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 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.
“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.