I remember that day clearly. It was a Malay language class, and the teacher was teaching about the legend of Che Siti Wan Kembang, the fierce female ruler of Kelantan. I was in Standard 3, which meant I was nine years old. The first time I heard about Siti Wan Kembang though, I was in Standard 1. Sometime in the middle of August, we were finally taught about Che Siti Wan Kembang.
Che Siti Wan Kembang and her daughter, Puteri Saadong (or Princess Saadong in English) were the only female rulers in antiquity mentioned in history books. In Malaysian history, before Malacca was founded, most of the action was found in the Northern States. Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, then later Perlis and Penang were under the dominion or threat of Siam.
Among all the rulers who bended, bribed, cajoled and rebelled against the old empire of Siam, only one family stood up to Siam. Only two women, as far as I could remember, did not let Siam bully them. These women taught their sisters and daughters of Kelantan how to be fierce. How to fight for what they wanted, and screw anyone who didn’t let them.
The tigers of Kelantan, so feared by the other Malay women, were said to be the fiercest in the land. Mothers told their sons not to marry Kelanatanese women, for they were fierce, demanding, and headstrong. Did I mention that some said these women were the fairest in the land?
Looking back, I think they were the original feminists in Malaya.
Che Siti Wan Kembang was a fearsome ruler whom no one dared to bully. She never married, and because of her independence, some say she was a practitioner of the arcane arts. Her adopted daughter, Puteri Saadong, enamoured the then ruling King of Siam. This is where my memory and Wikipedia diverge. Wiki says that she became a concubine of King Narai. My memory tells me that the King of Siam spent seven years persuading her to do so, but her steadfast loyalty to her cousin impressed him. In the end, he sent her back to her husband with gifts of gold and handmaidens.
One thing Che Siti and Puteri Saadong had in common was their love of the hunt. I cannot remember what happened to Che Siti, but an old movie I watched as a child told the story of Puteri Saadong’s return. She found that her husband had betrayed her. Instead of waiting for her return as he promised, he had slept with her handmaiden. In a fury, she chased him out of the castle, and then shot him in the ear. He was not killed, but died as a coward.
These myths are disappearing. The story of the strong women is being replaced by the pure victim. The legend of Mahsuri supposedly mirrors Siam’s invasion of Langkawi. It portrays its main heroine as a woman who’s forced to die to prove her innocence. Her fate is in the hands of men, whereas the Kelantanese women brooked no such thing.
The easiest way to subjugate a nation is to remove anything that gives them strength. Impress the women that they are victims and they need to bend to men, and you’ll get Malaysian History.
Where is my Che Siti Wan Kembang? Where is my Puteri Saadong? Give me women who stand up for themselves, not bend to the wills of others!
Do you remember any other Malaysian (need not actually be Malay, yes I’d love to have examples from Sabah and Sarawak too!) women of yore who had these qualities? Tell me! Let their stories be heard, let their voices ring out. We cannot forget them.