By Sang Mota (Sangmo)
Note: I would like to state that this letter expresses my personal thoughts as a Tibetan woman in regard to Tsering Kyi’s recent comments on gender issues and is not representative of the views of my employer. Thus, I am writing this letter to Tsering Kyi La in my personal capacity because I have listened to and disagreed with her remarks at the panel discussion held last month with the Tibetan students of Sogar School in Dharamsala, India.
Dear Tsering Kyi:
During the Question and Answer section of a forum in which you participated on July 13, 2015, a student asked you whether or not you were a feminist. Your response was that you do not see yourself as a feminist, nor do you have any desire to work on behalf of Tibetan women.
Of course, you have every right to choose this position. I recognize that not all Tibetan women are feminists. Had you concluded at that point with no further remarks, I probably would not be writing this letter, but you, in fact, did not stop there. Instead, you continued with cleverly worded and overly simplified rhetoric of what is actually a deeply complex issue for the Tibetan woman. As such, your erroneous perception of the issue made me realize my written response was necessary.
It is critical to give a balanced perspective of what we Tibetan women have gone through both in the past and present, for all Tibetans – especially those who were born outside of Tibet, to gain a comprehensive understanding of women in our society.
My personal journey as a Tibetan woman started in my 20s. I, like you, Tsering Kyi La, went to India and resided in Dharamsala for a couple of years. Later, I went to America where I now live with my loving husband and my daughter.
It would seem that we both share a similar background. Professionally, I am a social worker, whose daily work entails providing a safe space to vulnerable, voiceless, and traumatized domestic violence (DV) victims/survivors who have been physically abused and/or sexually assaulted.
The topic of domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape are hidden subjects in Asian cultures. Speaking about it outside the immediate family is frowned upon in Tibetan society both inside and outside Tibet. For this reason, there is little or no criminal action taken against the perpetrators of these violent acts against women.
If one were to accept your simplistic viewpoint of the issue, which is that gender violence is simply non-existent in Tibetan society, it would appear to be the case that our Tibetan communities are violence-free, when actually, this could not be further from the truth.
A perfect example of this is the story of a fellow Tibetan woman by the name of Kunsang Dolma, who recently wrote of her experiences as a survivor of sexual assault and rape. In her memoir, “A Hundred Thousand White Stones,” she tells of the abuses she suffered both in Tibet and in exile. As a fellow Tibetan woman born and raised in Tibet, our shared ancestral homeland, her book deeply resonated with me. As I closed the final chapters of her book, an urgent question came to me over and over, “Would Kunsang La be encouraged and empowered to reveal her story if her husband were a Tibetan man?” The answer, would be no.
The famous Tibetan feminist writer, Jamyang Kyi, who has published several noteworthy books on women in Tibet by personally engaging them in a serious of deeply insightful interviews, has revealed numerous stories of domestic violence and abuse in Tibetan society. Nowadays, with modern technology, we are hearing direct personal histories of Tibetan women. One current issue is the alarming spread of HIV and AIDs through various regions of Tibet. Part of the reason is that, due to a lack of reproductive health information and resources in our conservative Tibetan society, Tibetan prostitutes are being forced to have intercourse without wearing protection and are thus contracting and spreading sexually transmitted disease.
During my trips to Tibet, I learned that there are a growing number of courageous and thoughtful Tibetan women forming volunteer civic groups. These women are doctors, teachers, and writers who have been tackling the HIV epidemic by visiting Tibetan villages and rural nomadic areas to educate Tibetan women and men on HIV/AIDs treatment and prevention. I was also personally told that their biggest challenge is getting men to participate in these educational workshops. So you see, Tsering Kyi La, educating women is not only part of the solution; we also need to educate the men of our society.
Although you brazenly and authoritatively declared that our society has no problems on the issue of gender equality, the reality tells us otherwise. In fact, we have numerous obstacles to face in the ongoing struggle towards the achievement of gender equality. When you declared that we Tibetans have no problems as Tibetan women, the facts strongly say otherwise. These obstacles are both societal and political. By telling Tibetans that now is not the right time for us to prioritize women’s issues is, I believe, a deeply misguided sentiment.
Our current Tibetan culture does not encourage the discussion of social problems such as rape, domestic violence, and sexual assault in their communities. For this reason, creating access to resources and support networks for victims of gender violence is absolutely vital. It is essential to take all these current issues into consideration when you, as a public figure, are addressing those whom you wish to educate about Tibetan culture and society.
Historically, the cultural status of Tibetan women is deemed lower than Tibetan men (at least in the Amdo region of Tibet) because of the deeply rooted patriarchal idea that men are inherently more competent than women.
I remember, growing up as a girl in Tibet, how my beloved mother who was – like many Tibetan women – illiterate, always prayed that in her next life she would come back as a boy.༼སྐྱེས་བ་རྗེས་མ་ང་བུ་ཚ་ཞིག་གི་སྐྱེས་བ་ཡོང་གི་སྨོན་ལམ་རྒྱག༽Moreover, this sentiment that my mother carried with her throughout her entire life was further reinforced and echoed by my sisters and fellow village women – all of whom were also, sadly, illiterate. The disturbing reality, of their collective desire to be reborn as a boy, haunts me to this day.
The question for us to answer now is, “Why?”
I have never heard a Tibetan man pray to come back in their next life as a girl. The cultural reinforcement of this problematic gender disparity is reflected in countless popular adages that devalue Tibetan women.
A few examples include:
- “A girl should be efficient in the kitchen, so she can find a better husband.” ༼བུ་མོ་ཞིག་ཡིན་དུས་ལག་པ་མཁས་དགོ ལག་ལས་ཀ་མཁས་ན་ཁྱོ་ཀ་ཡག་པོ་རྙེད༽
- “A girl’s future lies in her husband’s home.”༼མ་བུ་མོ་འགྲོ་ས་གནས་ཡིན༽
- “Men have not spoken yet; women spoke.”༼ཕོ་ཁ་མ་གྲག་མོ་ཁ་གྲག༽
Through these popular Tibetan sayings, we can see that Tibetan girls are trained to remain quiet and obedient while Tibetan boys are encouraged and empowered to be vocal and outspoken.༼བུ་ཚ་ཞིག་ཡིན་དུས་སྐད་ཆ་བཤད་མཁས་པ༽ Consequently, this time-honored tradition has forced Tibetan women to play a subservient role to men. For generations, our mothers, daughters, and sisters unquestioningly followed this male-dominated social order and submitted to a life of obedience and deference to men.
So, Tsering Kyi La, when I read your talk on how Tibetan women should behave, nurture children, sacrifice for their family, and take care of their husbands, you conveniently left out a major component of family life; that Tibetan men should help maintain an internal balance in the home for all who compose it. There is a famous saying: “A bird cannot fly if one of the wings is wounded.”
I feel this sentiment applies to Tibetan society. If we truly are committed to advancing our collective society and want to flourish together, we must fundamentally change the way we perceive Tibetan women. We must let go of the unhealthy old norms that are masquerading as “tradition” that chain the Tibetan woman to a life of unquestioning subservience to men.
Practically speaking, changing deeply ingrained social norms requires small steps.
Toward this future aim, we must begin to value the birth of girls as we do boys. As for our present day society, a women’s voice must be as valued as a man in all levels of collective decision-making. A man’s beating of his spouse absolutely cannot be condoned or normalized in any way. This basic concept, a women’s right not to be beaten into submission, should be exercised within the family structure as well as on a societal level. Both physically and psychologically, it is very beneficial for girls to hear and feel that they are as loved and valued as much as boys. This is the type of equality that all Tibetan women, both young and old, are longing for.
In your talk, you also mentioned that earning equal rights should depend upon individual ability and that women should not “struggle” for it. The problem with this logic is that without advocating for young Tibetan girls and women by encouraging and empowering them to speak their minds openly and without fear, how do you expect them to exercise their potential abilities and talents?
Historically, women have always fought for their rights. The establishment has never offered the rights of women voluntarily. Equality is not just handed over willingly. In America, for example, women were not allowed to vote until the United States Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment in 1920. Brave, talented, and dedicated groups of women came to gather their strength and fought for the right to vote, which all American women now enjoy to this day. And when they finally achieved this historic victory, it was because of their tireless dedication, effort and, yes, struggle.
I concede that the word “Feminism” is a relatively new term and a scary concept for some Tibetans, especially of the older generation, to hear. In a way, I do understand your defensive reaction because like most new social movements, the founders of feminism seemed “radical”. In the early years of the Feminist Movement, feminists appeared to project aberrant behavior in order to accomplish their goals.
However, when you harshly accused young Tibetan women and feminists of “aping western culture,” you spoke with unnecessary spite when all they want is a better life for all of us, especially those who are voiceless. You even went so far as to claim that this nascent social movement was simply an attempt at “attention-seeking” in order to achieve their individual goals, when all they are doing is seeking guidance and create dialogue in an attempt to bridge the cultural and generational gap between our ancestral homeland and exile.
So, I ask you this: where are the facts to substantiate your reasoning? To make such a statement based on assumptions, you should provide examples, so we can comprehend exactly what you mean.
Yes, Tibetans do not have such a term as “Feminism,” and in that sense, we may appear to be emulating Western Culture and its terminology. To emulate how feminism has benefitted women of all cultures, however, would be a very good thing for the Tibetan woman.
Have you seen the recent New York Times interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama? His Holiness himself stated that he sees himself as a “feminist” and thinks that the world would be a better place with women leading because women, in his view, are innately compassionate and intelligent. Likewise, His Holiness the Karmapa has also come out in support of gender equality, with bold new feminist-inspired reforms, which he outlines in a chapter on “gender” in his book.
So, in the way you accused Tibetan feminists, would you also say that both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Karmapa are “aping western culture?”
You surely are aware that human nature learns and evolves by copying the best from each other. Likewise, historically, Tibetans do not have “beauty pageants.” Yet you yourself hold the title of “Miss Tibet.” You, too, are thus the product of the “aping” process, which you publicly denigrated.
In the future, I am hopeful you will not use your platform as Miss Tibet and as a journalist to belittle our young Tibetan girls and women who dare to speak their minds for a more fair and equal society. I know personally through a lifetime of commitment to combating gender-based violence that those who live in Tibet and those who live in exile are all doing their best to improve the conditions of Tibetans – both men and women and everyone else in this family.
Holding the symbolic title of “Miss Tibet,” you have the privilege and opportunity to be an ambassador, a guide, and a mentor to your Tibetan sisters. This is what we Tibetan women hope you will be to our young girls who look to us for support and guidance.
*A Tibetan translation of this letter is currently in progress and will be published for Tibetan readers.