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thoughts on the intersection of Gender, Feminism and Tibetan Culture

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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

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

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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