomplished
four shanars, Chimeg was poor and marginalized. Chimegs spiritual powers did not
translate into material gain. Chimeg lived in constant fear that her origin spirits might
detach themselves from her and leave her without protection from attacks by outside
spirits and competitors. Her position on the margins of society deterred traveling
tourists and international media, who searched for authentic and powerful shamans

with impressive paraphernalia, altars, and festive rituals surrounded by an entourage of

disciples and kin.
Stagnating in her quest for power, Chimeg was pitied, not respected. She was
visited by clients, but underpaid, receiving compensation only in proportion to her
impoverished situation, not in proportion to her skills. Even if she carried out a
complex ritual, her clients paid her the fewest gifts that they could within the range of
expectations for that ritual. Her poverty precluded pride; she accepted the smallest
compensations and served the poorest clients who did not dare seek the services of
wealthy shamans. She was called upon for services, but her company in other times was
avoided. She was helped when she asked for help, but people stopped competing to do
favors for her. She was called for emergencies, for drop-in consultations, and to
perform small rituals. Requests for big rituals were awarded to more prestigious
shamans. Chimegs story will continue briefly in chapter Eight and Nine, where we will
see how gossip, the interpretation of divination, and storytelling by clients can affect a
shamans power.
<The Shamanic Glass Ceiling>
Most female shamans in Bayan-Uul do not succeed in obtaining their complete
shamanic status and even if they do, their spiritual powers to not translate into
economic rewards and political powers. This fact can be traced to impedances in gender
and kinship structures, and to changes in the political economy after socialism. Female
shamans must maneuver within a male-dominated society. The following is a brief
analysis of the structures of everyday life that put women under a kind of double

whammy: despite their best attempts, obstacles often develop just as they reach a
certain point in their quest for power.
During socialism, shamanism was persecuted by the state; it continued to
function underground, but not as a lucrative endeavor. The market economy brought
opportunities for economic advantages, but it was mostly male shamans who benefited
of this system. Female shamans have been marginalized in the practice. That went in
parallel with the dissolution of the state farms and the end of state production interests;
a relatively gender-equal employment system also ended. Production shifted from the
state to the domestic sphere, where men and women resumed traditionally gendered
divisions of labor within their nomadic households. Men took back their conventional
role as obtainers from the outside. Women remained inside their homes as
producers of food and caretakers of livestock. Any extensive travel a woman might
undertake would incur irrecoverable lags in her household productivity, and might risk
the loss of her untended livestock to predators, disease or malnutrition. Lacking much
control over the results of their labor, most women remained at home, Womens travel,
then, was not only considered unsafe and stigmatized as a transgression of the gendered
order, but it was also structurally impractical for survival of a nomadic household in the
merciless economy of nomadic livestock herding without any state support.
Mens daily activities hunting, watering the herds, and searching for lost or
stolen livestock were already based on travel. Men could establish friendship
networks, acquire paraphernalia, and visit their teacher the activities that were
necessary for shamanic advancement as a part of their roles without extensive efforts,
along the way. Women had to skip their daily chores and make a special trip to visit her

teacher for advice, or to see a blacksmith about having paraphernalia made. Sporadic
and rushed, such trips often yielded little success. A woman might have to travel
repeatedly to the same destination, go further for cheaper deals, or seek financial
support from maternal kin living in other districts. With such limited routing, women
would meet fewer people to begin with, and their need for caution in avoiding
unwanted male advances would make the casual networking essential to obtaining
clients more challenging as well. Women thus largely depended on their alreadyexisting networks, again, setting them back in their efforts to advance in their calling.
But if the income-producing activities of a traveling female shaman, like Chimeg,
contribute to the household economy more than the activities of her husband, why
would he not support them, especially during the time of an economic crisis? The
paradoxical explanation is based on specific ideas about shamanic income.
Chimegs earnings were welcome, but the ways she obtained her money (through
travel and public performance) and the reputation, power, and client networks she
accumulated with the money stigmatized her. Because traveling shamans often spent
their nights at clients houses, women were easily suspected of being unfaithful often
by outsiders and sometimes, by their family members, creating problems in their
marriage. This was Chimegs difficultyher abusive husband was inclined to see the
So if travel could undermine a womans family or reputation, why shouldnt a female
shaman practice in the safety of her home, once having assembled a clientele through
travel? Again, specific beliefs about kinship, property and propriety get in the way of
what might otherwise seem like a logical solution. Both practicing in their homes and

traveling to clients homes introduced serious conflicts into female shamans

marriages and disrupted the household economy. In a nomadic household, women
serve and men entertain the guests. Female shamans tended to transgress that order.
Married female shamans often came into conflict with their husbands over the
respected positions they sought as entertainers, hosting their own clients as guests.
Female shamans who practiced rituals in their homes claimed power by creating a
public space within the household, which traditionally belong to their husbands.
Disruptions to the domestic economy incurred by her shamanic performances in the
household, like those incurred by travel, might also introduce conflict into her
marriage. A womans primary caregiving responsibilities would continuously
interrupt her rituals. A female shaman could practice at home only if she had people
to help her take care of her livestock, dairy production, in-laws and children. During
spirit possession rituals, shamans also need an attendant to converse with spirits, to
take care of the shamans paraphernalia, to maintain the flames of candles in front of
the altar, and many other backstage matters. During the rituals led by male
shamans, it is the wife and children who serve him. But for a female shaman their
husbands rarely agree to serve her as an attendant a subordinate role. I have only
seen husbands serving their wives during rituals if they were much younger than their
wives. Given their subordinate position in their own gers as domestic workers and
wives, women ultimately needed to travel more than men. Many female shamans I
met got little support from family members unless their husbands were either fully
economically dependent on them, or were themselves shamans, exchanging
conversationalist and attendant services with each other.

Young unmarried women received support from their natal kin and family. The
kin gathered their resources to obtain the shamanic paraphernalia and stage shanars.
After marriage, however, these womens shamanic practice tended to decline, unless
the natal kins support persisted. Married womens shamanic activities contradicted
(and were of no use to) patriarchal kinship structures; children ultimately belonged to
their male kin (in a patrilocal setting, they grow up with paternal grandparents).
Children inherited their fathers clan name, and the clans ancestral spirits.
In this patriarchal structure, womens children from first marriages have a
peculiar role. Naming is important for determining the structure of a family and the
propitiation of the origin spirits. Usually, a womans new husband adopts her children
from her first marriage and the children become the members of the new fathers
lineage family and propitiate his origin spirits. Sometimes, however, womens children
take (or are given) their maternal grandfathers name as their surname. In that case,
they become members of their mothers lineage and propitiate her natal familys origin
spirits. While such arrangement was helpful for women to claim her origins, often it
was an excuse for the step-father to ignore the womens children.
I met many women who claimed that unless their husbands families propitiate
their origin spirits, then, their children were in danger of getting into trouble. One
woman, named Bayasa, was especially keen in propitiating her natal origin spirits, as
she had two sons from her previous marriage. She was worried about her sons receiving
equal treatment with the rest of the children of the extended family and wanted to
ascribe value to her two sons. The womens natal origin spirits were the outsiders to

the family and they were ritually sent off to her male kin. Families had no reason to
support the outsiders practice.
And yet, even if the womens natal origin spirits get sent off, their memories
remained, as they are summoned to the ritual and fed and entertained before they are
asked to leave the family. Some of these spirits leave for a few years and return again,
thus keeping their memories alive among the family. When Tmrs youngest daughter
gets sick, he attributes it to an origin spirit of an old woman who belongs to his wifes
family. That spirit is particularly harsh towards children, as Tmr put it, and
occasionally requests the sacrifice of a duck or other bird. She escaped her abusive
husband and fled to Mongolia on her own. She walked through forests and mountains
and fed on wild animals and birds. She never reached the settlements in Mongolia, and
died in a forest. While Tmr attributed the old woman to his wifes lineage, I
encountered this story in a chronicle about the Buryat ancestry, documented by
In patriarchal and patrilocal households, many married women also have
specific roles and duties owed their husbands parents. A daughter-in-law, especially
one married to a youngest son, is expected to take extensive personal care of her inlaws. In the elderly couples eyes, a daughter-in-law is assumed to be mean, greedy and
lazy. I heard many times an old couple complain how their daughter-in-laws hands
cannot pass a bowl of tea properly, her eyes are not sharp enough to notice a mess on
the floor, and her movements too slow to complete several tasks at once. Her bodily
movements and sleeping hours are restricted, her productivity at domestic work the
subject of scrutiny, and the distance and time of her travels carefully monitored.

The ultimate goal being to teach a daughter-in-law to respect and respond to every
wish of her husband and in-laws without any dispute, severe methods are often used
to suppress a daughter-in-laws sense of personal identity and pride. Physical and
verbal abuse; dramatic intimidation using bodily gestures, eye movements, and
unpleasant tones of voice; public humiliations through loud scolding, beating, or
simply talking badly about her poor ability to do work, or her low moral standards
were often employed by extended families. Daughters-in-law must appear to be
working at all times and it is expected that they should look tired.vii
<Not Giving Up>
People accepted female shamans as long as their own wife or daughter-in-law did not
aspire to be one. By becoming shamans, women were empowered by their spirits, by
their clients and disciples support, and by the income and respect others accorded
them. Unlike ordinary women they could justify their bad moods as afflictions from
spirits. Their shamanic practices and spirits were excuses to skip chores, travel, and
spend time with outside company. Shamanic activities also helped women evade the
societal expectations for their domestic and kinship roles: that they would always be
obedient, hard-working, expecting little or no privilege for that position.
The women who dared to pursue shamanic activities were taking a chance with
their marriages. I met many female shamans who chose to leave their husbands in order
to pursue their careers in shamanic practice. Chimegs experience shows all too well
what it means to be a divorced female shaman in post-socialist rural Mongolia. Unable
to claim their own property, shifting between temporary homes, attached neither to
men, nor their natal homes, divorced female shamans occupied an obscure transitional

space. With their constant movement they easily acquired negative reputations,
preventing them from attracting new clients and generating suspicion about the quality
of their rituals among their existing clients.
For female shamans, travel was both necessary and dangerous. Marriage helped
a woman in building her reputation and gaining clients but it also limited her
advancement to power. Divorce allowed women to devote their time to their shamanic
practice, but the stigma attached to their divorced state could cause them to lose their
reputation, as well as the resources needed for obtaining paraphernalia and staging
shanar. Such structural limitations (the shamanic glass ceiling) prevented women
from becoming full-fledged shamans and kept them at a mediocre level. Either way
women gained little. Married or unmarried, traveling or at home, each positive gain
also generated a loss. Whatever they did, that negative spin threatened to erode their
A female shaman Sevjid had also been divorced after living in an abusive
marriage for almost twenty years. At the age of fifty she married her disciple who was
twenty eight years old. Sevjids unconventional move caused much negative gossip.
Sevjid did not let the talk affect her, but instead she traveled with her husband, who
helped her during rituals as a conversationalist with the spirits and as an altar attendant.
Sevjid succeeded as a shaman when she was married (even if her marriage was
abusive). When she got divorced, her clients also began departing. Yet, because her
new marriage allowed her to travel, she was a particularly strong performer, and
because her husband helped her during her rituals, together, they were able to build a
new clientele.

Female shamans were often underpaid, receiving gifts in proportion to their perceived
lower economic status, and not according to their shamanic skills or a given rituals
difficulty. The basic established gift among the shamans in Bayan-Uul for a ritual to
appease an origin spirit was four meters of cloth, and a sum of money, at the clients
discretion. No matter how many spirits the shaman evoked, for one ceremony only
one piece of cloth was offered to all the spirits.
A female shaman, Urnaa, in the neighboring district to Bayan-Uul made a big splash
by breaking the one-cloth gift rule. She requested not only individual gifts for each
sets of spirits, but also gifts for every person in the audience from her pupil shaman
and his parent. She demanded that the guests and the people who served in the ritual
be fed with best food and served with alcohol every two hours.
But then Urnaa fell into a problematic situation. True, women who did not request
gifts received insufficient compensation, corresponding to their modest material
situation, as compared with that of male shamans with residency, family, and
livestock. But if women did request gifts, there was a serious danger of losing their
dignity in the eyes of the public, since demanded gifts harmed a shamans status.
Money made by shamanic practice already had less moral value than that earned
through sweat or even trading. Such money was barren,viii it did not bring virtues,
and should be either given away or spent on things unrelated to the most intimate
aspects of ones life. There were moral doubtsix about the money a shaman made,
based as it was on someone elses suffering. If that money was also not freely offered,
but demanded then the shaman might lose prestige she had gained through a
successful ministration to the client. After being ashamed, Urnaa, was pushed to

reduce her requests to the one cloth rule. She also could not claim additional gifts for
the participants in the ritual, backstage workers, and other helpers from her clients.
Urnaa, who was flourishing had to scale down in requests and accept what others
gave her.
Despite the difficulties facing them in their efforts to succeed as shamans,
female Buryat shamans were compelled to portray themselves as equal in power to
males. These females, conceived of a public performance surrounded by an audience as
their socially legitimate arena. The conflict between the public expectations of female
shamans for becoming as powerful as male shamans, and the societys unwillingness to
recognize concrete obstacles limiting womens quests for power resulted in a double
disadvantage for female shamans. Female shamans both lagged behind men in their
advancement to power, and were also blamed for being unable to reach established
norms of power.
Most people regarded female shamans lack of power (or slow advancement to
power) as their own fault and so were reluctant to take into account any structural
difficulties. Once I inquired of Tmr whether women could become as powerful as
male shamans and why there were no powerful female shamans today. Tmr did not
hide his irritation, exclaiming: Of course, every shaman can obtain powers! Who cares
whether the person is male or female! If the shaman is not powerful, then that is her
own fault. Shamanic epistemology suggests that a truly chosen shaman should be
able to overcome day-to-day structural difficulties no matter how persistent or
confining. And the real origin spirits should take the shaman above the obstacles and
grant their shamans a necessary power to advance. Precisely because the shamanic

system was gender egalitarian, one felt justified in blaming the women themselves, and
not the structure of the society, tradition, state, or culture, for their failures. If a shaman
could not succeed due to reasons embedded in everyday life, she must not have been
meant to be a shaman to begin with. After all, shamanism was seen not a worldly
occupation, but an engagement with supernatural powers.
Both state socialism and the market economy, each in different ways, limit the means
for womens empowerment, while facilitating mens greater access to economic and
cultural values, and thus greater shamanic success. This chapter explored specific
steps in the shamans quests for power, particularly through acquisition of resources,
activation of prestigious destinations, and other travel- related practices.
Given the prevailing atmosphere of skepticism the shamans economic means are a
crucial benchmark for assuring spiritual powers, needed to persuade an audience of
ones own efficacy as a shamanic practitioner in particular. Since the state destroyed
family genealogies, the shamans operate under an added onus of disbelief in their
credibility: they can only infer, not prove, the authenticity of their knowledge about
origin spirits. Informational discrepancies revealed by clients from soliciting
additional opinions either male or female shamans create a feeling of anxiety and
uncertainty among the audiences searching for proof about the authenticity of their
origin spirits. Often, the truth comes from collecting answers that match. Sometimes,
however, only the reputation of the shamans and their persuasive performances offer
any hope of mending lost family ties after the states decades-long campaign of
memory suppression.

My search to find female shamans in light of the stories of Genen and Handa revealed
nuances about the obstacles that women encounter in participating in shamanism. At
the same time, it made me question the differences in memory and actual life. Genen
and Handa are remembered as extraordinary shamans. But their lives were ridden
with difficulties and they were oppressed in their own way during socialism. Memory
is a current of continuous thought (Halbwachs [1950] 1980: 80), as opposed to just
a distant knowledge of history, not only because people had known these female
shamans as persons, but feel emotionally connected to these female shamans and
were able to mold their memories to express the concerns of the present. While I am
convinced that by becoming memories, Genen and Handa demonstrate their
empowerment, I would like to warn against romanticizing female shamans during
socialism. They became famous as memories. But their everyday lives were much
more complex and far from glorious. In the next chapter I explore the conventional
and unconventional ways in which male shamans succeed in their practice.

As Edwin Ardener (1975) described the paradox of womens situation.


For instance, among the Wana in Indonesia, male shamans may travel to acquire

hidden skills from such dangerous places as the forest, a site of male, not female,
activity. (Atkinson, 1989). Male Meratus shamans of Indonesia as discussed by Tsing
(1993) may travel to take leadership positions in defense of their community. But
Indonesian womens everyday activities preclude such efforts. As shamanic performers

women must compensate for less extensive earthly travels by engaging in spiritual
visits to the supernatural realm instead.

In Ceausescus Romania, discussed by Gail Kligman, the pro-natal policy was based

on an explicit nationalist sentiment. The banning of abortion and the bearing of

children were related to citizens obligation to the paternalist state that cared for
them (1998, 6).

Bulag, 1998:105

Bulag, (1998, 30). The population number is correct, but also mis-leading. That

includes 100,000 Chinese and 5,000 Russians. The actual population of Mongols is
542,504 according to Maiskii, 1956

Nimayev, 1983


In her detailed comparison of the position of Mongolian and Chinese women,

Caroline Humphrey argues that women in Mongolian hierarchical empires throughout

history had more power and voice in the household than their counterparts in China.
Mongol women were never secluded nor had their feet bound. They were expected to
be quiet and competent. They maintained authority by actions than by words
(Humphrey, 1992, 174). I agree with Humphreys insight, but my argument here differs
from Humphreys given the difference in the historical moment in which I carried out
my research. I also look at women in the context of the egalitarian norms of shamanic
practices and I aim to trace the obstacles that preclude female shamans from achieving
their powers.

Parry, 1989,

Parry, 1989