Please read the note from the editor here.
Asian American churches seem to love the Book of Esther. How many Asian Christian women are named after this Old Testament heroine? I know too many Asian Esthers to count. Queen Esther represents beauty, obedience, and bravery. She subversively cooperates with the men around her, namely her cousin Mordecai and King Xerxes of Persia. She leverages her beauty, privilege, and favor from the king to carry out Mordecai’s plan to save the Jewish people.
Esther is indeed a heroic woman, and I’m not taking anything away from her very important story of leadership, stewardship of power, and solidarity with the suffering. However, we must also study and honor Queen Vashti: a feminist survivor of the Persian patriarchy, whose prophetic rebellion and self-determination are often forgotten in our teachings on the Book of Esther.
For background, King Xerxes ruled Persia from 486-465 B.C.E., when Persia was considered a major world power. He was one of the wealthiest men in the world. His queen, Vashti, was said to be one of the most beautiful women. Queen Vashti’s prophetic resistance is most highlighted during one of the king’s grand celebrations. At the time, Queen Vashti was throwing her own women-only celebration. The king drunkenly ordered his eunuch servant to interrupt Queen Vashti’s party and bring her to the men’s chambers to “display her beauty” (i.e. dance naked). Queen Vashti refuses, and she is “banished from the empire” and deposed from her throne.
Queen Vashti created space for women to see and be seen, and to celebrate each other for simply being.
Let’s break this down: Queen Vashti organized a private, celebratory gathering of women at a time when women were seen as property and she was recognized only for her physical beauty. Queen Vashti created space for women to see and be seen, and to celebrate each other for simply being. I imagine this time to be incredibly intentional, healing, and necessary.
I recall moments in my life when simply existing in the protected, intentional company of other women of color enabled us to heal the wounds of patriarchy and own our individual and collective power. It is in these sacred spaces where we momentarily transcend institutional oppression to truly experience inclusion, solidarity, and the Divine among each other.
In the midst of such a prophetic gathering, Queen Vashti is interrupted by her husband in front of her own guests and is ordered to dance naked in front of a revelry of drunk men.
In the midst of such a prophetic gathering, Queen Vashti is interrupted by her husband in front of her own guests and is ordered to dance naked in front of a revelry of drunk men. Queen Vashti understandably says, “NO,” and in her refusal is where the tragedy and magic of this story lie.
She defies the king as an act of protection and self-determination for both herself and the women she has gathered. In so doing, she poses as a threat to the gender norms and power structures of the Persian kingdom. Queen Vashti’s “No” is a prophetic “Fuck You” to the king’s and the Empire’s entitlement to women’s bodies. She exposes injustice and refuses exploitation, while strategically responding with courage and love for her people.
The Tragedies of Toxic Masculinity
Her denial threatens not only King Xerxes, but the entire Persian Empire and its family structures, revealing the fragility of masculinity and its systems.
Queen Vashti’s refusal is prophetic because it reveals the injustices of patriarchy in the Persian kingdom. Her denial threatens not only King Xerxes, but the entire Persian Empire and its family structures, revealing the fragility of masculinity and its systems. What unfolds are the layers and manifestations of toxic masculinity: rape culture, victim-blaming, and patriarchal protection.
1. Rape Culture: King Xerxes and the men in attendance refuse to take no for an answer. The Persian Empire does not value a woman’s agency over her own body, nor do they believe women have a right to consent. When a woman says no, she must be punished. In current contexts, this would be interpreted as rape culture: a set of social attitudes and practices that disregard consent in order to normalize and trivialize sexual assault and abuse.
2. Victim-Blaming: Queen Vashti is depicted as the villain, blamed not only for defying the king, but for threatening the kingdom, its gender norms, and Persian “family values”.
“Now women everywhere will think they can defy their husbands when they learn of Queen Vashti’s actions. This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (Esther 1:16-18, summarized)
Queen Vashti threatens the patriarchal norms and is stripped of her title as a result.
Queen Vashti threatens the patriarchal norms and is stripped of her title as a result. Some safely assume she is even killed by the Persian Empire after this incident. In actuality, Queen Vashti was victimized by the violence and entitlement of patriarchy. She challenges rape culture and objectification, but is blamed and persecuted for dissenting. Her legacy is reduced to her “betrayal” against the empire.
3. Patriarchal Protection: when men protect each other against sexual assault allegations and general accountability. They do this by gaslighting, distracting, victim-blaming, remaining silent, among other tactics in order to protect the reputations of the accused. R. Kelly apologists are examples of patriarchal protection. Men who stay quiet when their friends use misogynist language are patriarchal protectors.
Through passive and active agreement, men enable each other in various acts of misogyny, ultimately normalizing and propagating toxic masculinity.
In this story, the king’s male advisors serve as patriarchal protectors. They refuse to acknowledge the king’s responsibility in demanding too much or committing any wrong. When Queen Vashti says no to him, the advisors instead see the king as a victim of Queen Vashti’s public rebellion and humiliation. The advisors work to protect the king’s ego and reputation, urging him to flex his power by banishing and publicly punishing Queen Vashti. This type of reaction gives the king the last word, solidifying his position as the most powerful and setting an example to other women in the kingdom.
Not once do we hear of any of the men advocating for another way to interpret the situation, or challenging King Xerxes’ and the advisors’ abuses of power. Instead, we see men protecting, enabling, and rallying behind the king to protect their fragile notions of masculinity. Through passive and active agreement, men enable each other in various acts of misogyny, ultimately normalizing and propagating toxic masculinity.
The Magic of Queen Vashti
In every manifestation of toxic masculinity that is exposed by Queen Vashti’s prophetic refusal, her resilience, love, and resistance shine brighter. Black Womanist and Jewish feminist theologians have been reviving and redeeming stories like that of Queen Vashti, who have been intentionally excluded from mainstream interpretations because their embodied resistance continue to threaten the patriarchy. Likewise, it is imperative for Asian Americans to interpret and apply Queen Vashti’s story in our theological praxis, community organizing, and current sociopolitical contexts.
1. Consent: Queen Vashti believed in and exercised her right to consent. Asian women are entitled to protect our bodies, time, and energies. Nobody has ownership over our physical, emotional, or sexual labor. Society is full of explicit and implicit expectations of us, none of which we have to meet unless we want to. Men (white men, men of color, “woke” men, queer men, pastors, leaders, teachers, organizers) assume we’ll be the ones to provide childcare, pick up trash, defer leadership, and stay silent in the midst of abuse. Queen Vashti reminds us we have the right to refuse. She shows us how holy and beautiful “NO” can sound.
2. The Costs of Speaking Truth: Queen Vashti risks banishment and death in order to speak her truth and protect her body from exploitation. She leverages and knowingly surrenders her power as royalty, as she sets an example of empowerment for other women in the Persian kingdom. In asserting her dignity, she risks her reputation and loses her throne, security, safety, and ultimately, her life.
Brave women have risked and lost everything to publicly speak out against sexual assault and abuse long before the #MeToo movement became mainstream.
Brave women have risked and lost everything to publicly speak out against sexual assault and abuse long before the #MeToo movement became mainstream. Men have also been victims of sexual exploitation, and their stories and bodies are uniquely silenced and stigmatized. May we follow the examples of Queen Vashti and survivors who have come before us, risking what we have to hold toxic masculinity, abuse, and leadership accountable.
3. Organize: Fully aware of her power and influence as royalty, Queen Vashti’s refusal is a prophetic and public direct action. She defies the king with dozens of women witnessing, mobilizing and activating them through her example. The kingdom would not be so threatened if the women had not responded positively to Queen Vashti’s move. As a rebuttal, King Xerxes and his advisors assert their dominance by publicly punishing and replacing Queen Vashti. They intentionally nip the Vashti feminist revolution in the bud.
However, Queen Vashti’s commitment to herself and to her women shine through. Refusing the king is an act of strategy, courage, and deep love for herself and for women. She was forward-thinking, knowing this would be but one of many actions throughout history to take back time, power, and dignity stolen from women.
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When we study the Book of Esther, may we remember and honor Queen Vashti’s legacy. Her refusal is prophetic and costly because it names and disrupts the violence of the patriarchal regime. As she creates sacred community among women, she reimagines and asserts women’s belonging, power, and dignity in the midst of institutional abuse and cultural exclusion.