World has many stories about inequality, injustice, hatred. It also has stories about how people would restore or seed justice, equality and love. Women were and still are one huge social group that fall victim to injustice, stigma, irrational fear and stereotypes. Yet the oppressed sometimes can be very bright, intelligent and can unearth or design brilliant or desperate solutions to various problems and grave situations. We now are about to discover a few stories of how oppressed and shadowed companies of women could stand for themselves and for others, sometimes single-handedly.
Khanem Ketenjian (Armenuhi)
Khanem was a Women’s Unit Commander. She led a unit of women fighters in defence of Urfa in 1915. It was clear that Armenian population of Urfa was to be exterminated just like it was happening in other geographical areas, and the inhabitants decided to fight for their lives, until the end. She is personally credited with killing over twenty Turkish gendarmes before falling herself. Khanum Ketenjian had thirty young women in her contingent. Her squad was successful in destroying a Turkish guardhouse of importance to the enemy.
Turks were very upset and angry about the incident. Their anger had no bounds especially on hearing from the escaped officer that a company of women worked the destruction.
Turkish and Kurdish soldiers wanted to take those girls alive. With heavy losses but big numbers, they gradually took some streets of the town. Five girls got captured having no way to leave the trapped streets.
The Turkish Captain recognised Khanem. He also heard the name of her father. He tried to convert girls, trying to prove them to marry Turks and ‘live happy days’. Khanem said it would be a disgrace to them. The wild nature of Turkish and Kurdish soldiers stirred up. They shouted and gesticulated. They threatened violence. “Deliver them to our hands…” Captain then gone wild himself. He slapped Khanem boasting: “You giaour (infidel) slut! You consider it a dishonour to marry me, do you? Wait a minute. I will teach you! …”
When they wanted to tear Khanem’s clothes, she asked to untie her hands to make it herself. They freed her arms. Bill Millhome describes what follows in his blog: “She began to unfasten the buttons of her jacket with both hands. The Captain was leering with lustful eyes. She lifted the corner of her waistcoat and suddenly drawing a small revolver, emptied its contents into the Captain’s head, heart and stomach, in rapid succession. He fell dead. Afterwards, bewildered soldiers killed all the five girls at once.
“The mob was wonderstruck, looking on the tragedy with gaping mouths. They never expected such courage, such heroism from a persecuted and downtrodden race of women.”
Once Esther’s uncle Mordecai refused to bow to one Persian prince and he intended to kill Mordecai and all Jews of Persian Empire for that.
Esther, one of king’s numerous wives and an orphan raised by her uncle, went to the king, although that could cost her her life. She, at the end, told the king that this prince was intending to kill her uncle who once saved king’s life. Esther also came out to king Xerxes as Jew herself. As a result, that prince himself was executed by the order of the king. Jews of Persia were also given the right to protect themselves and keep arms after that.
Thus, a single Jewish woman who was incarcerated in king’s harem among numerous other women, saved the lives of many individuals. Her story is the basis for the celebration of Purim in Jewish tradition, to commemorate the deliverance.
Queen Blanche, wife of Louis VIII, lived in 13th century France and saw how priests would persecute an entire population, incarcerating towns with their citizens and spreading famine and death around. She, worried about the things she’d witnessed, wanted to set these people free. Priests didn’t tolerate the interference of the civil power, and claimed the prisoners were their subjects and no one else had any authority over those humans.
Queen Blanche’s last resort was the usage of force which was abused by priests. She approached one prison gates with her guards and ordered gates be opened. The soldiers were hesitant and she was the first to strike with a stick. After a short while, the gates were destroyed. Miserable, faces disfigured and garments tattered, the crowd came forth casting themselves at the feet of the queen. They asked her protection as this action could cost them dear. She seized the revenues of churches and monasteries of the area, and even obliged the priests to pay the inhabitants a yearly stipend so that they could survive and exist.
She was the last representative of Artashesyan (Artaxide) dynasty of Armenia and one of rare female figures in Armenian history who were both de jure and de facto rulers. We have coins with Erato’s depictions with both Tigranes IV and Tigranes V.
A speculation has that Erato herself was an ambitious and independent ruler who desired to rule and govern the country, and her marriage was nothing but a way of making her more dependent and to restrain her, which would also allow to obviate the possible fight for the throne.
Queen Erato of Armenian, Greek and Persian origins was the only queen who ruled for three times, being dethroned and then restoring her rule a few times in a row.
Living in exile for a while, she was appointed a queen again by a group of Armenian noblemen who weren’t happy with the Roman henchman Tigranes V. She started ruling together with Tigranes and thus clashes and civil war were prevented. We even have silver coins with Tigranes on one side and Erato on the other one, with an inscription that says “Erato Queen of Armenians”. In the year 12 C.E. she was dethroned with her brother, and we don’t know much of her life and death afterwards.
She is one of the most prominent women of pre-Christian Armenia.
Telesilla, the Saviour of the City of Argos
Telesilla, a lyric poetess of Argos, tells us of her country through her poetry. Yet she, brave and active, did more than that!
Argos had lost six thousand men, best of its soldiers. It was about to be taken by the enemy, Lacedaemonians. What she did was to gather and unite women she’d find appropriate and fit. She gave them arms which she secured from temples and houses of the citizens of the city, and… they repulsed the enemy which was afraid of being reproached no matter the outcome of the attack were to be. These female warriors, some of whom fell during the contest, were honoured well. A statue, erected in gratitude to Telesilla, found its place in the temple of Venus.
When you are in a deadlock: Cloelia
Romans have just signed a peace treaty with Etrurians. To make the peace lasting, they offer their daughters to the king. Noble virgins, offspring of the noble, are sent to the king.
Cloelia is one of them and she is sure it is better to risk their lives than their virginity among these barbaric tribes. All the virgins decide to flee, hearkening unto Cloelia. They reach Rome safely with the guidance of Cloelia. Albeit their parents were happy to see them and admired their stance and odissey, they, being genuinely severe Romans, sent the virgins back to the king.
King so admired the brave girls that he offered the virgins their freedom. Moreover, Cloelia is offered a horse (which would be offered to the bravest warriors) and is allowed to set some other prisoners free. She chooses children.
Rome greeted the virgins with great joy.
A statue on horseback was afterwards erected in a public market-place to commemorate the virtue and boldness of Cloelia and the generosity of Porsenna.
Zapel was made heir to the crown by the will of her father.
She was only seven years old when she was forced into marriage. Second time she was married to a ruler called Hethum, again against her will. For some time, the say, she would withstand her husband, but she eventually had to put up with it.
Zabel founds a hospital in the capital of Cilicia, Sis, where everyone could get treatment for free. She sponsored artists and scientists (e.g. Mkhitar Heratsi, Toros Roslin, Vardan Aygektsi, Sargis Pitsak), and the latter were able to work in Sis. Together with her husband, she reconstructed Andul monastery and turned it into a bungalow.
Just like Erato, Zapel was the last representative of her dynasty. Despite the forced marriages and submission, Zapel was able to contribute to the social and cultural development of the state.