By Tenzin Palkyi and Tenzin Dickyi
Some years ago, the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) organized a gender sensitization workshop for Tibetan youth in Chennai, India. The student leader working with the TWA, a well-meaning young man who was president of the Tibetan Students’ Association of Madras, had a question before the workshop. “Do the girls have to wear chupa to the workshop?,” he asked. The TWA staffer fielding the question responded with a question of her own. “Do the boys have to wear chupa to workshops?” “No,” said the student leader. “Well then,” said the staffer, “the girls don’t have to wear chupa to the workshop either.”
This Chennai workshop was one of a series of such workshops held for Tibetan communities across India. For the staff giving the workshops as well as for the young men and women who attended, it was an eye-opening experience. At the beginning of the workshop, the majority of the participants confidently said, of course there’s gender equality –phomo dranyam- in Tibetan society. They were then asked to consider certain numbers: how many women in the Tibetan parliament versus how many men, how many women as departmental heads versus men, etc. They were also asked questions about their home life—how much of the housework their mother did versus their father, their sister versus their brother. In most cases, it turned out that the women did almost all the housework. But, the young men protested; don’t women enjoy doing the cooking and cleaning? When their female counterparts said they very much didn’t, they seemed genuinely staggered. After reflecting on these statistics and trends, the participants usually qualified their opinion. Maybe, they tentatively suggested, we don’t have gender equality in our society.
That we lack gender equality in Tibetan society is not our thesis. We take that for granted. Indeed, all human societies in the world today suffer from a degree of gender discrimination that limits the society’s true potential. However, at present, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is hampered by a weak Women’s Empowerment Policy that doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of gender discrimination in our society. Our argument is that the present gender inequality in Tibetan society is a serious problem that Sikyong Lobsang Sangay’s Kashag has a real opportunity to address by implementing a credible Women’s Empowerment Policy that can be a lasting legacy.
We propose a revised Women’s Empowerment Policy that actively seeks to increase women representation in CTA leadership; promote a gender sensitive environment at school, increase the enrollment of girls in the science and technology fields, and reserve scholarship seats for girls and women; and facilitate gender sensitization workshops for the community and eliminate all forms of violence against women.
As of 2009, women made up only 3% of the decision-making bodies of the CTA. Roughly the same number of boys and girls graduate from the schools across our community and roughly the same number of men and women enter the CTA as civil servants, so from the posts of settlement officer on to the departmental secretary, why are the vast majority of these seats filled by men?
The Good Tibetan Women
There are of course talented, capable women who are role models for girls growing up these days; in arts and journalism, Jamyang Kyi, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa and Woeser, the voice of a generation; in education, Jetsun Pema and B. Tsering; in activism and social justice, Lhadon Tethong and Losang Rabgey; in politics, Dicki Chhoyang, Youdon Aukatsang and Dhardon Sharling; in academia, Tashi Rabgey and Yudru Tsomo…but the list is short.
At school, girls are expected to be more obedient and quiet, more passive and pliant, than the boys. As adults, we are held to a different standard of behavior as well as social, cultural and familial responsibility—a double standard that we ourselves subscribe to without question. Why is it more shocking for women to smoke and drink? In the offices of Gangchen Kyishong, why is it only women who are expected to wear chupas, a routine yet important manifestation of culture, and not men? How is it possible, in this day and age, for Tenzingang to happen?
There is a story about the late Dawa Norbu, one of our foremost and beloved Tibetan scholars. He was always nose deep in a book and not much help around the house. One day his wife, who was cooking and also attending to their crying baby, snapped and said to Dawa Norbu, “Can’t you at least watch the baby while I am cooking?” Dawa Norbu replied, “Then who will read the books? Will you?” This is probably an apocryphal story and we don’t mean to make a straw man out of a funny story, but the idea of the wife reading is what makes this story funny. But if you really think about this, if you really think about why the wife reading is a funny thing, and how maybe we should no longer hold current practices to the judgment of our grandparents’ time, then the joke deflates a bit.
Violence Against Women
Perhaps the incidence of violence against women is infrequent in our society, but we see the Tenzingang case as only a symptom of a larger disenfranchisement of Tibetan women. The violence against women isn’t always obvious, but slowly and steadily, case by case, it adds up to an almost systematic disenfranchisement.
We grew up in Patlikuhl school in north India near the river Beas, which grew in strength every monsoon and threatened to flood the school until the year it finally did. We also grew up in Lower TCV School in Dharamsala, which was almost overrun by a mob of angry local Indians in 1995. But in retrospect, these were not the real tragedies that befell our schools.
In Patlikuhl, there were several cases of male teachers having affairs with female students and one, in fact, a monk and the sternest discipline master Patlikuhl ever had, impregnated a girl and ran off with her. In Lower TCV, two young girls were sexually assaulted by men who were members of the tight-knit community. Both were very young, around ten or so. In all of these cases, the local Indian police were not involved. The men received no legal punishment—they were forbidden to enter the school again but they spent no time behind bars for their crimes.
Recently in Tenzingang, one of the remote Tibetan settlements, seven people, including a woman named Kunsang who was the key instigator, stripped another woman naked, dragged her out of her home, beat her entire body, blacked her face with ink and tried to cut off her nose with a pair of scissors for having an affair with Kunsang’s husband. The CTA official involved in settling the case produced this startling resolution: Kunsang paid a fine of Rs. 30,000 to the local monastery and her brother, who was one of the perpetrators, paid a fine of Rs. 5000. The brother was a member of the local assembly, from which he was not expelled, but suspended.
What Kunsang and her goons did to this woman is tragedy, but what the rest of us did is farce. We, her local community, her greater community, our government and our officials, our people, all of us, failed her. The only group that acquitted itself was the Tibetan Women’s Association, which must be commended for its swift and concerned response to the case. And so our society has repeatedly failed such people, girls and women who are victims of violence; by handling such cases within the community instead of enforcing the host country’s laws, instead of safeguarding the victim, we protect the perpetrator. What is this if not systematic disenfranchisement and system failure?
Women’s Empowerment Policy
The establishment of a Women’s Empowerment Desk (WED) in the CTA, in 2006, marked our national awakening to the issue of gender as a policy matter.
For this, and for writing the first Women’s Empowerment Policy in our history, Samdhong Rinpoche and his Kashag should be commended. Unfortunately, this policy, dated October 14th, 2008, began with these indefensible words: “Since the beginning of human civilization in Tibet, Tibetans in their entire history have not experienced problems such as gender inequality or gender oppression and exploitation.” Considering that there was not a single woman official at any level in either the courts of the Tibetan kings or during the four hundred years of Ganden Phodrang rule until the forcible dissolution and takeover of our government in 1959, this was not an auspicious beginning for a document intended to empower and equalize Tibetan women.
This policy has eight points, two of the more salient points being Point 1, that “CTA should also continue its on-going efforts to restore the Bikshuni Sangha ordination of Tibetan nuns” and Point 3, that “CTA should make every effort to encourage more women to be elected as local settlement officers in the Tibetan settlements.” These are important items that we hope the CTA holds itself accountable for.
Two more problematic items are Point 5, that “CTA should make efforts to implement the provision that states that ‘priority shall be given to female candidates for the post of pre-primary teacher’, as enshrined in the Basic Education Policy of CTA” and Point 6 that stipulates for workshops for women to become “ideal mothers”. While certainly actionable, the field of pre-primary teachers is already primarily female. Point 5 would make more sense if it targeted fields lacking in women. For instance, as we mentioned earlier, as of 2009, women made up only 3% of the decision-making bodies of CTA. Efforts to increase female representation in these bodies will be highly welcome. Additionally, workshops on how to become “ideal mothers”, though not intentionally discriminatory, reinforce gender stereotypes and ignore women’s capacity in other regards. We also believe that the one thing that would allow all women to become better, effective mothers is for their husbands to take equal responsibility in child rearing and household duties. Certainly many mothers would agree that there is a more urgent need for an “ideal fathers” workshop.
The Women’s Empowerment Desk has made some significant strides in the last few years. The desk produced a manual for the women’s empowerment program as a result of the symposium it organized in March 2010. Although this manual hasn’t yet been made public, we believe this is the kind of work the WED should be doing more of.
In 2011, the WED also contracted seasoned researchers and field researchers to conduct a qualitative research into the lives of Tibetan women in exile and identify their needs and challenges. The findings from this research will be laid out in a report entitled, ‘The Present Status of Tibetan Women in India.” This report is under production and will be released soon. We are confident that the report will debunk the original assumption that gender discrimination does not exist in the Tibetan community, which seems to be the foundation on which the first Women’s Empowerment Policy was written, and in fact highlight areas of discrimination faced by Tibetan women. We hope that the research findings will inform a significant revision of the policy.
We also hope that Sikyong Lobsang Sangay’s Kashag will upgrade the Desk to meet current needs. A WED staffed with one person and armed with a weak policy cannot effectively address the gender gap in the Tibetan exile community. We are also curious about why the WED is placed under the Department of Finance. Wouldn’t it make more sense to house the WED under the Department of Home, which oversees the settlement offices and thus can facilitate WED to conduct programs in settlements more effectively?
A credible Women’s Empowerment Policy is essential to resolving societal and institutional gender discrimination and will help Tibetan women and men recalibrate our expectations and our duties. Our community and our cause need the capacity and commitment of all our citizens. With renewed energy and optimism, we can double the pool of people to draw on for the posts of not just pre-primary teachers but also Parliamentarian, Departmental Secretary, Tibetan Youth Congress President, Tibetan Justice Commissioner and the Political Leader of the Central Tibetan Administration.
Tibetan women are beginning to understand that our dreams need not be so small nor our obligations so heavy. We need not reach for the ceiling when we can touch the sky.
Tenzin Palkyi was formerly Research Officer at the Tibetan Women’s Association, Dharamsala. She is an Assistant Program Officer at the National Endowment for Democracy, and co-authoring this piece in her personal capacity. Tenzin Dickyi worked as Special Assistant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Representative at the Office of Tibet, New York, and is an MFA candidate at Columbia University.