Gendered Tibet

thoughts on the intersection of Gender, Feminism and Tibetan Culture

Category: Masculinity

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

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

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

On Unethical Silence and Interceding in Violent Conflicts

Content Warning: description of domestic violence

I knew something was wrong. Dekyi and I always danced in the town square every day at six o’clock. She even prepared her dinner early in order to be on time for circle dancing. She was naturally graceful, her fingers completing the curve of her arms as she danced, every move perfect, smiling, joyful. She was considered a leader in the local dance circle and someone to watch if you didn’t know the steps. Everyone knew and respected her for being a successful local businesswoman, as well as for her Buddhist piety.

She cared for me like a sister, worrying when I left my ‘home base’ (her hotel) to travel in Kham alone. She gave me protection strings and amulets, and a paper with mantras and spells on it, which she exhorted me to keep on my person at all times while I traveled. I did stop having car accidents after that.

We had often made dinner together, going to the market and sautéing vegetarian dishes in the small private room where the hotel security guard slept at night. She liked to put on her favorite Tibetan music videos; mostly the ones that praised the lamas of Serta Larung Gar, where she worshipped every summer, living with the nuns.

It was in that room that I would find her, curled up and crying on the ground, while her husband beat her in a drunken rage. From that room we would run, holding hands as we climbed up the mountain, pulling each other, up and away from him. Her friends almost convinced me that everything was fine, although they clearly knew it was not. They had known her for much longer and were aware of her husband’s drinking and womanizing habits.

Although I met her every day like clockwork, I almost missed it, almost didn’t walk the two hundred feet to her hotel to see if something was wrong. It wasn’t the first time that this had happened. Everyone in that town knew each other’s business.

When I reached the hotel, I could hear her crying as her little sister tried to plead with him to stop. Ran inside to see her being hit by her husband, son of the most powerful local businessman in town. Saw him kick her, and stagger drunkenly to fall on the bed. The bed that we usually sat on, laughing and talking.
I had never seen him or heard of him before, three months into living in this town, into being accepted into the daily fabric of these people’s lives. I didn’t even know that she was married. She lived like a nun, and none of our friends had ever mentioned him. Silences are meaningful, too. But everyone knew who he was, including the local police, who were used to talking him down.

First I called his father.

He wasn’t willing to come collect his son, citing the privilege of marital privacy. Nobody would shame him by actually witnessing his actions. What about her, I said…why should she suffer in silence, without even the help of her friends, who were a mere two hundred feet away, pretending ignorance for the sake of his pride. There’s something about the acknowledgement that has power. Violence witnessed by others cannot be obscured in the same way. Without the inertia that concretizes around these silences, we can move forward to intervene, breaking the stigmatization that leaves victims to fend for themselves.

Then I called the police. It’s almost never a good idea in any country, but I did it.

Dekyi was pleading with him, begging him to calm down. As he staggered up from the bed again, I placed my body in front of hers, gathered up every ounce of my imagined privileged status as a foreigner, and stood my ground between them, glaring at him. I was scared, but I felt nearly protected in that instant by my “status,” by the fact that if he hurt a foreigner he just might face real consequences. That’s what I believed at the time. In truth, there’s nothing that truly protects a woman in these circumstances no matter where she lives. I could see in his eyes the calculation taking place – of whether or not he could cross that line, whether or not he could use violence on me, too.

The police arrived. They tried to soothe him.

They were taken aback when they realized who called them, and whom they had been called to police. “Silly foreigner,” they said, “that’s between a husband and wife. Who are we to interfere?”

It’s not a bad question. Who are we to insert ourselves into others’ lives? But more importantly, who are we if we stay away?

Of course, I yelled back at the police. Told them angrily in my taxi-driver inflected Sichuanese that they were the ones who misunderstood, and that he was not legally allowed to beat her. She’s a person, I yelled, jabbing my finger in the officer’s face in my own small fit of impotent rage. But law can be an empty signifier in a frontier town.

When I realized that the police weren’t going to detain the son of a locally important personage, I realized the boundary of my privilege and how stupid I had been to expect anyone to defend her.

I grabbed Dekyi’s hand and we ran up the mountain to the only place I could think of where he wouldn’t follow us to claim his wife; the foreign missionary hostel, something of a liminal space in the complex layers of local political geography. We spent that night in a place neither of us had slept before. Her hotel no longer represented home, a place where we had found wholeness and comfort.

Nobody wanted to shame her, that’s what they said afterwards. They had mostly good intentions. But she and her sister had to deal with that violent man alone, without the support of anyone in their community, without recourse to the systems of law and governance that were supposed to endow them with rights. We become imbricated in systems of gendered violence, turning a blind eye. All of us, regardless of where we live.

So why did I intercede, when everything and everyone told me not to? Partly because I knew I could use my position to protect her if only for that moment; partly out of guilt for every time I’d been afraid to speak up or help another woman in need. And because I know exactly how it feels to be the target of a man’s anger.

I could feel our friends’ disapproval of my active interference in what they considered a private matter. As for myself, I have considered this carefully over the years since this incident, still wondering if I did the right thing. Wondering if crossing that line was a violation of cultural rules around taboo silences that I, an outsider, should have respected. But it is the recollection of the look of pained relief on her face when I grabbed her hand and we ran together that reassures me.

Ultimately, I have to do what I feel is right for the person I am truly responsible to – my friend, my fellow human. Cultural relativism can leave us believing we are doing justice to some vague ideal of so-called respect even as we betray ourselves, letting silence replace the necessary ethical considerations. In my opinion, I would be failing my friend if I let such relativistic tendencies silence me, just because we are from different cultures. Ethically, I consider male violence an international problem, a common thread that runs through women’s experience of the world, and wherever I see it I will fight back to the full extent of my ability. If I were to suspend this ethical imperative merely because I am in someone else’s cultural world, I would be betraying my commitment to feminism.

After that day, he couldn’t hide anymore. Her uncle, a lama, negotiated a separation between them. Now she is a nun, and I will see her when I return to Eastern Tibet.

Three Accidents Later: A Short Account of Traveling as an American Woman in Kham

I’ll probably never forget the look on her face as she raised the tent flap. I must have been quite a sight to behold. The young nomad ushered me in, gesturing towards some cushions next to the stove, telling me to sit down with an exclamation of pity, “A-ka!” I have a picture from the moment after I sat down. Not a mental image, but an actual picture that my friend snapped – though she herself had dislocated her shoulder in the accident. In this picture, I was wearing a light blue long-sleeved shirt covered with a waterfall of blood, and jeans that likewise sported gore that had fallen from my nose. I doubt she will forget the look on my face, nor the day that a van filled with four Americans, a Chinese man, and a White Lama crashed outside her summer tent.

That was the third accident I had in Tibet. The first was a minor rear-end on a bus traveling the winding Tea-Horse road between Chengdu and Dartsemdo. The second accident happened between Dartsemdo and Garndze. I was on the bus during a particularly bad monsoon season in 2010. As the driver pushed the bus through a thick mud puddle, I yelled in my best Sichuan dialect, trying to warn the bus driver that my window was about to collide with an errant winch, attached to the marooned truck we were inching past. That window exploded with a pop in my face, spraying glass shards everywhere. Some landed on a woman with a swaddled baby sitting in the seat in front of me.

I remember climbing down the aisle dodging suitcases, glass fragments falling from my pants and underpants as I shook them out, treading on glass and discarded chicken feet bones, yelling a steady stream of questions at the Chinese driver who had misjudged his right rear flank so badly. He was unimpressed, although I continued to curse and gesture at the woman and baby covered in glass to illustrate the seriousness of the situation. Clearly hungover, he shrugged and gestured at his right eye, telling me he had an infection that was impairing his vision. He didn’t give a shit about the woman or her baby getting covered in glass. The Tibetan man acting as backup driver patiently explained to the crazy foreigner that you can’t just yell at men. Foreigners just don’t understand. I responded by asking him why he didn’t care that the man’s carelessness resulted in a glass-covered mother and child, then I sat down in glass-free spot in the aisle. I got off at the next town even though I was 8 hours from my destination. I wasn’t getting back on that bus.

After I gave up taking buses, I stayed in Garndze for a while. At that time, it was a small town, which has since expanded past the one main street, old streets broken into rubble to make way for the new. I made friends among the nuns. I spent most days studying Tibetan books at the restaurant owned by the nunnery, which has since closed due to the relocation of the main road.

At the local bookstore, I found many texts of interest, including Gendun Chöphel’s translation of the Ramayana. Reading that small red book at the restaurant got me more than a few quizzical looks and comments from monks who didn’t know I could also understand spoken Tibetan. I didn’t mind.

One older nun managed the cash box at the restaurant. She was very fond of my copy of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru’s Tibetan-Chinese dictionary, joining me in my studies every day to improve her Tibetan. As a child, she had only been educated in the local Chinese-language school. Several young girls and one former nun served the customers and two worked in the kitchen, sleeping on the wide Tibetan wooden couches at night, covered with carpets, after they had cleaned up. They were kind and shy at first, but soon delighted in bringing me pot after pot of black tea. I learned their dialect, eating lunch and dinner with them: usually fried vegetable dishes from the greenhouse, and plates of the local pö-tro momo, a Tibetan whole-wheat dumpling filled with butter and potato. We bought guazi, or sunflower seeds from the market downstairs and shared them. They taught me how to crack guazi like a professional using only my teeth, spitting out the spiced shell fragments on the floor to be swept up later.

I lived in Garnzde for a few months, finally mastering each girl’s separate regional dialect enough to have small conversations and to understand their repeated admonitions that I needed to wear long underwear even in the summer. I told them about my hometown in Florida, where it’s so hot all-year round that I never even owned a pair of long underwear growing up. They asked about my parents and friends, curious about the knowledge travelers passing through their restaurant could share with them. I showed them as many pictures as I had. They showed concern and care for me, admonishing me not to walk alone at night, to carry a rock for the stray dogs, and to watch out for the local kuma, or bandits.

One girl in particular, the former nun, had a very different way of pronouncing important words. It took me over a month to figure out that “hö” was “cho”- the equivalent of the English word “you” and a fundamental subject of conversation. Finally, one day, she tentatively pointed to me, repeating gently, “hö.” Tibetans are taught not to point, generally speaking, otherwise that misunderstanding might have been solved a lot sooner. We laughed and she grabbed my hand, holding it in the way that Tibetan friends do.

As I neared the end of my three-month tourist visa, I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to get a work visa from any of the local schools in order to live in Tibetan areas full-time. There just weren’t any businesses in Tibet allowed to hire foreigners. If I wanted to stay, I had to get a job in a Chinese city, most likely teaching English. So, I planned one last pilgrimage around Kham before settling in one of the largest cities in the world. Some friends were headed up my way from Chengdu, so I agreed to take them on a tour of the roads I had gotten to know so well.

That’s when I met the White Lama.

The first time I saw him, I tried to avoid him, thinking, perhaps disrespectfully, “Pass.” I don’t generally make a habit of befriending strange foreigners in Tibet. Perhaps it was karma, then, that inspired one of my friends whom I was shepherding along the wild roads of Kham to invite him to ride in the van we had arranged for the return trip to Chengdu. Needless to say, I had mixed feelings from the moment I saw that it was him, the White Lama whom I had observed sitting in the central market the day before. With a flowing white mane, dressed in a maroon upper robe, and a white lower robe in the style of Nyingmapa yogis, he assented easily to, and in fact was quite used to, the typical Tibetan deference to a man in robes. That was to play a major factor in the third accident.

We made good time for about an hour before the driver announced we would be switching cars. The hairs on the back of my neck immediately bristled. The White Lama, seated in the place of honor in the front of the van, dismissed my concerns with a wave of his hand. The driver had little reason to address the concerns of a young woman. That was the end of my limited influence, acquired through the novel act of speaking their dialect. A hard-won talent that was easily one-upped by his performance. He had donned the red and white robes that signal claim to religious achievements, titles, and education. What cause did he have to dissect his privilege in that situation? So, the original driver that we had negotiated with passed us off to another driver friend whose “car didn’t need repair.” Typical bait-and-switch. How does anybody fall for this? These are the type of thoughts I had later that day, as that second car skidded into the mountain, flipping over and tossing its passengers about like rag dolls.

When we stopped for lunch at Bamé, right before the construction roadblock, the driver expressed his exhaustion, yawning and stretching through lunch. We piled back in the van after a lunch of chili-oil with boiled hot dogs, which I didn’t touch, and vegetable soup, which I gratefully drank. We piled back into the van. I had traded my middle-row seat with the person who had been traveling in the back for the first half of the journey. There was a metal pipe acting as a brace for the row of seats in front of me which would later collide with the bridge of my nose.

Suddenly, I realized we had switched drivers. Things weren’t looking good. Our Chinese traveling companion, who had not spoken for the whole trip, was in the driver’s seat. The Tibetan driver stretched out in the middle row, planning to take a nap for the next two-hour stint of the journey. After all, he had an eight-hour drive back to Chengdu if he wanted to pick up more passengers the next day. Feeling rather responsible for my three friends who spoke nothing but English, as the new driver fumbled with the gears, I asked the driver if the new guy even knew how to drive.

“Of course, he’s Chinese, it’s fine. People like that know how to drive. I’m tired, I need to sleep,” the driver complained as he checked his text messages and reclined his seat.

I appealed to the White Lama.

My request for intercession wasn’t granted. My concerns, though becoming louder and more vocal, continued to go unheeded by the sleepy driver. The White Lama sat in the passenger seat, seemingly unconcerned as the new driver ground the gears of the van. I realized he didn’t even know how to drive a stick-shift.

It began to rain.

I began to beg.

“Please, help me convince him this is not okay,” I supplicated the White Lama. A burgeoning sense of dread came upon me as we rounded a corner, oily tires skittering in the gentle summer rain. He ignored me. All the men did – the lama, the new driver, and the old driver trying to nap.

The slick concrete split the narrowly paved path between river to the left and mountain to the right. As we curved to the right, I could see a steep descent ahead which buckled inwards, inclined towards the mountain. The rain had fallen just enough to make the poor-quality concrete slippery.

Screaming this time, in Tibetan, I begged the driver. I begged the White Lama to use his influence on the driver as a monastic to convince him to let us out of the car “Please stop, I want to get out, this is not safe, that man doesn’t know how to drive!”

I tried.

At least we didn’t end up in the river. Could have been worse.

As it was, I still wasn’t happy about the outcome.

I remember the impact. The bridge of my nose smashed by the bridge of my glasses against that metal pipe scaffolding the seat back in front me. The world spinning as the van skidded and flipped.

I remember my friend tumbling sideways as the mountaineer crushed and dislocated her shoulder, as they both fell on me. I remember the car flipping over, coming to rest next to a mountain outcropping. I was convinced to the last millisecond that we would tumble down the embankment into the river but luckily, we hit the mountain.

As the van came to rest in front of a small summer tent after crashing against that outcropping, I reached for my surprisingly bloody nose. Both drivers climbed out through the shattered side window that had unexpectedly become the top exit. The White Lama climbed out of the passenger door that was now top-side. My friends climbed out next. Me next, please. As I went to grab a friendly hand and hoist myself out of the wreckage, holding my bloody nose with the other, I was halted.

The White Lama pushed my friends away, and wanted to examine my nose before anyone helped hoist me out of the broken window. I wasn’t having it. I wanted out of that busted van.

To this day, I’m not quite sure why he waved everyone away and insisted on personally checking my bleeding nose before I was allowed to climb out. After all, there was a registered nurse and trained first aid specialist standing right next to him. What I remember clearly is being filled with rage at the prospect of someone preventing me from getting out of the car wreck that I had predicted.

But that’s karma, right?

I remember climbing out of the car as the blood gushed down my chest, wondering at the amount of blood a nose could produce. After we flagged down a passing bus an hour later, I got an x-ray which nobody at the hospital could read accurately anyways, so I never knew whether it was broken or not. The doctor had already gone home for the night.

I remember that nomad’s face as she lifted the flap of her tent, staring in wonderment at the blood-red stream covering my surprised pale face.

Three accidents later, I returned to Chengdu, hitching a ride on one of those buses, this time for free.


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