News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: Women’s Empowerment is a touchy topic, even in the Parliament

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The Tibetan Parliament in Exile in session during the recently concluded Budget session (Photo/TPiE)

By Tenzin Lekdhen

On March 29, during the recently concluded 17th Tibetan Parliament in Exile (TPiE)’s budget session, female MPs stood up to male MPs who criticised what they saw as a futility of investments in the Women’s Empowerment Program and raised their disconcertments on the government’s budget allotment to Gender Equality by mentioning reservation of seats for female Chithues (MP) and the importance of Tibet’s collective cause trumping individuals’ right to basic humanity. 

The heated exchange on the debate of gender equality and equity that took place in the parliament is a common sight in democratic states and institutions, and is indicative of a healthy democracy. Tenzin Tseten, Women’s Empowerment Program’s project officer, recognising the importance of discussions surrounding these issues told Phayul that “[she] welcomes the discussions and the differential views that came up, and views it as a sign of a healthy democratic process. Gender equality is a fundamental right and a core value of a democratic society. Dialogues and conversation around these topics are vital for its realisation.”

But what doesn’t seem healthy in a democracy is when lawmakers turn a blind eye against survivors of sexual assaults, rape and domestic abuses – who are largely female, and claim our society is egalitarian, thus renouncing the need for gender equality. In a 2019 survey titled Sexual Abuse Against Students, conducted in Tibetan schools by Drokmo, a Dharmashala based NGO working on gender equality, found that 151 out of 401 (38%) respondents had faced sexual violence. 51% of the 151 respondents were female and 23% were male.

The report also uncovered that out of 95 respondents, 22 % faced molestation, 7 % admitted to being raped, 7% said that they were denied the right to use protection or contraceptives, 6% admitted to being sexually harassed, 4% faced unwanted sexual advances, 3 % said that they faced sexual abuse, 2 % said that they had to undergo forced abortion, 1 % was forced into prostitution.

But according to Geshe Lobsang Phende, Chithue from Gelug sect, against the sapient advice of the ཚད་མེད་བཞི། – The Four Immeasurables – these “individual issues” (referring to gender equality) cast a shadow over the larger collective struggle for Tibet. He said, “People seem to be forgetting the Tibet issue. Our struggle is for the rights and freedom of the Tibetan people, not for cunning individual’s ཐུགས་གོང་ – wishes.” Drokmo’s survey regarding sexual assaults were carried out in Tibetan schools where the students are Tibetan, whose rights and freedom were infringed by perpetrators. 

The Genesis

The bickering began with Chithue Dawa Phunkyi’s remarks on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment, which functioned as a preface to his main concern: reservation seats for females in the parliament. In his prefacing remarks, he tells an anecdote, “In our society, men tend to smoke more than females. Hence, when it is commented, out of concern and assuming that women are generally more well mannered, that the number of women who smoke is increasing, the response one often gets is, ‘that is our right. Gender Equality.’” By narrating this specific anecdote in the context of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, he reduces, rather consciously, a pressing and important issue down to cigarette smoking – an unanimously bad habit – and sets the groundwork for what’s yet to come of his criticism. But not before a euphemistic support for women “who makes half the population” and a profession of concern about the misuse of Women Empowerment and Gender equality, referencing the anecdotes he told. 

Continuing, Chithue Dawa Phunkyi gets to his main concern, the reservation of seats for female Chitue candidates. He rhetorically established that our society is egalitarian and questioned the idea of reservation seats allotted for Women, asking, “is it thong chung” – insult “or khe phan” – advantage “for the women?”. He then calls for a revision of the exile Charter saying, “if women are equal and capable, if we can clear this, I think it will be beneficial.” 

His speech is structured in a way that portrays two contradictory remarks on Gender Equality. A structure that George Orwell recognised as ‘political language’ in his book Politics and the English Language. Wherein, he argues, that political language is used to defend the indefensible through what “consists largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” 

Dawa Phunkyi, by employing these political rhetorics, manages to achieve two things. One, he is able to paint himself as a caring individual who is concerned about young women smoking cigarettes. Second, he manages to reduce the complex issues of women empowerment and gender equality down to the act of smoking. The juxtaposition of the two renders his professed concern and himself as ‘good’ and the other, a collective issue of equality and empowerment, as ‘bad’ by likening and lessening it to an obnoxious young woman smoking a cigarette that talks back to elders. 

“He tried to portray two negatives which was smoking and speaking rudely; a behaviour which could be exhibited by either gender but used it to misrepresent and misinform the public on issues concerning gender equality,” Tenzin Pelyoun, cofounder of Drokmo, told Phayul.

She adds, “Narrating an incident of personal conduct and using that as a basis for discrediting an entire movement is a disservice to the cause of gender equality. As a representative of the public, he has a responsibility to make informed comments and not base his judgements on his own biases and limited data.” Tenzin Pelyoun was one of the two women who wrote the aforementioned report titled Sexual Abuse Against Students.

Dawa Phunkyi’s attempt to portray the diaspora as an egalitarian society was in order to ask for the revision of reserved seats for women because he was cognizant of the fact that reserved seats are usually allotted for marginalised communities within the larger populace. But one community, that is revered and respected, that is not marginalised and has hegemony over the shared religious beliefs are the religious institutions. Yet the religious sects still have 10 seats reserved, which, in the history of Tibetan Parliament in Exile, have failed to elect even one female MP. But Chithue Dawa Phunkyi chose the seats reserved for women as his target, to prove his allegiance to the all-powerful hegemony that lives in the all pervading ether.

More Criticisms

“As said earlier by another colleague,” Chitue Khenpo Kada said, “there is a current trend in our society wherein in the name of gender equality, women feel the need to do whatever men do. I do not recognise this as gender equality. I can say on this stage that women can’t do whatever men do. Hence, I do not endorse these workshops on gender equality.”

Kada Ngedup Sonam, Chithue from the Sakya sect, denounced a notion of Gender Equality that is different from the one that the Women’s Empowerment Program upholds (WED works to ensure that women and men participate in and benefit equally, and to address gender stereotypes, social attitudes, and sexual violence in our community.) But Kada’s connotation of gender equality dwells on an equality of biological capabilities rather than the political equality that the charter grants to all individuals as equals under the law. Needless to say, biologically, there are things one sex can do that the other can’t. Such misunderstanding of gender equality and the importance of women’s empowerment are often addressed in WED’s gender sensitization workshops.

Chithue Youdon Aukatsang, right before the speaker would interrupt her, asked her colleagues to be careful of the opinions they raise in the sessions since they carry a certain weight.

MP Lobsang Phenday, for whom the speaker interjected Aukatsang, said “there seems to be a collective lack of awareness about the Tibet issue. But when it comes to gender equality and youth empowerment, there are some Machevallian individuals. Our struggle is for the rights and freedom of the Tibetan people and not for sly individual’s ཐུགས་གོང།” – wishes. Here, Chithue Phenday seems to have forgotten that the domestically abused mother seeking help, the young woman finding it hard to pay for law school to study human rights law, and the girl who was groped at the club are all Tibetan. Phenday, who has a Lharampa degree, misses the point that struggles can be overlapping and seems to establish that the collective cause be placed before individuals’ rights to basic humanity. Such misplacement of importance risks alienating the people it asks to participate and seeks to emancipate.

In the Buddhist teaching of The Four Immeasurables, one of the lines read, “May [all living beings] be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.” But if one employs the logic that Geshe Lharampa used, this prayer should be redundant since all beings in the six realms ultimately seek enlightenment. Struggles and movements can overlap and many are overlapping, but to disregard movements based on their scale and magnitude, in a democracy, is to ignore the iceberg to never reach the promised land.

“If a community is to develop and reach its potential, all its members need to move forward together,” Tseten, WED’s project officer, told Phayul. “Women and Gender issues are cross-cutting and are related to all aspects of development.”

Standing Up for Your Rights

Aukatsang would take the mic again to finish her statement against the criticisms of the three male Chitues whom the speaker for some reason did not interject, only to be sat down again and followed by Dawa Phunkyi to clear that his statement was in no way an “insult to women.” Aukatsang taking the mic again accused the speaker of being partial against views that he does not agree with and asked the speaker to be just in his orchestration of the parliament. Aukatsang was sat down and interjected three times whilst none of the three male Chithues who criticised Women’s Empowerment Program and expressed their views on gender equality were interrupted. Aukatsang would get the chance to finish her speech uninterrupted but only after MP Dorjee Tseten addressed the speaker to be impartial in his allocation of speaking time. 

Finally getting to voice her opinion without interruptions, Aukatsang said, “we cannot judge [women’s behaviour] by the standards of our traditions and culture alone. We have to move along with the times.” She also asked Sikyong Penpa Tsering whether the Women’s Empowerment Program was listed solely per the requirements for the funds provided by the United States. Sikyong in the earlier session said that such programs were required by the USAID. He followed it by a chain of vague remarks about the large number of posters denouncing domestic abuse and sexual assaults around CTA’s compound.

The Domino Falls

Chithue Tenzin Choezin, who took the stage after Youdon Aukatsang, seemed shocked by the unusual magnitude of resistance against the budget that totals to 55 lakhs. The 55 lakhs – proposed and granted – makes up around 2.6% of the budget related to administrative expenses and 0.2% of the total budget which is estimated at 2.5 Billion INR. The shock, disappointment, and sadness evident from her expression comes not from being the latest Chithue, nor from being the youngest, but rather from experience. Taking a deep breath, gathering herself, she reads out a statement from the UN’s Human Rights Council, “All human beings are born equal with dignity and rights. But whether everyone is treated as such in our community is doubtful.”

“I have worked with at-risk young people and women who have been abused. There is a reason that many of these cases are hard to come out. One such example is the very things said in the parliament. Which makes it hard to talk about such things in the public sphere.” Drokmo’s research found that only 6% of survivors told the authorities after they were assaulted – it was the least selected option. School authorities and institutions often tend to “keep the matters inside” and not take appropriate actions against sexual perpetrators.

Chithue Namgyal Dolkar commended the work of the Women’s Empowerment Desk and highlighted that gender equality is not restricted to women. That gender based violence and stereotypes are faced by both the sexes. She said, “gender equality does not ask for more equality. I request my colleagues to attend these workshops that WED organises.” She further asked the CTA to recognise sexual abuses and assaults as the crime that they are and to stand in solidarity with victims.

Chithue Phenday, taking the mic, doubled down on his earlier point and insisted that the parliament in exile is for “གཞིས་བྱེས་བོད་མི་” – Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, and not for the exile Tibetans. What he implies is that the Tibet Issue should be the ultimate priority and other injustices are trivial if they do not contribute to the collective struggle. What he fails to understand is that the struggle for Tibet and the injustices faced by individuals in their daily lives are not mutually exclusive. But they are rather cross-cutting as WED’s Tseten said. For a woman who has to constantly worry every evening about her abusive drunk husband coming home, it is hard to think of the larger struggle. For a young women forced into sex work, it is hard to imagine about the collective struggle of the community who oustedand shamed her. Trivialising injustices because they aren’t related to the collective struggle only succeeds in alienating the people who are an integral part of the larger movement. Ms. Tseten on the importance of intersectionality said, “programs on Women empowerment and gender equality are crucial for the development of the community and it needs the participation of all stakeholders of the community to work together to make the change happen.”

Geshe Phenday in his criticisms, however, did make a valid point about the failure of women and women empowerment organisations to recognise and protest against China when a Tibetan woman was burned alive by her Chinese spouse live on social media. This important point could have been used to call for a collective approach to our struggle against China’s colonisation, but he succumbs to the temptation of deploying it for and against the hill he stood on. This gullible temptation is not restricted to the reactionaries, but also plagues the “intersectionalist” feminist movement. The moral landscape has a terrain that has multiple peaks. For one to die on one hill and the other on another, only solitude awaits, not solidarity.

The Tibetan struggle against China and Women’s Empowerment are not mutually exclusive but rather profoundly layered. It is only by understanding both that we can respect the rights of the individuals and at the same time strengthen our fight against colonialism. To fight for Tibet’s freedom is also to fight for the individual rights of Tibetans. The two facets are one. The one is the fight against injustice.

The author is a recipient of the Pestalozzi Scholarship. He studied Mathematics and Physics before changing his course to Philosophy. He currently interns at Phayul.

8 Responses

  1. Tibetan women may have more choices than the Supreme Court allows American women in some places. Every sentient being is precious until they are not wanted and end up being psychologically damaged and act out in a psychopathic manner. This experiment was done in Romania under Ceausescu. Perhaps American women need to learn alternatives such as those well known by Courtesans and such?

  2. Be careful when you are so much involve in Western idea of Abuse. In the West, so many silly things are regarded as abuse. Therefore, younger people have no sense of respect to elders, older age, teachers and anyone. In India, if young boys are naughty in the street, any older people can speak to them and they listen because there is a sense of respect. If such thing is happened in the West, nobody will show respect instead charge you abuse. Thats the difference between becoming so much sensitive to what abuse means in the West and East. Parents cannot discipline kids and even scolding is an abuse. When kids are told everything is abuse at school, they even blame parents who try to discipline their kids for their own sake. In Asian culture, genuine motivation is appreciated even if physical action appeared little rough or tough. Over there, no one wanted to know one’s genuine motivation, you will be charged abuse if you slap your child. We say in Tibetan “Those who care you, their voice is bitter”. When we were young we have genuine positive feeling, that when master slaps you, it is considered blessing and he cares us. In the West, if that happened, it is taught an abuse since their childhood. Kids considered even their parents as their enemy if they happened to slap kids even once in the life time. They never forgive. It is not the fault of kids but system that teach so much negative and poisoned the brain. No one care about someone’s motivation but all physical action is regarded abuse and unacceptable. One of the worse impact of such thing is when they grow up, they become zero toleration for everything. Thus they become short temper and very defensive for every little thing. You want respect but you do not care others need. You want someone to listen you but you do not want to listen anyone. You have always good ideas and wanted to sell others as innovative even though it values nothing. Western ideology is deeply governed by the psychology which has no depth and its new in the world. We have thousand years old culture, philosophy and literature where there is ocean of knowledge which teach how to think positive and use antidote as cure for every negative action. There is no need of borrowing new established idea if we know how to explore our own wealthy wisdom and resolve every issue. When our youngster talk about women rights in Tibetan community, it appears that they are totally stranger about our culture which has treated women always equal in every respect. Study Tibetan literature, history and see where women were not treated equal. But I don’t deny that in the society, since biologically man are stronger, they have use more muscle sometimes for good and sometimes for controlling. But those few incidents, one cannot generalized. History is the evident that wherever real abuse was carried on for many centuries, the revolution came there to set rules on how to prevent and categorically so much things are made up to call what are abuse. It is all man made things in the West and not a wisdom or knowledge.

  3. Domestic abuse is as serious as terrorism. And abuse can flow from either gender. 6 week Johnny Deep Vs Amber Heard trial in Virginia court will give insight into what controlling behaviour can look like. Abuse isn’t just a slap or a kick, it can be psychological games without physical touch. BBC news reports ” mutual abuse ” between the couple, though both pleads innocence.
    Please watch the live trial here https://youtu.be/76zbzPnnYcI

    Another is Will Smith’s son Jaden speaking out against his mother for her domestic abuse committed against his dad, and asking to be emancipated from his toxic mother.

    Tibetan parliament doesn’t know anything about emotional abuses and complex people, they are like kids.

  4. There is no reason for Women’s Empowerment to be a touchy subject among Tibetans. The only reason why it’s not very popular is because it’s an entirely new concept that has never been discussed in Tibetan society. We can perhaps safely assume that our society treats women quite fairly. This is testified by women of the older generation and even among younger generation, there are young women who are not too keen to embrace feminism like western women. It has be admitted that while Tibetan women are pretty fairly treated, that is by no means to say, there are no short comings. Women are looked down as inferior to men by birth. The word སྐྱེ་དམན་ means lower rebirth. This is because women suffer more than men in bearing child and in the power balance, women have been generally the weaker partner owing to the social and cultural customs of a male dominated world. Women are undoubtedly the weaker sex physically and that has always disadvantaged women since civilisation began. The reason why Tibetan women have received a fairer treatment is perhaps rooted in the Buddhist concept of compassion and karma. In Buddhism, being compassionate is one of the most avowed goals of a practitioner and added to this is the notion of karma which teaches that whoever is one’s wife, partner or consort, it is the result of one’s own karma. རང་གི་ལས་དབང་རེད་ Therefore, one has to accept the status quo and not expect high returns from one’s spouse. So, the men attempt to accomodate the failings of the women if she doesn’t live up to one’s own expectations.
    Of course, this has not always been a deterrent. Many men never consider such religious edicts and often bash the women and treats her very badly.
    But by and large, such religious beliefs have held sway in the minds of Tibetan men and this has prevented the kind of tragedies that is common in other parts of the world where women are killed in the name of family honour known as “honour killings” especially in Islamic countries. Nor Tibetan women ever been burned to death in the name of honour as the Rajput women were subjected to when their husbands were killed in war. This cruel practise was banned by Lord William Bentinck on December 4th 1829 but it was still practiced as late as September 4th 1987, when eighteen year old Roop Kanwar is said to have jumped into the funeral pyre but others have said, it was the relatives of the diseased men who forced her to commit the act of sati in order to gain access to his property and possessions. Without a doubt these are barbaric acts.
    Whether it’s the “honour killings” or sati, it’s always been the women at the receiving end!

    Tibetan women have faced hardships like many of their sisters around the world. Since, they cannot support themselves, they are mostly given away for marriage and they suffer at the hands of her in-laws especially the mother in laws and her own husband at the behest of his mother. Women are treated as unclean when it comes to visiting holy places or touching holy scriptures. Some scriptures have openly proclaimed not to be touched by women! There are places known as རྟེན་ཁང་ (abode) of worldly wrathful deities where women are prohibited to visit. The uncleanliness perception comes from their menstruation cycle which is seen by male chauvinists and religious people as contamination which is said to foul the places.
    There have been cases of girls being raped by school teachers, cooks in Tibetan schools and abused by close family members including the husbands of their sisters. A school girl was murdered in Dharamsala by a cook of the school. In Bylakuppe, a Tibetan school girl was gang raped by a group of Tibetan miscreants who tried to bribe the police when it was reported. This was in the mid-seventies. There would be hundreds or even thousands of such cases in our small community. If Tibetans really respect the Buddha Dharma and it’s message, we must treat each other with compassion and not oppress the vulnerable section of our society. All the mistreatment, sexual abuse, wife beating and domestic violence must be expunged from our society. There is no place for such cruelty in our society which is said to be blessed by Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion. On the one hand we pride ourselves as being fortunate for taking rebirth in the realm of Chenrezig but on the other, if we treat our fellow life partners and vulnerable children with such cruelty, we are nothing but hypocrites of the first order. HH The Dalai Lamas message of compassion must be lived in our daily lives and not just pay lip service.
    For those who are misogynists and male chauvinists who are ridiculing the women’s emancipation movement, think of your mother, your sisters and aunts and their happiness. How would you feel if they are made to suffer at the hands of their tormentors?
    By the way, for the troll, who blames the Tibetan Women’s Association must either be a CCP troll to disparage the august body or a downright misogynist who is steeped in his male chauvinism! For your information, the TWA is not an organisation fighting for women’s rights but for the RIGHTS OF THE TIBETAN PEOPLE under Chinese communist occupation!

  5. Tibetan women have more power than Tibetan men so what kind of right do they need? Or they want to put their feet on Tibetan ‘s heads. I have been associated with the society in Tibet as well as in Exile, Tibetan women have much power and right in their families and they have equal right in the society but now Tibetan men need more right and protection than Tibetan women since Tibetan women become so independent and so much freedom they have that they start to do horrible things like sleeping with other man when their husband is away and now a days Tibetans women divorce the men to go another man. These all evil acts which is applied by Tibetan woman so what other right these women need? Tibetan woman association is useless and only few women in the association get profits and they can use these funds where they get from Tibetan government and other charity organisations. Tibetan woman association is corrupted so we don’t need such organisations. We Tibetan man and women have dual right and equal freedom. No need more gender differentiated.

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