The status of Tibetan women in exile: Why denial, silence and copying Marilyn Monroe empower no-one


By Adele Wilde-Blavatsky

Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery - it's the sincerest form of learning.”
- George Bernard Shaw


The male-dominated, sexist media would often have us believe that men prefer to be single and women desperately seek a marriage partner or mate. However, the empirical evidence often suggests the opposite. Generally single, western women are reported to be psychologically much happier than their male counterparts. Therefore, it was not surprising to read in a new research report, 'The Status of Tibetan Women in Exile', that 75% of unmarried Tibetan women preferred to be single. There are many reasons for women choosing singlehood over marriage but when being married means doing the majority of unpaid domestic work and childcare, being unable to pursue higher education and work opportunities, as well as being considered a man's property, then one can hardly blame women for making that choice.



The report on women's status in exile

The report was produced this month by the Social and Resource Development Fund of the CTA (and funded by Norwegian Church Aid) as part of the CTA's Women's Empowerment Program (WEP) that started five years ago.  It is based on a survey of Tibetan women (age 18-60 years) living in seven Tibetan settlements in India. The data collected is representative of only 6% of the total Tibetan women's population in India. Tenzin Tseyang, who led the production of the report, told me that a possible reason for the low response rate to the survey:

'As the Tibetan community is very mobile, where women hardly stay within their households in all seasons, our field investigators met with the challenges that many women are out of their homes during the survey period.'

In terms of some of the key findings, the leadership role played by Tibetan women, both at local and central levels, was reported to be 'very low':

The leadership among Tibetan women is one area that needs serious consideration as there is a general opinion that women participate less in leadership roles even at a family level.'

In terms of marriage, early marriage, i.e. below 19 years old, is widespread in the community. Out of all the married respondents, only 7% of them had married between 30-40 years old.  Potentially xenophobic attitudes were reported too, with the increase in 'inter-caste' and 'inter-religious' marriages found to be a 'concern' in the community.

Surprisingly, the report produced little data or evidence of sexual and physical abuses of Tibetan women in exile. When I asked Tseyang about this, she stated that:

 It was asked during the Key Informant interview but somehow we failed to receive this information. This may be because we didn't ask very direct questions. Yet we have plans to do further studies specifically focusing on these areas and use better tools to garner these responses.

Yet, the report still surprisingly claims that domestic violence is 'not very high as it takes place only when the spouse is alcoholic'. In addition, the only specific reference to a domestic violence case quotes a field staff member almost blaming a woman for staying with her violent, alcoholic husband:

'Perhaps I will understand her answer better when I become a mother....but I thought I would rather leave my husband than make the child suffer along with me'.

There has been a vast amount of psychological research and feminist analysis done on the subject of why abused women stay with their abusers, so it is worrying that a field staff member had such an attitude, and this may also explain why data on abuse was hard to collect. 

In terms of 'positives', the research indicated that the educational levels of younger Tibetan women were much better than previous generations and that 74% of women were satisfied with access to health services. The recommendations were certainly helpful in terms of highlighting the need to address the social, economic, health, education and domestic issues facing Tibetan women in India. Dhardon Sharling, a Tibetan Parliamentarian in exile said:

'The [report] is a flagship production, the first of its kind ever and for the administration to embark on something like this is laudable despite its shortcomings, such as catering to only 6% of exile women population in India. But we cannot expect a comprehensive work at the very first attempt.'

Tibetan Women's Association talk

I also attended a Tibet Awareness talk held a couple of weeks ago in Dharamsala, entitled the status of Tibetan women in exile.  Although it was interesting to hear about exile projects for women, TWA staff member Nyima Lhamo, focused mainly on the abuses of Tibetan women by the Chinese as opposed to the abuse of Tibetan women within the community. As Tibetan feminist, Kunsang Dolma said about the talk in 'Pointing Fingers at China is no solution for Tibetan women:

'The exclusive focus on condemning Chinese abuses without any discussion of problems within the community was a disappointment. It was frustrating to be in Dharamsala listening to a long talk about the status of Tibetan women that did not mention abuse of Tibetan women right there in Dharamsala even once.'

Earlier this month, Kunsang Dolma also published a heart-breaking interview with a Tibetan woman from Tibet, detailing the abuse and neglect she suffered within the Tibetan community. Shortly after the interview was published, Dolma wrote about how the interview had to be taken down due to social pressure on the woman for sharing her story.  It is cultural and social norms such as these, which dis-empower and silence the voices of many brave and abused Tibetan women that Dolma rightly argues need to be addressed. For example, I asked Nyima Lhamo what resources and facilities there were for Tibetan females in India who had been raped or sexually or physically abused. She stated that there is currently no women's helpline or centre for women to get advice and support from. However, such projects she said were hopefully in the pipeline.

On the positive side, the TWA and a few Tibetan female politicians in exile have been instrumental in protesting against the cover-ups and injustice in both the Tenzingang case and the recent case of child rape in Mundgod. The TWA also launched a year-long project on the Legal Empowerment of Tibetan women in exile, aimed at encouraging Tibetan women to understand and use their legal rights when it comes to violence and abuse. However, without any in-depth, reliable data, it is hard to say how many abuses (or deaths) of Tibetan females in exile are going  unreported or covered up.

The 'Marilyn Monroe' poster

On a different (but nonetheless relevant ) note, a controversial 5th Tibet Film Festival 2013 poster was also launched this month, featuring a young Tibetan women with chuba flying up around her waist, emulating the famous pose of Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. On social media, a TWA staff member (and others) immediately condemned the poster as sexist and offensive to Tibetan women and culture. Lhasa Apso, author of the satirical website Chome Ringluk mocked the poster (and the contradictory and hypocritical reactions to it) in 'Tibetans in exile desecrate Hollywood's most sacred icon'. On Facebook, one 'educated' Tibetan man, employed byt the Tibetan exile authorities, praised the poster, apparently oblivious to the feminist thought and analysis on sexual objectification of women in the media. The same man then proceeded to dismiss western criticism of the poster as white, 'yellow head' racist imperialism, ignoring the fact his employment was mainly supported and funded by white, westerners and that the poster itself was emulating one of the most famous white, 'yellow head' icons of western culture.

Although there was significant criticism of the poster by Tibetan women (and men) on social media, publicly, there has been silence from the women working in the area of women's rights and empowerment. Both the TWA and the Women's Empowerment Desk, declined to provide any public comment on it. Dhardon Sharling responded that that she found the Film Festival poster 'very attractive...but the poster though gorgeous, would befit a film festival celebrating Tibetan glamour and oomph.'

As I wrote previously about the Miss Tibet beauty pageant, it is disappointing that the most juvenile and patriarchal aspects of contemporary media culture, such as the sexual objectification of women, are being held up by some as examples of female liberation and empowerment. This is especially sad when the important, practical issues such as higher levels of participation of women in politics and leadership roles, greater access to family planning and contraception, and breaking down the social taboos around divorce, domestic violence, sexual violence and marital rape still remain. As Joy Goh-Mah says in The Objectification of Women – It Goes much Further than Sexy Pictures:

It is frightening to consider just how deeply entrenched objectification of women really goes. We must certainly combat sexual objectification, but the battle will not end there. Women are objectified in more profound ways than we realise, and we must tear down every entwined shred of the patriarchy, in order to achieve our modest goal of being recognized and treated as human beings.

Which means objectification of women cannot be blamed on western cultural influences. The centuries-old repression of Tibetan Buddhist nuns and women in pre-1959 Tibet is clear evidence that objectification of women is not just about sexy pictures, Bollywood or MTV.  Yet, astonishingly, neither the recent report nor the TWA talk mentioned the plight of Tibetan Buddhist nuns in exile or Tibet. A SARD field staff member stated that:

'Nuns were hard to question survey as they were too shy and unsure to answer anything other than their health status. I hope there will be some more surveys especially for them in future.'

So,even though many initiatives to improve the status and opportunities of Tibetan nuns have arisen as the result of the groundbreaking efforts of western, female Buddhist practitioners, such as the German first female Tibetan Buddhist Geshe Kalsang Wangmo and British woman Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, it is not clear what Tibetan exile women themselves are (or have been) doing on this issue and their views on it.

One can only hope that those with influence and power in the exile community will seriously consider the TWA and Women's Empowerment recommendations and publicly question examples of sexism and objectification, as and when they arise. If people want to emulate a Hollywood actress, how about Ashley Judd, who recently said:

Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.'

When men (and women) recognise the roles they play in the objectification and repression of women, then change can really start to happen.  As a woman, a feminist, a human rights activist, a mother, Tibet supporter and member of the Tibetan community in exile, I sincerely hope this essay helps support that work and discussion and moving the change forward too.




NOTE— The author is an independent writer based in U.K and India





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