Gendered Tibet

thoughts on the intersection of Gender, Feminism and Tibetan Culture

Category: Self-representation

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

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