In the 1500s Muslim trading ships scurried to and fro plying their lucrative trade throughout the seas encircling the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Such seamen were not new to the area. They had been there as early as the ninth century, and since the thirteenth century had come in great numbers from the west coast of India, the Persian Gulf and the south coast of Arabia.
The Muslim traders and seamen had become important ulama (religious teachers), establishing influential families who combined their mercantile occupation with vigorous Islamic worship and education. By the time the Portuguese and Spanish arrived in the fifteenth century, seeking to control the wealth of the islands' spices, they found the trade they hoped to monopolize largely controlled by Muslims.
Upon landing in port towns to do business, foreigners were often surprised to find themselves dealing with women. Since ancient times, marketing here largely had belonged to women. Women sold at the outdoor markets, provided money changing services, and engaged in long distance trade. The coming of Islam did not change women's commercial participation, and today it still is mostly women who trade in small scale goods, even in seclusion.
Because of their economic activities, women often were held in high regard. They were not only able to accumulate significant wealth, but they could use it as they wished. One reason was that family wealth traditionally was passed from the male to the female side in marriage. A girl born into the family would contribute, not diminish, the family fortune. She would be educated to the extent of being able to acquaint herself with the workings of the family business. She would learn how to drive a hard bargain, keep records, exchange notes, and communicate in the language used in trade.
Long distance trade required wealth and connections, and thus was undertaken only by women from high status families. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were queens who were particularly influential in forwarding the expanding commerce of their mini empires. For example, in both Patani and Aceh, female monarchs were judged to be highly successful because of the measures they took to avoid war and ensure prosperity. Patani's first queen was credited with keeping the price of food low, for strictly punishing thieves, and for respecting property rights. Patani's forth queen was even better. She lowered the cost of tribute owed on goods using her own wealth from her inheritance and extensive trade to do so. Aceh's first queen also was credited with keeping the price of food low while ensuring that everyone lived in peace. The result was expanded international trade in contrast to the warfare and disruptions caused by the more autocratic, warlike style of previous male kings.
There were also other women who achieved fame because of their commercial wealth and abilities. Nyai Gede Pinatech around 1500 was harbor master of Gresik. She sent her ships to trade in Bali, Maluku, Cambodia, and Lomo-Tombo. The wife of Sultan Hasanuddin of Makassar in the 1660s also owned ships which were sent on profitable trade missions to Johor. Whether queen, international trader, or simple seller of goods in the market, when a daughter was born into a family it was an occasion of joy.