[November 29, 2016] Dharamsala, India
Panel discussion organized by TWA Central, with Nyima Lhamo la as the moderator, Pema Choedon la, Kaysang and Lobsang Wangyal as speakers.
Before I begin, I would like to thank the Tibetan Women’s Association for inviting me to be part of the discussion today.
As some of you might know, I identify as a feminist and I try to learn as much as I can about gender issues and gender equality movements across the globe, but I am in no way an expert on the subject and do not claim to have solutions to the problem of gender that we face as a community. And whatever I see as a problem is not necessarily a problem for other women. What I would like to do today however is to share with you all what I have experienced and learned – from my own life, from my friends and family, and from reading and listening to others. And I would like to share with you my own ideas of paving the way forward to a more gender equal Tibetan society.
For me, as a feminist and a Tibetan woman, working towards gender equality is a constant work towards analyzing and being aware of the way we interact as men, women and people of other genders in the community, and being critically conscious of the systems in place that determine how we do so – be it within the family, at the workplace, with friends or within the larger society. Is there an imbalance that you are able to recognize from your observations as you maintain that awareness? Is the imbalance being unfair to anyone – maybe unintentionally? Now, I do agree that women and men are, without a doubt, biologically constructed in different ways. But that does not necessarily mean that there should be an imbalance in the right to freedom of choice and the right to create a kind of world that makes it easier to achieve that equality.
To put it in simpler words, we all should have the guarantee of safety in our freedom to choose how we want to live and what we do with our bodies and our lives, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?
I have often heard people say (as many of you have too, I’m sure), “There is so much equality for Tibetan women compared to other communities. Tibetan women these days can do whatever they want.” Women do not think so. Women – well, most women – say that there is a problem – that even though our situation is not that bad (you know, we have never had to fight for the right to vote) there are still many things that we need to work on. It is true that problems of domestic violence, rape and child sexual abuse, etc. are seemingly not as prevalent in the Tibetan society as in some other communities. But does that mean that these problems do not exist in our community? Or is it that the victims of these kinds of violence have been deliberately silenced in obvious and not-so-obvious ways and do not feel safe to speak out against the perpetrators?
There have been many instances of sexual and gender based violence against women and children that have come to the surface in the last many years, but these have been dealt with in the most deplorable way. We always think that these things do not happen to us, that these things do not happen to our friends or our family, not in our Tibetan community. I want to tell you, it does.
In a survey conducted by the Tibetan Women’s Association in 2014, 10% of female respondents said that they had faced sexual harassment at the workplace and 11% refused to answer. Three of my friends have been raped by men whom they thought were their friends. I also know of male friends who suffered molestation and abuse at the hands of older men as kids. I recently went out with colleagues from work and ran into an old schoolmate of mine – he offered me alcohol spiked water and when I confronted him about it, he urged me to drink it, adamantly denying that there was any alcohol in it. My guy friends are friends with men who boast about taking women to hotel rooms after getting them drunk and coercing them into having sex with them. When I was a child, I witnessed an older man beat his pregnant wife regularly, once almost dropping a huge rock on her bulging stomach. These behaviors are behaviors of rapists and abusers. These acts are punishable by law. And these men are not monsters. These men are otherwise regular men, nice friends, good sons and brothers, maybe even your pleasant colleague at work. Not all men are like that, but there are men like these amongst us. And it is time that we stop denying that. It is time that we opened our eyes to the hundreds of little girls and women who have suffered and are still suffering due to our stubbornness in insisting that our community does not have problems. When we stay silent about such things, we are telling little boys that it is okay to behave like that, and we tell little girls that we must suffer in silence because there is no way out of the suffering.
We still do not have a system in place to provide medical and psychiatric care for survivors of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence. We are not even ready to accept that such things happen under our very noses because we would rather look away and pretend everything’s okay. Our society still looks for excuses to blame the woman when something like this happens. “What was she wearing? Why was she alone with boys? Why was she drinking? Why did she talk back to her husband? She shouldn’t have fought with her husband or boyfriend if she didn’t want to get beaten up. If she was a good girl she wouldn’t have worn short clothes or had alcohol. If she were a better wife, she would have kept his dinner ready and looked after the kids better. Etc, etc.”
When we say such things about someone who has suffered such a horrifying and inhuman act, we are essentially saying that, in some way, no matter how small, she deserved it.
When the terms “gender” or “women’s issues” are used, we automatically think that this is something that is the concern of women and men begin to feel like observers that have nothing to do with what’s going on. But these problems are our problems that involve all of us as a community – as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, activists, teachers, lawyers, doctors and government employees. This is relevant to every single one of us, as people who all have a stake in the kind of society that we live in, and the kind of society that we have the immense potential to build. While specific, targeted projects and initiatives for women are well intended, gender inequalities will not be resolved through marginal initiatives but through broader processes of change, particularly at the policy and institutional level, while always keeping both the common man and woman in mind.
I know that when it comes down to it, Tibetan men truly believe that women should be accorded the same freedom and respect as men, despite our differences. I really do believe that. Which is why I say that your words and good intentions are not enough. To all men, you must do more. When you hear your guy friends engaging in toxic displays of masculinity, it is you who must confront them. When you see a friend making sexist comments, you are the one who must stop your friend. Silence is a form of consent, and you need to play an active part in making sure that abusive behavior is unacceptable in our community. As Jackson Katz said, “Caring deeply is not enough. We need enough men with the courage, strength and moral integrity to break our complicit silence and challenge each other.”
We all need to start expecting more from men. We need to set the bar higher and realize that “boys will be boys” is an insult to all men. We must believe that men can do better – men can be kinder, more affectionate, more comfortable with their humanity, their emotions and their better side. When we begin to raise our boys the way we have been raising our girls – only then will we begin to see a change in the trend of unfairness committed against both boys and girls. We have never really given a chance for boys to do as well as girls in every respect. We have made a mistake in the way we raise our boys because we never expect the same kind of greatness that we do from girls.
We expect so much of our girls. We expect them to excel at school and in their careers and we expect them to be good daughters, mothers, caretakers and community builders. That is exactly why Tibetan women are doing extremely well these days – in schools, at homes, at the workplace – everywhere. Data from the Department of Education show that in schools, girls have been performing consistently better than boys in exams for the last many years. There are more female than male recipients of the Gaden Phodrang Award. And in the last three years, women have received 57% of undergraduate scholarships and 60% of masters, MPhil and PhD scholarships under the Department of Education.
Yet, why is it that we still see a lack of women being represented at the highest levels of society?
Out of 45 current members of parliament, only 10 are women and there is not a single female minister in the present cabinet. In a report by the Department of Education published in April 2015, it was found that from all Tibetan schools in exile, only 4 out of 25 school principals, and 1 out of 12 school directors and rectors were female. According to data obtained from CTA’s Public Service Commission, only 8% of the total number of Tibetan Settlement Officers are women and there is only one female secretary out of 19 working in different departments of the CTA and as bureau officers in different countries.
Let me simplify the data for you a little bit. Out of the data that I have presented to you so far, roughly 13.5% of the positions of power in schools, government and the community are held by women, compared to an 86.5% by men. We have a much lesser number of women leaders than we do men, even though academically, on an average, girls are performing better than boys.
What does this mean for our girls? It means that they have less female role models to look up to, and more limits to what they can dream of becoming when they grow up.
Compare our situation with that of a country like Sweden which is ranked the 4th most most Gender Equal Country (according to the World Economic Forum Report, 2015), but its government still declares itself as a feminist government to stress that gender equality is vital to society and that more needs to be done to achieve it. 12 of the 24 government ministers are women in Sweden. Nearly half of the members of the current parliament (44%) in Sweden are also women. Sweden also has a family policy that supports working parents with the same rights and obligations for both women and men which makes it easier for parents to find a decent work–life balance.
What does this mean for us as a society? We have already established that women and men are different – and we are different, in our experiences, in the way we live, the way we are brought up and the way we are expected to fulfill different roles cut out for us by society – which is why our needs are different, and our aspirations are different. Therefore, it is imperative that these differences are taken into account when designing any kind of policy at the government level, at the educational level and at the level of the community. When you don’t have enough female voices to represent the aspirations of women, what essentially happens is that women and girls do not get equal opportunities as men and boys. Policies might be gender-neutral, but that does not mean that the benefits of those policies are equal for men and women. In such situations, you cannot have meaningful growth, because development and progress as a society cannot come about without equality for all.
So does this mean that our problems will be solved when we have more female leaders? I don’t think so. I think that having female “leaders” and “leadership trainings” and “workshops” have become such a trend these days (just like “women’s empowerment” and “feminism”), that we are forgetting one tiny, crucial detail. More women leaders is the end product of a more gender equal society, rather than a way to achieve gender equality. When we as a society can integrate the concept of equality in our everyday lives and in everything we do, when we are able to extend equal freedom, opportunities and education to women from the least privileged backgrounds, I think we will see a natural, organic growth in the number of confident, intelligent and strong women who are ready to take charge of our community and our struggle, standing as equals to men. We do not need more women to fill up token spaces in positions of power and quotas reserved for women, just because there is pressure to include more women. We need more women with the education, integrity and passion to make real changes, to work for the most unattended sections of our community and to motivate a new generation of Tibetans towards progress.
We tell our girls that they must become leaders, but in the very next moment, we tell them to be quiet and fade into the background. Women who are confident, outspoken and comfortable in their individuality are frowned upon and often told that they will not be able to find a man who will want to marry them. We teach our girls to put everyone else above themselves and sacrifice their needs for others – which is an admirable trait in line with our Buddhist values, so why can’t we teach boys to do the same? Are we assuming that boys cannot be kind enough or compassionate enough? We teach girls to doubt themselves in the same breath as we tell them to aspire for excellence. What it actually ends up doing is making our girls perfectionists who are forever hating themselves for not being perfect. Let us stop being so unfair to every little girl out there.
As a feminist, I think the most frustrating moments for me are not when feminism and gender equality are brushed aside by people. The most frustrating thing for me is to see feminism and women’s empowerment being used by women ourselves as merely labels, rather than translating these words into action and creating a movement toward the upliftment of all genders. Women need to start not only supporting each other but holding each other accountable. We need to encourage each other to be better and shine brighter and love each other with more open hearts, because we have been taught for so long only to doubt each other and be jealous of each other, to see each other as competition – that is what is expected of us, that is what is supposed to be ‘natural’ for women. And it is so absolutely wrong. We can be each other’s greatest supporters and we can be our best critics. Let’s stop tearing each other down and let’s stop being silent if a woman deserves rightful criticism.
The last three generations of Tibetans in exile have struggled a lot much to maintain our traditions, cultures and our old way of life. Somewhere along the way, we became so completely focused on telling ourselves that we have survived and we are living well despite the trauma of losing our country, that we have almost managed to believe this lie ourselves. We are doing well in many respects, but we also have deep wounds from when we were thrown into this point in our history, and these wounds are festering now because we have been pretending for so long that we are not hurt. Taking care of half of our population is something that we must now start attending to seriously and it is not something that we can afford to put off for the future.