The Communal Iconography of a Canonised Woman: Urduja

Volume 23

20 April 2023

By Jonathan Henry Privett-Mendoza 

Among iconic South East Asian figures, few are from pre-colonial times and even fewer are women. Fulfilling both of these criteria and serving as a unifying factor among an oppressed and colonised community is the figure known as Urduja. Urduja was reportedly a warrior queen from the 14th century who had an immense impact on the Filipino community during Spanish colonisation in the 19th century.

The first and only contemporary mentions of Urduja come from the Muslim explorer, Ibn Battuta, and the travelogues of his journeys through and beyond Europe, Africa, and Asia. In his writings, Ibn Battuta describes Urduja as the ruler of a land called Tawalisi; he notes her as a powerful warrior who led an army — the Kinalakian — that included both men and women. According to Ibn Battuta, Urduja’s strength was formidable in both duels and warfare, with the warrior’s ambitions set on military expeditions to both India and China. This visage of a strong and ambitious woman are, in part, what forged the sense of community that developed around her several hundred years after her supposed last breath. 

The Philippines — having been an oppressed colony of the Spanish empire since the 16th century — had long been fomenting the desire for freedom, which reached a boiling point in the late 19th century. José Rizal, one of the most prominent Filipino national heroes and a political activist, claimed Urduja and her land of Tawalisi as Filipino, specifically claiming that Pangasinan — a northern province on the northern Filipino island of Luzon — was the site where Ibn Battuta had encountered the warrior-queen. In doing so, Rizal canonised a new character in the compendium of inspiration from which the Filipino resistance could draw.

José Rizal wrote numerous plays, novels, and journals, many of which offered parallels to the contemporary issues between the Philippines and the Spanish colonisers in the 19th century. Maria Clara, a character in Rizal’s 1887 novel ‘Noli Me Tangere,’ symbolised a pure and chaste Philippines. Clara later falls ill in the novel, representing the suffocation of the Philippines by the colonial exploitation of its people and resources. Urduja served as the complete juxtaposition to Maria Clara; where Clara’s character was criticised for being too subdued and weak, Urduja was championed for her strength and gall. Where Maria Clara represented a colonised and beaten Philippines, Urduja was a leadership force behind which the people could rally — showing the might and persistence of the native Filipinos. 

Despite Urduja’s inclusion in Filipino textbooks and as the namesake for the Pangasinese governor’s house, the historical existence of Urduja and her land of Tawalisi is debated by some and called ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’ by others. But even with her even existence called into question, her communal impact has not diminished. Much like other semi-historical figures, Urduja’s contributions to the Filipino community were as a symbol of resistance and strength. She was a beacon of determination and perseverance to the Filipino people, uniting them and giving them hope in the face of the oppressive Spanish empire.

Category: Modern