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.