Tibetan Women

For a while now, I have thought about creating a blog focusing on Tibetan women’s issues. In general, women’s rights are important because of the patriarchal nature of societies, uneven power structure and male domination that have led to negative depiction of women in theological doctrines and in the secondary value placed on women’s roles and duties. Very briefly, these influences get translated into discriminatory attitudes and practices against women in their daily lives. However much we would like to believe, men and women are not equal. It is an admirable slogan, but even in western societies — the land of suffragist movements — it is not the case, and certainly not so in Tibetan society.

In a journey that began as an innocent child to the experiences of a woman, I found many contradictory beliefs about women. To me women’s rights are symbolic of those of other movements, i.e., struggle for Free Tibet or genuine autonomy — admirable and just, fighting against seemingly high odds. But unlike the cool “freedom fighter” tag or the “Save Tibet” slogan-holder, feminists in our society are seen as an antithesis to cool. So much so that even those who work for women’s rights in our society often say, “Don’t think of me as a feminist but women should …” We, who are quick to dismiss Chinese policies as racist and discriminatory, do not have that same critical outlook when it is turned towards our own society. Instead we have knee-jerk responses against it.

Comments against Tibetan cultural practices and belief system are misconstrued as a threat, especially in diaspora where we have taken great pains to preserve our cultural identity. It is taken as proof that you are not a proud Tibetan, and the taboo of being branded a Gyami-Sopa (Chinese informant) is scary enough to silence people. So there is an interesting paradox here: We have Tibetans in Tibet who are scared of being imprisoned as a splittist — lokchoepa, an informant of khadrel ringluk — and we have Tibetans in exile that are scared of being called Gyami Sopa (exceptions overruled in both cases). Between these two extremes there is no need for other forms of censorship as far as individual right to think, speak and write goes.

To further complicate matters, between the Western Tibet supporters and the Chinese media, they have made us a classic bipolar case. According to one, we are “special” people — compassionate, harmonious, naive, innocent and enlightened Buddhists who won’t even harm worms underneath the ground, as theatrically shown in the Hollywood film Seven Years in Tibet. But according to the other, we are barbarians, sexually aggressive, violent, vengeful and controlled by a handful of elites that owned the country before the great liberators freed us from suffering, and hence we have popular names like Chindrol Metok (Liberation Flower) and spokesperson like Pasang (one of the vice-governors of Tibet Autonomous Region) who rumor has it, works without any salary from the government, out of sheer gratefulness and loyalty to the party! I don’t think either one of these are the representation of Tibetan people, because quite simply societies are far more complex organisms than can be painted in simple black and white strokes.

It will be difficult to assess how far the conflicting portrayals have influenced the minds of our people, but looking at the scenario it is not impossible to imagine, on one hand, people who are so proud to be “Tibetan” that everything is embraced as rig-shung without much thought to consequences. On the other hand, there are Tibetans who try their best to adopt the “civilized” code of living propagated by the ‘liberators’ — in other words, speak, think and act like a Han Chinese. They are the ones that look at their country’s past as shameful, backward, and a mistake corrected only by the arrival of the Chinese. In both cases, the polarized parties (Tibetan and Chinese) have taken elements of half-truths and distorted it to suit their political agenda. In fact, as Sperling pointed out in his article, most issues presented as ‘the historical truth’ are in fact recently construed.

A similar sort of critical lens is needed to understand our culture and within it Tibetan women’s rights and issues. To look at culture from a one-dimensional perspective, good or bad, not only prevents you from seeing the full picture, but is also the basis on which cultural genocide and racism occurs. Like any traditional culture, Tibetan culture has strengths and limitations. This blog [Drugmo.wordpress.com] mostly concerns itself with issues regarding Tibetan women.

Tibetan society is a patriarchal society, and like other similar societies women are mostly at the receiving end. However, the scale on which we measure women’s rights has been influenced by what is considered “not right” in other cultures, international standards. Accordingly we pride ourselves on being ahead of backward practices since we overlook the fact that international norms and advocacy is a general umbrella and in fact many discriminatory practices exist in forms that are unique to the context of that particular society. These practices and outlook are often submerged into our consciousness and subconscious. Moreover the coping mechanisms that we have build over centuries against such practices help naturalize it to a point where we fail to identify it as discriminatory and thus we become victims of internalized oppression. These overt and covert beliefs, practices, are in Buddhist principles a transgression on the potential of mi lus rinpoche, the precious human life.

It was with these thoughts that I started this blog and in doing so, faced some bharche-s (obstacles) that were for the most part my own creation. First of all, I did not know if I could write on such an important issue in a critical way that does justice to not only the women involved but also to men. This concern was related to the fact that many feminists’ work are clouded by their vehemence and contempt of men, which negates the importance of the issue and turns it into one of personal vendetta.

To me such works become a fight between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which is ironically reverse sexism, a different manifestation of the same demon. More importantly, it is a simplistic way of looking at women’s issues. Men play significant roles in all spheres of a woman’s lives, and we cannot talk about women’s issues without taking into account the context of their relationships with men.

Another stumbling block in starting this blog was the personal exposure it entailed. As a blogger, you want people to read your posts, but there are things that you choose to write about and things that you can’t divulge, especially on an online forum. The line between privacy, safety of people involved, and what you think are your “responsibility” as a Tibetan to share with others is a constant struggle. Hopefully with time and practice, I can strike a balance between the two. In all this, I see why writers constantly allude to being “fearless” and “speaking the truth”.

Such similar back-and-forth thoughts also occurred when I first started the thread in Phayul for Tibetan women. I hoped that alongside some light themes, in time we can also discuss more serious issues. This blog is a direct result of the feedback and encouragement the thread received from the online community, particularly those who wanted me to start a blog for Tibetan women.

On a silver lining note, I must also thank people who voiced their contempt of women in the thread and in my inbox because these derogatory remarks about women were a further proof that there needs to be a lot of awareness and education on women’s issues in our communities. Please note that the views expressed here are my own observations as someone who lived in Tibetan societies of India and Tibet and now in the West.


Tsering’s blog can be viewed at: Drugmo.wordpress.com


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There are 2 comments for “Tibetan Women”

  1. I found that this was a very important and interesting article, opening the way for more discussion of things bubbling under the surface. Although I am an ’outsider’ (or rather regular visitor) I have explored these things, and I can see and feel what is happening here.

    I have to say that not all feminists from the West hated men. In fact quite the opposite, many people lost the plot with freedom. I do think however that most people became confused by what the future looked life, and did not realise it was possible to co-create a society where men and women were free to choose and equal, despite biology. Even today I think it is a rare man who understands powersharing, and a rare woman who can keep her softness, strength and power.

    I think that Tibetan society at this time is really needing this deep discussion, monastic and lay. From talking to many women (and also confused men) there is a lot going on here, especially when it comes to both assessing how life and relationships should be in 2010, how to behave in a modern world and keep what is valuable, workplace and social equality, speaking up, and painful ’hidden’ things like domestic violence, rape, addiction etc. Even the notion of true ’sisterhood’ (something I most value from the feminist movement) needs as much clarification as true democracy! Undermining another woman is the worst transgression of this understanding, and it gives great power to adopt this solidarity, not against men, but with each other.

    Some women DO need to recognise when they are lost in emotions, and manipulating with them. This leaves men feeling helpless. But it is absurd to say women cannot be in important positions because they are ’too emotional’. More than anything, Tibetan women need to understand how to gain confidence in themselves and their own voice, from a young age. This can sometimes be done more successfully initially without men around. Then friendships and equal support for voice and initiative in school are important. While this can be difficult, as role models arise and encourage it will have a cumulative effect.

    On the other hand young men also have lessons to learn. If you free woman, you free their voice. This may have startling consequences, until men learn how to listen to women. REALLY listen.

    Quite frankly many people do these things anyway.

    I think that the whole world is learning all this at this time. Tibetan women are not as far behind as they may feel or think. From what I have seen they have avoided many mistakes made in the West, but maybe many are not free (for whatever reason) yet to make their own decisions freely and with confidence. This is something that needs to be developed at the school level.

    Some would say that all this is an indulgence when Tibet needs to be free but I don’t think so. Just as His Holiness’ mother planted fruit trees in a ’temporary’ garden, so too do Tibetans need to use the ’quiet times’ where the standoff has hit a ’stalemate’ to co-create the future it so deeply desires. It will be different from the past, but maybe not a bad thing.

    The notion that men ’own’ women, in any form including employment, that is still around in some sectors, is probably the first thing to challenge. The next is true Equal Opportunity.

    I don’t think Tibetan women are far off. They just need to be shown how, and then decide for themselves.

  2. that was very interesting and
    if i reflect back think and actually about it,
    all that you have mentioned is through reality.

    i wanted to know more in regards to myths about women’s health in tibetan society.

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