by Princess O’Nika Auguste
In the biblical book of Esther, two women are given prominence: Vashti, the wife of the king of Persia at the beginning of the story, and Esther, who became the new queen after Vashti was banished for her disobedience to the king. Vashti had refused to parade her beauty before the drunken guests at the king’s party. Esther, on the other hand, was chosen to be the new queen as the result of an extensive beauty contest ordered by the king. (See Esther 1:1–2:18.)
Many feminists have ignored Queen Esther or have accused her or not being feminist enough. I am going to argue that Esther is a feminist icon in her own right. True, she is not a feminist like Vashti, who was radical for her time by standing up to the king and refusing to carry out his wishes. But Esther’s submissiveness (or going along with the king’s way of doing things) is very feminist—if we look at the situation in a different way and in the particular context in which Esther lived.
I declare that Esther’s feminism is not first world feminism but rather post-colonial feminism, a form of feminism that can take place among women in third world countries. These women do not have the rights to be outspoken and risky as Vashi was. Many have to bite their tongues to survive. This can also be true of minority women in first and second world countries who do not have the same rights as first world white women.
Before I discuss Esther, I would like to describe postcolonial feminism. Postcolonial feminism, according to Chris Weedon, is a reaction to western feminist ideas. It looks for an explanation about how racism and colonialism (economic, cultural, and political) affect the nonwhite and nonwestern women who are living in this postcolonial world. [i]
Postcolonial, as a term, suggests resistance to “colonial” power and its discourses that continue to shape various cultures, including those whose revolutions have overthrown formal ties to their colonial rulers. Postcolonial theory, therefore, focuses on subverting the colonizer’s discourse that attempts to distort the experience and realities, and inscribe inferiority on the colonized people in order to exercise total control. [ii]
However, women in colonized cultures suffer from what Tyagi calls “double colonization” (drawing on the work of Holst & Rutherford [iii]). Women in such cultures are experiencing not only the oppression of colonialism, just as the men do when their land has been claimed by colonizers, but women are at the same time experiencing the oppression of patriarchy. For a woman in this situation, her “colonized brother is no longer her accomplice, but her oppressor.” says Tyagi. She points out that “the task of a postcolonial theorist is to insert the often ‘absent’ colonized subject into the dominant discourse in a way that it resists/subverts the authority of the colonizer.” Esther fits into this description in my opinion. Her bold request to the king, which ultimately saves her people, inserts her into “the dominant discourse in a way that resists/subverts the authority of the colonizer.”
Thus, although many people have focused on Vashti as a feminist icon, I think we must take another look at Esther, seeing her in this framework of postcolonial feminism. Feminist scholars have ignored Esther or pitied her while praising Vashti even though Vashti appears only in a few lines in chapter one. No doubt that is because Vashti is independent and strong; and although she does not speak, you can feel her independent nature through those few lines. She refuses to be paraded in front of a bunch of drunk men, and she is thus dismissed.
After a time, the king misses Vashti—or at least misses having a wife in the position of queen. It is not he who suggests finding an obedient and submissive wife, but it is his advisers who tell him to seek one (See Esther 1:15-20, 2:1-5.) Perhaps if it had been left up to the king himself he would not have come up with this oppressive idea of a beauty contest, although he took full advantage of this contest when it was suggested. Apparently, it’s all right for men to be drunks and fools, but it’s not all right for women to refuse to show their bodies!
Esther goes along with the beauty-contest plan of the king and his advisors and does everything in her power to succeed and become the chosen wife of the king. Is this in itself a feminist act? By becoming the beloved new queen, Esther was in a position to influence the king for the good of her people in a way she could not have otherwise done.
Leila L. Bronner in her article, “Reclaiming Esther: From Sex Object to Sage,” writes, “Until recently, scholarly opinion about Esther has suggested, as L. B. Paton stated in 1908, that ‘she wins her victories not by skill or by character, but by her beauty. . . .The only redeeming traits in her character are her loyalty to her people and her bravery in attempting to save them.’” Bronner goes on to point out that ”six decades later, Carey A, Moore summarized Esther’s role in the events in the Scroll that carries her name as ’Mordecai supplied the brains while Esther simply followed his directions.’” [iv]
Esther is still viewed and interpreted that way by various scholars, although the church has a positive view of her and considers her one of the church’s heroines. The church sees Esther as a submissive and beautiful girl whom God chose to marry a king and whose obedience saved the Jewish people.
Esther’s feminism is tied to her ethnicity. Nicole Duran writes that “ the power Esther exerts through her femaleness is analogous to the kind of power that the diaspora Jew is urged to use within the foreign court.” [v] In contrast to Vashti, Esther does not demonstrate her disagreement but obediently listens and does what she is told. Lillian R Klein agrees “…Esther, unlike Vashti, does not protest; it is implied that she is obedient to her patrikin [patrilineal kinships or heritage] when she reveals her beauty to the king.” [vi]
I do not think that Esther’s agreeing not to say anything is anti-feminist. I believe it is a feminist move to put her in a place to help Mordecai and her people. When she was in the king’s harem, I would like to think she realized that she had no other choice and understood that she had to do what she needed to do. Jews and Christians alike may be appalled by the sexual politics that was taking place, and many feminists either pity her or ignore her. Esther took this stand, knowing if the king didn’t choose her, she would not be able to marry again—not only in Persian culture but in Jewish culture.
Esther might not be a feminist icon to many women in the first and second world, but Esther is a feminist icon for many women in third world countries and many women of minority groups—women who have had to find their way of surviving and standing strong in spite of unspeakably difficult circumstances, such as being forced to marry men they don’t love, or being victims of human trafficking, or enduring such horrors as Jewish families experienced in the Holocaust, or maintaining their human dignity as unending conflicts tear women and their children from their homes and countries in many parts of the world today.
Sometimes not standing up for oneself in the Western feminist sense— and even denying one’s true self by being obedient instead of resistant— may put a woman in a position to help her people, whether by subversive actions or in other ways. In the time and place when Vashti lived, she would likely not have been able to help people by taking the strong overtly feminist approach we might applaud today. Given the historical context, she could help no one that way, and was in fact ostracized and held up as a negative example in her culture. In contrast, Esther’s endurance of what she had to go through—and as a result being placed in position to help—turned out to be a feminist act.
Sometimes obedience and submission are called for in taking a stand, as we can see later down in the percicope, In verses 19-23 of chapter 2, Esther is queen and her cousin, Mordecai, who had raised Esther from childhood, discovers a plot against the king. Mordecai tells Esther, and she, in turn, tells the king. This is the setting for the events that follow after chapter 2 and that place Esther in a position of having the king’s total confidence. As Esther rises in prominence, so does Mordecai, which leads to the eventual prevention of the genocide of their people, the Jews.
Therefore, as Nicole Duran states, “Esther’s method of flattering, charming, wining and dining, that is, seducing the powers that be, therefore seems advisable.” [vii] Esther did not perpetuate the kind of feminism that we are accustomed to. It is so easy for us to say that Esther should be like Vashti and stand up to the king and his advisers, but if she did, how could she save her people? Esther was in the same situation that many women in the postcolonial world are in; and in the end, like her, they do what they need to do in order to survive. And sometimes, through subversion, cleverness, or simply taking advantage of unexpected opportunities to exercise influence, they can go beyond survival and bring about change.
[i] Chris Weedon. Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, Second edition, Cambridge: MA: Wiley-Blackwell,1997, 20. (back to text)
[ii] Ritu Tyagi, “Understanding Postcolonial Feminism in Relation with Postcolonial and Feminist Theories, “ International Journal of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 1, No. 2, December, 2014, 45. (back to text)
[iii] Kirsten Holst Peterson and Anna Rutherford, eds., A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-colonial Women’s Writing. Oxford: Dangaroo Press, 1986. (back to text)
[iv] Leila L. Bronner, “Reclaiming Esther: Sex Object to Sage” The Jewish Bible Quarterly, V 26 N1 (1998),3-4. http://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/26/JBQ_26.1.pdf Accessed December 19, 2016. (back to text)
[v] Nicole Duran, “Who Wants To Marry A Persian King: Pregnant Passion,” in Gender, Sex and Violence in the Bible, ed. Cheryl A. Kirk Duggan (Atlanta Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 75. (back to text)
[vi] Lillian R. Klein, From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 102. (back to text)
[vii] Duran, “Who Wants to Marry,” 75. (back to text)