By Kunsang Dolma
Tibetan women haven't always pushed for equality. I personally didn't know that the way Tibetan women are treated isn't normal until I witnessed the independence and respect women enjoy in other parts of the world. I was abused sexually and physically by several Tibetan men in both Tibet and in India, and I accepted it because I didn't know any better. I didn't like it but I quietly accepted it because I thought the way I was treated was just the way the world works. Now that I know mistreatment of women, and the mentality underlying abusive behaviors, is not normal or okay, I've decided it's time for me to speak up. Times are changing and, one by one, Tibetan women like me are starting to raise our voices for better treatment.
In response, some Tibetan men have shown their support without hesitation, others have listened and thought about what women are saying before re-examining their views, and then there are those who make excuses for ignoring women's rights. Although the people making the usual excuses repeat them confidently, their excuses are hardly convincing. Here are seven of the worst:
1. The look-the-other-way excuse: This is the excuse of people who deny gender inequality exists in Tibetan society. We all know that Tibetan women are often treated like servants, pressured for sex, and physically abused, except for the people making the look-the-other-way excuse. When mistreatment of women happens they say they don't see it, and when other men talk about mistreating women they say they don't hear it. Instead, they talk about vague abstract notions of equality, and will continue talking all night while women cook and clean up around them.
I believe that there is at least a certain sincerity behind this view. So many Tibetans have grown up with gender inequality that many can't even recognise it when it's right in front of them. Maybe they know Tibetan women are shy so don't think it's abusive if men are sexually aggressive, or they know that Tibetan men are passionate so they don't think it's abusive if passion turns to violence. They don't think to second guess behaviors they are accustomed to, but if they would only take a moment to consider how these behaviors look from a woman's perspective, they would understand how wrong they really are.
2. The biologist's excuse: Some men point to the physical differences between men and women to justify inequality. It's an appealing argument to them because it provides two benefits: it allows men to avoid taking responsibility for their own harmful behaviors, and presents inequality as an inevitable condition caused by nature which isn't open to debate. It's one of one the most well-established of the arguments here; the biologist's excuse has been a long-time standard showing up at various times and places throughout the history of women's rights struggles.
What's surprising is that this argument is still being presented in 2013; the time when it could be taken seriously already passed long ago. Women have been leading international corporations and governments worldwide for decades. Look at the first world nations, and at Africa, and Latin America, and even India, and there will be women proving daily that they are absolutely as capable as men. Tibetan women are no less competent than women anywhere else and deserve no less dignity.
3. The antique artifact excuse: In the same way a historical item might be preserved inside a glass case at a museum, the antique artifact excuse argues that Tibetan culture needs to be carefully preserved forever exactly the way it is now. Feeling threatened by Chinese efforts to erase Tibetan culture and the pressures on refugees to adapt to foreign societies, supporters of this excuse are determined to resist any change to Tibetan culture solely because they oppose change itself. They are unwilling to consider the merits of specific changes, including women's rights, which would help our society grow.
What they don't realise is that Tibetan culture is alive, the product of a living community of people involved in a complex and changing world; not some dead relic from the past ready for display on a dusty shelf. As long as our culture is alive it will keep on changing. The focus should be on ensuring that the changes are healthy and help us move forward.
4. The purist's excuse: We've all meet people who would rather live their lives being wrong than admit someone else is right. This is the excuse for them. The purist's excuse dismisses calls for women's rights, not because it's a bad idea, but because it's seen as a Western idea. Western ideas, they believe, are sure to be terrible; they won't even think about causes they believe originated with Western thinking. Arrogantly convinced they are always right, purists are the kind of people who can see the dirt on the bottom of another person's shoes, and meanwhile have no idea that they are walking around with a bad smell coming from the back of their own pants. Convinced that their culture is always right, they are quick to find faults elsewhere while they have no idea how disgusting their own behavior is.
Of course no one likes to be criticised or admit that they're wrong. However, if we are going to grow and improve, acknowledging problems and occasionally accepting outside ideas are necessary. It would be foolish to impede our growth simply because we are too proud to adopt good ideas we didn't think of first. I don't mean that every Western idea is good, but we can benefit from the ones that are. Democratic government is an example of a good Western idea, and so is gender equality.
5. The vow of silence excuse: The Tibetan community can be funny about the West; on the one hand we have the purist's excuse, and on the other we also have a tendency to care too much about what the West thinks of us. This tendency to care too much about what the West thinks gives us the vow of silence excuse. As soon as someone points out one of our weaknesses, the vow of silence people react by telling him or her to be quiet to avoid making Tibetan culture look bad. They don't care if it's the truth, they don't want the ugly truths to be spoken out loud.
The problem is that we can't change what we don't acknowledge. Looking good to others is a terrible reason to be silent about serious issues when talking about them could lead to productive changes. A community that refuses to address its problems is just as unreasonable as an individual person who hides his or her faults. By hiding abuses of women, the Tibetan community is acting like a fat person who eats vegetables in front of friends then later eats cake and cookies alone.
6. The heavy load excuse: “We have too many problems to worry about already. Other problems are bigger or more urgent. This isn't the right time. There aren't enough hours in the day to add this on top of everything else. We can look at women's issues just as soon as other things are under control...” No matter how it's said, the point of the heavy load excuse is always the same: women's rights have to wait while we face more important problems.
To me, the reality that Tibetan women are being raped and beaten is an important problem. Not only is it an important problem, it's a problem we are in a position to solve ourselves. We don't have control over the decisions Barack Obama makes and we don't have control over the decisions Xi Jinping makes. We don't even have control over decisions our neighbours make. All that we have control over is our own behaviour. Changing our own behavior is the one thing we can do right now. No magical day is coming when all our other worries will be over. Now is the time to act.
7. The blame women excuse: The blame women excuse looks at the consequences of systemic gender inequality, ranging from government without female representation to tolerance of physical abuse, and holds women themselves responsible instead of the systemic inequality. This is perhaps the oldest and most tiring of all the excuses. Women have long been blamed for provoking men who hit them, for leading on men who rape them, and now women are being blamed for failing in a society stacked against them.
It's insult added to injury. The true blame lies with the people who promote the circumstances holding women back. If circumstances were equal, there is no reason why Tibetan women wouldn't succeed where men and women elsewhere do. What people need to realise is that tolerating inequality in silence is part of helping it continue.
We have had enough of excuses and delays, we need to move forward. When we move forward with women's rights the entire community will gain from it. Women's rights benefit the community by building strong families and strong mothers, leading to a strong future for all Tibetans. The struggle for gender equality is not a form of gender conflict. By working together for women's rights, Tibetan men and Tibetan women can make our great culture even better.Kunsang Dolma is the author of her memoir "A Hundred Thousand White Stones." She has launched a new website, yimbe.wordpress.com, addressing women's rights in the Tibetan community. Kunsang currently lives in the United States with her husband and two daughters, but will soon be moving back to India. The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.