Gendered Tibet

thoughts on the intersection of Gender, Feminism and Tibetan Culture

Category: Female Changemakers

Transnational Tibetan Feminist Efforts

Transnational Tibetan Feminism

Tibetan women are actively discussing feminist issues that are relevant to their communities, and engaging in projects on the ground that improve the lives of Tibetan women in communities both inside Tibet and in the diaspora, shaping a social movement that I describe as transnational Tibetan feminism. This is a post about the transnational Tibetan feminist movement in honor of International Women’s Day, focused on past and ongoing projects led by Tibetan women and their organizations.

Projects on the Ground

Nonprofit organizations such as Machik, founded and run by Tibetan women, built schools in Lithang where there was previously no access to education, enrolling students at a 50/50 gender ratio. In addition to the multiple projects associated with the school, they support other initiatives in various parts of Eastern Tibet for women’s education such as Mother’s Wish, which started as a scholarship for four women in Amdo in 2003. By 2005 Mother’s Wish had become a domestic NGO, supporting the education of over 2000 Tibetan women and girls.

Machik also sponsored the publication of Sholung: An Anthology of Tibetan Women’s Voices, edited by Prof. Palmotso of Northwest Nationalities University, as well as the Snowland Tibetan Women’s Journal (Gangs can skyes ma’i tshags par), two firsts in published Tibetan literature.

Tibetan-led organizations such as Machik are trusted on the ground and efficient in their approach towards change based on feminist commitments because they know the struggle of Tibetan women. Dedication to knowledge and mentoring has inspired organizations like Machik, founded by DC-based scholars Dr. Losang Rabgey and Dr. Tashi Rabgey, and scholars such as Prof. Palmotso who start domestic groups, to go into rural poor areas to reach underserved women.

They also helped support, fund, and incubate other Tibetan women-led orgs such as Shem and ACHA, which engage in community outreach, both of which also produced lexicons of feminist vocabulary in order to facilitate discussions of feminism.

In addition to sponsoring and organizing multiple series of conferences that ranged on topics from social business entrepreneurship to education and language preservation, Machik has been convening Tibetans from all over the world in an annual ideas festival known as Machik Weekend, currently in its thirteenth iteration. This event has regularly featured feminist topics such as gender based violence and girls education. They also held the first gender-based violence workshop in Tibet in 2013 with students from all over Tibet.

Two of their newest initiatives include a Tibetan Gender Summit and a Tibetan-English Phrasebook entitled End Domestic Violence , which was launched at the 13th Machik weekend by ACHA, an organization fiscally sponsored by Machik. The phrasebook is a years-long translation project of ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood, Machik, and the Asian Women’s Shelter (which developed the content of the phrasebook). The book was translated by Sherap Drolma and Khamo, with additional support from Dechen Tsering. You can support their work by donating to any of these organizations.

The Men’s Gender Workshop, which launched in 2018 and takes a trans-inclusive approach, is the first of its kind, providing training on masculinity for Tibetans. This then led to a Healthy Masculinity Workshop at the 13th Machik Weekend. Next year the focus of the workship will be on furthering the conversation on healthy masculinity in the Tibetan community.

Feminism, Religion, and Ethnography

What does the transnational Tibetan feminist movement look like? How is Tibetan feminism being newly constituted and negotiated in this historical and globalized moment, one in which the Tibetan Buddhist community has become an international presence? What are some of the characteristics of Tibetan feminism particular to this cultural and sociopolitical context, and how are these issues defined in the conceptualization and implementation of projects that improve women’s lives?

I have been engaged in a multi-sited ethnography in various communities of nuns and laywomen in Eastern Tibet and America since 2006 in order to understand the religious revival movement taking place in Eastern Tibet, where thousands of women have become nuns, producing religious leaders and the first religious texts authored by women and taught to other nuns. Their lay counterparts are becoming increasingly influential feminists on a transnational scale through organizing and promoting feminist projects in the diaspora and in Tibet.

In my dissertation work, adapting Saba Mahmood’s theoretical interventions into feminist ethnographic theory, I use her insights about the necessity of an ethical reciprocally-informed ethnographic approach in order to construct a more nuanced picture of Tibetan transnational feminism which is directly informed by the women themselves, working with interlocutors both as a scholar and as someone committed to the transnational feminist movement. Mahmood’s indictment of the academy’s tendencies to use the criteria of (white, imperialist, bourgeois) Western feminism in order to pass judgment on what counts as feminism draws our attention to the fact that many scholars only define the praxis of feminism as conforming with feminist theory bounded and determined by problematic notions of the modern Western liberal subject.

I also make use of Judith Butler’s articulation of the concept of precarity to further clarify the context of the struggle that Tibetan women inside Tibet face as subjects of a state hostile to religion (and increasingly to ethnic difference). By doing this work, I hope to bring Tibetan feminist positions that are being articulated in print and in digital media transnationally to the forefront of our scholarly and political discussions.

Please consider reading and sharing the below list of Tibetan writers on feminism (which will hopefully expand over time, please send me your suggestions). Cite and support Tibetan intellectuals in solidarity!

Tibetan Writers on Feminism

Jamyangkyi
Essays translated into English by High Peaks Pure Earth

Prof. Palmotso
Essay on Tibetan Women and Domestic Violence translated into English at High Peaks Pure Earth: “Debating Marriage and Domestic Violence in Tibet Today” By Françoise Robin

Various Authors
Prof. Gonggurkyap, We Have Something to Say to You

Yangdon
An interview with the late author Yangdon on Women and Her Tibetan Literature

Reflections on a Heart Healing Ritual

I had ‘heart heat.’ My heart was small, hot, and closed, she said. As the woman, a khandroma (dakini), scratched the flesh of my back, digging, creating red grooves of raised pain and relief, she said, “You need to expand your heart.” My first thought – fear. Will it hurt? Second, how to expand a heart? The scratching, the heat, her touch. A ritual in a small stuffy room, women only, that gestated a bodily transformation. Breaking raised blood vessels, leaving welts on my back the rich maroon color of a monastery freshly painted, she scratched, crooning sweet comforting words. Blood moved and changed under my unbroken skin. The old vessels my blood moved along were destroyed and new pain erupted.

Later that day, as I sat fidgeting, receiving the tantric empowerment from my female lama, I pondered their seemingly different modes of attaining wisdom. The khandroma is a ritual healer and tantric consort, and the female lama is a celibate nun who teaches religion to thousands of women and writes texts on monastic vows, among many other subjects. Two Tibetan women living Buddhist wisdom through very different, and yet uniquely Tibetan, modes of religious life. They are complementary members of this local world created by the Buddhist community that gathers in Eastern Tibet. Doing ethnography in what is now the largest nunnery and dharma encampment in the world, I encountered these two respected figures, who each tried their best to instill some wisdom in me.

If we allow ourselves to be disrupted by suffering in the world to the extent that our variously-sized hearts allow, scholarly wisdom must be constantly interrogated and re-contextualized in order to be of any use to us. In that light, I have tried to unpack this experience I had with healing. Seeking to understand how wisdom is practiced in a living Tibetan Buddhist community, I found myself giving up my ethnographical intentions, willingly becoming an inhabited body initiated into the ritual community, ripped open, healed, and instilled with a tantric god. I asked the khandroma to heal me, and she spoke gentle wise words that cut my heart like a knife through butter. Those few words shine like the famed Buddhist wish-fulfilling jewel, always offering the eye new facets, new meanings and interpretive possibilities. I let the khandroma lacerate my back with her caring fingertips. I accepted the pain. Moving forward, letting these experiences inform a new sense of self and context, I am still integrating them into my new heart.

The thousands of nuns who form the community at Larung Gar sacrificed everything else in “worldly life;” gave up everything extraneous to the quest for wisdom. These brave women severed family ties, left friends and lovers behind, and cut off the possibility of seeking any support other than refuge in the quest for wisdom itself. They have created an environment harmonious with Tibetan Buddhist ontology, a world where noise, speech, bodily actions, thoughts, and bodies themselves are transformed into karmic potentialities conducive to enlightenment. I went from having questions for them, to having my heart and life changed by them.

My female lama initiated me into the meditation which installs the tantric deity in your heart. There’s a space there now, created from releasing the clenched pain of shutting suffering out, a strength that I didn’t have before expanding my heart. When a tantric god lives in your heart, you are supposed to be transformed, becoming unafraid of how deeply the world can affect you. It’s a form of self-confidence that radically de-centers the self, connects you with the ritual community, and keeps you aware of the larger welfare of humanity. It breaks your heart open.

So, I let myself be transformed by their expectations and their concerns for my heart. I felt the pleasing lilt of her sweet voice flow over me like liquid, as she hurt me in order to make my heart better. Something probably changed through this bodily healing encounter with the khandroma. Honestly, she could have just as easily been referring to my mind rather than my heart. Ask a Tibetan to point to their ‘mind’ and they will touch their heart. For her, it was a deficiency of heart-mind capacity which I could solve by re-envisioning my entire life with the braveness to accept what truly living out the quest for wisdom does to our hearts and minds: it changes them. It expands them, painfully, accompanied by the dull ache of lack – cracking open the familiar walls we once depended on to keep us safe from fear, separate from the world’s suffering.

Suffering should destroy our plans and our preconceptions, leading us to engage authentically with the world because of, and not in spite of, suffering. My present understanding requires that I remain uncomfortable in my position, re-framing my own capacity. I expand the walls of my heart, breathing and experiencing the world’s suffering, listening, hoping to do justice to my commitments.

Nomad woman carrying child

“Drolma Girl” and the Curious Controversy of the 6387 Sheep

Drolma with Lamb
This is Drolma Yangchen, born in Danma, Upper Kham. She writes under the pen name Danza Drolma, and on September 1st, she (with the backing of her NGO devoted to releasing animals) bought 6387 sheep headed for the slaughter*. That’s where the controversy started, at least this time around. And that’s when she became “Drolma Girl.”

This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has debated this ‘hot topic.’ Should the increasingly common practice of purchasing and ‘releasing’ animals continue, or is it a misguided, albeit Buddhist attempt to save animals that ultimately increases the cycle of death and suffering by contributing to economic demand?

This is, however, the first time (to my knowledge) that a female laywoman such as Danza Drolma has been the public face of such a monumental ‘releasing’ event. That led to my current exploration of how gender is shaping the discourse around this issue. How are people reacting to a laywoman’s large-scale release of animals, as opposed to the more common (male) lama-led releasing parties? Not that the latter are without their detractors. But why now, why her, and why is she suddenly Drolma Girl (sgrol ma bu mo, 卓玛姑娘)?

Let me sketch out a rough timeline of the events so far:
On Sept. 1st, 6387 sheep purchased by her NGO, Snowland Releasing, for over 5 million RMB.

Trucks full of sheep

Subsequently, pictures, including the above, were published on their WeChat platform by herself and the NGO. Initially she received a lot of praise for her act, with the traditional Tibetan feminine virtues of compassion, generosity, and beauty being consistently (and somewhat predictably) invoked.

Then the 6387 sheep were released. Accounts differ as to whether they were released ‘into the wilderness,’ as it were, likely allowing animal traders and butchers to re-capture and re-sell them, or whether the sheep were responsibly distributed to nomad families (who would be bound to care for them but not permitted to kill them). That’s when things really got heated, as Tibetans all over social media started taking this issue apart point by point.

Currently, the voting public agrees with Danza Drolma, with 44% preferring her to use the 5 million RMB for ‘releasing,’ 30% saying the money should go towards education, and 12% in favor of buying medicine with the funds (two of the major arguments made by the opposing camp).

Voting for Life

Why is this situation seemingly coming to head at this moment in time? This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has taken up the issue of releasing animals (see pretty much anything Prof Thubten Phuntsok has done on social media since 2011). However, this seems to be the first time that a ‘releasing’ has been performed by a woman on this grandly orchestrated scale, with such a public (female) face fronting it. Dare I suggest that denizens of social media may feel more comfortable criticizing a laywoman than a male monastic? Or is it, to some detractors, merely the most obvious abuse of this already dubious system of accumulating merit?

How is the lens of gender affecting the public’s perception of her performative ‘releasing’ act?

There is certainly a possibility in my mind that the female performance of what seems to some to be a rejection of a key element of traditional Tibetan pastoralist culture (the largely female-driven maintenance of the family livestock from birth to death) was received more critically by laypeople far more accustomed to listening to the Buddhist arguments of monks and lamas than the impassioned pleas of a pious laywoman. I get this impression from reading the tone and content of the arguments made, as well as the comments.

For those of you interested in what I am basing these thoughts on, below are some of the relevant social media posts.

The responders seem to fall into two camps. The pro-life camp is epitomized by leading public intellectual Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru, who advocates strict adherence to no-killing by using Buddhist religion as a justification, and who regularly leads large groups on ‘releasing’ trips. He has written much on the subject, and as I mentioned earlier, he was not without his detractors (see Prof. Thubten Phuntsok as mentioned above). The second camp can be generally described as pragmatists (although they themselves use the word “rational”). Their arguments follow economic, social, and occasionally cultural lines (i.e. the destruction of pastoralism as a viable way of life if all nomads adopt such practices).

For a good discussion of the pragmatist camp, see Twelve Rashomon’s page, the article “Discussing Rational Release: Drolma Girl’s Release,” by Tashi Dorjé. Translated here in a great blog post by Séagh Kehoe.

Here is a piece by Rongwo Rangtsol agreeing with Danza Drolma’s performance of release by arguing that she’s bringing the livestock back to the grassland and therefore supporting the continuation of nomadic life.

One of the more popular satirical representations of the controversy of Drolma Girl can be found here.

This creepily cheery cartoon depicts her as a well-meaning dupe, tricked (likely by the oft-maligned Serta-based anti-killing movement) into advocating enlightened values, while the duplicitous butchers take the opportunity to fleece the locals twice over. The image, while of her smiling happily attired in traditional robe, is a negative representation. While her motivation may be virtuous and compassionate (if a bit air-headed), her grasp of the situation is less than would be desired by, say, an economist. This is, unfortunately, not the place where I can delve deeper into the representation of the ‘muslim butchers’ on the right-hand side, but please note it is also clearly problematic. Nobody comes out of this cartoon unscathed; nomads, butchers, and female performers of social change all come out looking bad.

Many comments extol her beauty while mourning her supposed lack of wisdom (a recurrent theme), like this one left by commenter “Sonya.”
“桑娅 – 我认为,美女应该把这笔巨资投入到藏区教育,会有更多的福报,而且还能起到切实的作用。无奈!有钱也可以这么的仁心!
Sonya – I think this beautiful woman should invest heavily in education in Tibetan areas; there will be more merit, but [the money] can also be used more pragmatically. How frustrating! So many benevolent acts also [could be done] with money.”

I find it informative that many of the arguments against her ‘releasing’ of the 6387 sheep invoke the very same traditional Buddhist ideas of religious merit and virtue that Danza Drolma herself is hoping to promote, as she says, through words and images, with the support of her organization.

Leaving her the last word, as surely I should, here Drolma-la, in response to the controversy, says:
ཀུན་སློང་དགེ་བ་ཁོ་ན་ལས་གྲུབ་པའི་དགེ་བ་མེད་ན་སྡིག་པ་ལ་འགྱུར་བ་ནི་མི་སྲིད།
“Even if this doesn’t result in virtue, it’s impossible for it to become a sin.”

I see some very gendered language and cultural concepts in operation here, and will be keeping a close eye on how this controversy develops. There are those who are calling her a khandroma…

Drolma posing for pictures with sheep

*NOTES:
For those of you unfamiliar with modern Tibetan practices, the purchase and release of livestock is considered a very meritorious activity as it saves the lives of animals who are about to be killed. Many Chinese (Tibetan) Buddhists who are students of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru of Serta Larungar also engage in this practice, sometimes purchasing and releasing thousands of fish into the lakes and rivers around Chengdu.

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