News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: The Fate of Widowed Women in Tibetan Society

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Sketch by Yingying Zhang
Sketch by Yingying Zhang

By Sang Mota

For Tibetan women, the fight for equality continues through every stage of their lives. When a woman’s husband dies, as a widow she faces a double-edged sword. The widowed woman’s community, neighbors, even close family and friends treat her differently.  In Tibetan society, a widowed women’s life is forever changed as she carries the blame and guilt of her husband’s death as if she had killed him herself. The word widow itself is filled with negative connotations, a situation that leaves women in a vulnerable position, where they are forced to endure financial difficulties, social exclusion, and humiliation.

Losing a spouse is already heart-breaking for anyone.  For Tibetan women, cultural pressures make this journey even harder and more sorrowful. They know it is the beginning of a long term struggle, filled with societal stigma and cultural transgressions, including becoming an outcast in society and at family functions. 

The lives of my own sister and one of my best friends are examples of this loss in societal status. Both women lost their husbands a few years back.  After the loss of their husbands, both women said the biggest challenge they faced was not the personal grieving process, but rather the psychological pressure, discrimination, and rejection they felt from both society and even their close friends.  Suddenly, they found themselves very isolated and lonely while adjusting to their newly diminished role. Both women felt this process and the resulting change in social status as robbing them of their basic human rights and dignity.

I have been told moreover that in many parts of Tibet such as Lhasa, Kham, and Amdo, no matter how skilled a cook she is, widowed women are not to offer food to important people like lamas. Directly or indirectly, widowed women are discouraged from handing down any articles of clothing, because they are understood to bring bad luck and misfortune to the recipient.

Remarriage is not an option for many widowed women because it is considered shameful, or a loss of face for a man to marry a widowed woman.  For these women, who face hindrances everywhere they turn, this barbaric belief system further marginalizes these women and their children, often condemning their families to poverty.

Speaking frankly, I wish that as a community we could make much greater strides when it comes to perception of widowed women within Tibetan society. According to my sister, my friend, and other widowed women from different regions in Tibet, this lowering of social status continues to harshly limit the role of women.  In Tibetan traditional culture, including in the Amdo region where I come from, men are seen as the core of the family. Women are deemed to have no position in the family, no venue allowing them to speak their mind. A woman’s role, when they are young is to respect their father and brothers, once married, they are told to fulfill their husband’s wishes and when widowed, they are to defer to their sons.  This type of unhealthy traditional norm and belief system needs to be changed.

Although physically I reside outside of Tibet, regular visits to my birth place and my participation in ongoing online Tibetan women’s support groups have kept me informed about what is happening in the community of my homeland.  Not only that, but in the course of my own upbringing I have seen firsthand the particular sufferings of the widowed among women who are already at a disadvantage in our society.  Therefore, I speak from personal knowledge and current information when I say this change is long overdue.

Let’s get real and create a new culture, one in which all members of our society have their voices heard and live their lives as equals. Widowed women need to feel that they are loved, not be blamed and stigmatized for something that they were not responsible for.  No person should feel cut out or cut off from their social structure. Widowhood is not a predestined fate.  Rather, the loss of a partner is a personal misfortune, not the creation of the role of an outcast as currently constructed by a patrilineal belief system passed along for generations in Tibet.

We need to let go of the unethical, manmade cultural norms that completely handicap women’s rights in all social stations.  We need to empower the voiceless, helpless widows and envision women empowered through every aspect of their personal lives. Only a united effort throughout Tibetan society can really enhance women’s lives in support of our common good.

(Views expressed are her own)

The author has worked as a social worker in the Victim Services Unit of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.  She specializes in domestic violence in the Eastern Asian population.  She has her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Hunter College. Currently, she works as a Real Estate salesperson at Douglas Elliman in New York.  She lives in Manhattan with her husband.  

4 Responses

  1. The article by Sang Mota on widowed women in Tibetan society do not clearly shows the real picture of our time. I partly disagree and agree with her on a number of issues. The author cannot generalize the entire issue on the basis of one or two incidents of her own life, and assume it to be the existing scenario of the widowed women in Tibetan society.
    My own experience of life really paints a different picture from what I read in this article. But I am not saying that what I found in her article is not true and it did not happen at all. I am sure many such ugly instances, similar to what is written in the article may have happened in many places. My main point is, lots depend on the individual person or family’s thinking and mindset whenever such sad tragedy happens in life.
    Death of a sole bread earner in a family will certainly bring many direct or indirect impact on concerned family’s security and happiness, and there is no question about it. But in most cases, the situation in Tibetan society, is not as bad as it believes to be now.

  2. I agree with the author that we have a problem when it comes to status of women in our society – specially when it comes to widowed women. It may not be apparent when the woman have lots of relatives and appear to be doing well. Ours is a very traditional society, especially back home in Tibet. A lot of this also driven by lack of awareness of their situation and often they suffer social social isolation often with very young children.
    In fairness to our society, I must say women fair much better than most societies. But the status of women is not equal to that of men as it is in world over.
    I hope people who enjoy moral spiritual authorities, especially in Tibet, speak up for them. The rest of us must remain aware of what’s happening to widowed and vulnerable women in our own circle of friends, families, and communities.
    We are as good as we tread our most vulnerable.

  3. All young widows and widowers get remarried and move on with their life. What you mentioned is rare case. Especially now no one believes in these superstition. If you live in a neighborhood who holds such primitive views, you should move. If this is your family or relatives, you must educate them.

  4. This is a total bull that author pretend talking on behalf of Tibetans. She is another clueless social justice warrior from the PC department. What I do see is plenty of widowed Tibetan women later in life with failed marriage to another race, trying to hookup with Tibetans later in a failed life, maybe redeem herself from failed marriage. These is prevalent in exile Tibetan society. Nobody is judging them, but this author is totally clueless about it! She is also part of this bs, maybe a representative! Please don’t talk about Tibetan race, especially those in Tibet. You don’t have the moral right to represent anyone but yourself. Just deal with the issue with few hundreds exiles in diaspora. Tibet does not need such bs. Even if there is problem, you cannot change it, it can only be changed through laws of PRC! Get off the high horse. The more mixed race people get, louder these crabs to lecture others of pure race how to live life and how to be Tibetan, this is height of insanity! Take your bull to another racial community, certainly we do not need it and Do not give zero value.

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