Women are oppressed or neglected all over the world to this day. Patriarchy is human made. It is not inherent in mankind. We as individuals interact with each other through social relations in which we produced and are reproducing the belief that gender roles are legitimate because they are nature-given. If we created a patriarchal system we can also dismantle it to build a gender equal society. Norms and values are defined by us as members of society. We have the power to change them.
Since this is my first written piece on Tibetan women I want to dedicate it to my Amala who has always been a role model to me. She taught me and my sister to truly be ourselves when she herself grew up in an environment where she couldn’t fulfill herself. Her story and her experiences are undeniably part of why I care about Tibetan women’s equality and rights.
Tibetan Women – Silenced Twice
Today Tibetans are silenced. Tibetans are not equal citizens of this world because our territory is under control of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore occupied by a foreign country. Inside Tibet, Tibetans are being silenced because of the ongoing colonization of Tibet and Tibetans’ lives. As for Tibetans living in exile, we feel as if we do not fully belong to the countries we live in. The exile situation leads us to feelings of unconscious inferiority or alienation as a society. This is also partially the reason why we still long for our homeland Tibet and have a strong sense of “long-distance nationalism”(1) towards a country that many of us are not even allowed to visit.
Women’s narratives have been and still are neglected by society to this day. The main point of view is always that of a man. So, in a sense, Tibetan women are being silenced twice as much as men. We are silenced and oppressed as a nation but we are also looked down upon and discriminated as women in our own communities.
When I talk about discrimination, I don’t mean institutional discrimination in the sense of discriminatory laws, such as when women didn’t have the right to vote or to have bank accounts in their names. The discrimination that I speak of still persists in our society today in the way we talk about, define, and judge women in our everyday lives.
Bhumo vs. Bhu : Double-Standards
When Tibetan parents tell their daughters not to go out at night and not to date boys, they are imposing double standards. Do they apply these same rules to boys? No. In fact, stereotypes and idealized images of what a woman ought to be is not protecting or benefitting women – on the contrary – it puts women in a position where they are less likely to live their lives in full freedom and as equal human beings in our society.
I recall an experience I had in Ladakh that demonstrates this point. I was outside a little restaurant in Choglamsar smoking a cigarette one day. A young Tibetan man was also smoking a cigarette and observed me for a few minutes before approaching me, telling me to “Be aware! There’s an association called ‘Ama Tsokpa’ (Mother’s organization). They can be very aggressive and might call you out when they see you smoking on the streets”. Now just to be clear, I do not and would never encourage smoking to anyone. It is a bad habit of mine which I admit.
But why does it make a difference whether a man or a woman smokes? Why do we set standards for women that are not applied equally to men in our community? Why do I need to feel bad when I smoke in public, whereas a man can smoke freely without shame or judgment? Although some readers may think that I exaggerate, this is just an example that shows how deeply-rooted gender inequality is in our own day-to-day life. It is these little and seemingly trivial patterns which cumulatively add up to limit Tibetan women’s agency both in public and in private.
It is also proof that we as Tibetan women are part of the problem. ‘Ama Tsokpa’ as the name tells us is a women’s organization. We need to free ourselves from these images of ourselves as women that we, too, reproduce.
Women of the Snow Land: Two Freedom Movements
I don’t know much about feminism inside Tibet since most of their writings are in Tibetan and therefore inaccessible to me as of now. But from some friends who’ve grown up inside Tibet I know that women’s situation in Tibet is extremely difficult and heartbreaking. On the one hand because of Chinese oppression which women suffer from equally to their countrymen. It is a fact that forced sterilization is a brutal violation of a woman’s self-determination over her own body. On the other hand there are ill-treatments of women which still occur within Tibetan communities: Domestic and sexual violence, health problems (AIDS for instance), fewer opportunities for schooling and hard labor. In 2008 Jamyang Kyi, a Xining based writer and most known Tibetan feminist said to L’OBS, a French newspaper:
“They [women] are doing 70% of the work. I’m not talking about household or the upbringing of children which they assume to 100%. I’m talking about the field work of farmer women, the maintenance of herds for nomadic women. They’re doing 70% of it. And nevertheless they are completely subordinated to men, much less free and much less educated than men are.” (Original in French)
When I first came across Jamyang Kyi it blew my mind. I felt pride in being a Tibetan woman because for the first time I heard the voice of a Tibetan woman so loud and clear. I read “A Sequence of Tortures: A Diary of Interrogations” (original in Tibetan: མནར་གཅོད་ཀྱི་གོ་རིམ།) that the Tibetan Women’s Association published as a book and translated into various languages (like English) and which was given to me by Dhardon Sharling, Member of Tibetan Parliament in Exile, when she visited Switzerland last year. It is a diary written during her detention in 2008. The detailed account of what imprisonment and interrogations felt like to her is so direct and intimate that it moved me deeply. She doesn’t portray herself as a hero but rather describes her fears and doubts that she goes through with honesty. But for me she indeed is not only a hero but a revolutionary because she did not only selflessly stand up for the Tibetan people but she also dares to criticize conservative thinking and discrimination towards women in her writings. A friend of mine from Amdo told me that high lamas and monks abused her verbally when they didn’t agree on her opinion saying she is a prostitute who sleeps with many men. Do you think these humiliating words would have been uttered if she was a man? No, me neither! But she doesn’t give up despite Chinese intimidation or these ugly attacks from conservative Tibetan men. This is why she symbolises women’s resilience and courage to me.
As I heard from different accounts of my friends, the situation of Tibetan women in rural areas still remains very harsh and discrimination against women persists there to the extent that they are not even regarded as human beings. Apparently in some rural nomadic areas there are these derogatory terms used by men for women like: ནག་ཆགས། meaning the ‘black one’ or ‘the dark one’. But it seems that in bigger villages or cities women’s situation is improving. I recently talked to someone from Tibet who told me that women are starting to get together and discuss women’s issues. He visited an annual women’s rights conference three times. At the first conference he said, women didn’t dare to speak and instead let the male monks speak whom they had invited. Then gradually it became better and at the last conference which took place around 2010 all women expressed their thoughts with self-confidence. This is definitely a good development and very inspiring when one recalls that these women live under Chinese authoritarian rule where Tibetan civil society is heavily controlled.
Rangzen and Feminism: Incompatible?
Some of my male friends tell me half-jokingly: ‘Just put this women’s movement thing aside for a moment. Let us first have independence and freedom for Tibet!’. But I wouldn’t separate feminism from Tibetan independence. Why? If a woman can’t stand up for herself, she won’t stand up for her nation. If our society succeeds to encourage women to their full abilities we will see women being able to lead a self-determined life, free from social pressure. Summed up: If women do well, our nation will do well.
Sometimes we – Tibetans in Exile – look at ourselves as victims which is partially also due to the mainstream image which is imposed on us by the West. But we are not victims. Tibetans inside Tibet are not victims. Tibetan women are not victims. It is resistance which defines us not a passive victim’s role. Even with continued Chinese occupation and unjust policies we continue to exist – either in Tibet or in Exile. We continue to live and define ourselves according to time and place. This is why I believe in freedom and gender equality because I believe in Tibetans’ courage to change and to move forward. We will move forward to a time where Chinese occupation will be a past chapter of our history. What is Tibet going to be? I personally imagine a future Tibet like this: A country free from foreign occupation and Tibetans living in a free and democratic society where women are respected and regarded as equals. I hope that it will become a part of what our collective free Tibet will be.
(1) Fouron, G., & Schiller, N. G. (2001). All in the Family : Gender, Transnational Migration, and the Nation- State. Identities : Global Studies in Culture and Power, 7(4), p. 542.