In her book, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom: The Sultanahs of Aceh, 1641-1699 (Cornell University Press, 2018), Sher Banu Khan provides a rare and empirically rich view of queenship in early modern maritime Southeast Asia. Four women ruled the Muslim realm of Aceh in succession during the second half of the seventeenth century. Their reign – with the acquiescence of the religious elite in the kingdom - was remarkable in a society where women were not seen as natural rulers, and where in more recent history, public leadership by women was discouraged. Writing against extant historiography that depicts this era as a period of decline, Khan argues instead that the queens of Aceh enabled diplomatic and trading networks to prosper and asserted Acehnese sovereignty in encounters with European powers.
In our conversation, we discuss the challenges in multi-lingual archival work, how studying queens can help us to reframe the idea of decline, the gendering of authority and leadership as well as the place of female authority in the Muslim world.
Sher Banu Khan is an associate professor of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.
Faizah Zakaria is an Assistant Professor of History at Nanyang Technological University. She is completing her first monograph on dialectical relationships between landscape and religious conversions in maritime Southeast Asia. You can find her website here or on Twitter @laurelinarien