Life in Western Mongolia is an adventure. Training eagles to hunt, herding yaks, and racing camels are just a few of the daily activities of the nomadic Kazakh people. Brandon Li spent a few weeks living with them and experiencing one of the most unique cultures in the world.
There’s an old legend in Mongolia: A woman wrestler once dressed up as a man and entered an all-male wrestling competition, defeating all challengers. She then pulled up her jacket and revealed her breasts, shocking everyone in attendance. From them on, all wrestlers were required to compete bare-chested, a failsafe to ensure that Mongolia’s prized “manly” tradition remained that way. While the legend may or may not be true, the practice of bare-chested wrestling in Mongolia is real, as is the practice of banning women from the sport. Despite achieving international fame in grappling, female Mongolian wrestlers are still unable to compete in their own native games.
The Nadaam festival is held every year in July and is the single most anticipated sporting event in the country. Short for “Eriin Gurvan Naadam” (the three games of men), it is a celebration of the three traditional sports of Mongolia: wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. Nadaam dates back to the 13th century when Genghis Khan would throw celebrations for soldiers after successful military campaigns. After Kahn’s death, warlords continued the tradition, encouraging combat sports in order to prepare men for military service. Nadaam endured and developed throughout the centuries, and today, it is the Mongolian equivalent of the Super Bowl or World Cup. The games are typically held in July. Hundreds of small, county level events lead up to the main competition, which is held in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. Wrestling is often featured as the centerpiece of the competition, and in Mongolian, is referred to as “Bokh,” which means “durability.”
Mongolia experienced a socialist revolution in 1921 that brought with it an emphasis on male-female equality and gradually these values led to women being allowed to compete in Nadaam, but only in archery and horse racing. To fill the void, female grapplers turned their attention to other grappling sports. Soronzonboldyn Battsetseg won a bronze medal for judo in the 2012 Olympics in London, while Sumiya Dorjsuren won a silver medal in judo in the 2016 Olympics and then went on to win gold in the World Judo Championships in 2017. Both women are national heroes in Mongolia, and yet, Nadaam remains closed to them.
The fact that a sport has to be guarded against an entire group people suggests a fear that these people could be competent in the sport. Like the wrestler in the old legend, women grapplers like Soronzonboldyn and Sumiya are barred from competing in Bokh, not because they aren't capable, but because they are. Judo is a widely recognized grappling sport, practiced by professional athletes, law enforcement officials, and ordinary citizens in literally every country on the planet. It would not be a stretch to assume that the grit and skill required to master Judo would translate well to Mongolian Bokh, and that the current barring of women from Bokh in Mongolia seems to be more about maintaining a status quo than anything else. When female grapplers will have a chance to challenge this standard is anyone’s guess.
JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.