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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Will the real Tibetan woman please stand up?

March 8, 2010

By Tenzin Nyinjey
March 7, 2010

The movement for women's rights, widely known as
feminism, is a relatively recent development. It
was only a century or so ago that leading
feminist writers and intellectuals first emerged
in Europe, fighting for women's independence,
rights and dignity. Thanks to the incomparable
hard work and sacrifice made by writers such as
Mary Wollstonecraft (she committed suicide) and
Emma Goldman, the world started appreciating the
importance of granting equal political, economic and social rights to women.

It's striking to learn that women in Europe and
the US were awarded their franchise rights, that
is the right to vote in electing their own choice
of government, much later than their male
counterparts. Similarly, women had to go through
much pain and suffering before they were given
equal wages for doing the same kind of jobs
performed by their male counterparts. It is
important to emphasize it here that some men also
played critical roles in history to advocate for
women's rights and equality. Notable among them,
which deserves to be mentioned here, was the
radical French novelist Flaubert. His
masterpiece, Madam Bovary, had a lasting impact
in generating our understanding about, and
empathy with, the kind of repression women had to
endure because of a world which was increasingly
male-dominated and male chauvinistic. Flaubert
was persecuted and almost lost his head for composing this work.

Compared to the status of women in Europe, that
of women in Asian societies fared much worse. We
are familiar with the evil customs of binding
women's feet in China and the system of Sati
practiced in ancient India. Even today, one of
the most nagging issues tormenting women in China
and India is to find out a suitable husband. Many
girls in rural India are not able to endure the
psychological trauma inflicted on them for not
being able to marry at the 'right' time, so much
so that many commit suicides, sometimes taking
along with them even their whole family.
Similarly, the pressure of dowry is taking away
as many lives of Indian women as those killed by traffic accidents.

Where does the status of Tibetan women stand in
relation to that of women from the West, India
and China? There's no disputing the fact that
Tibetan women are not as free and independent as
those in the West. But, in comparison to their
counterparts in India and China, Tibetan women's
status is a lot better; in short they have more
freedom and rights than those enjoyed by women in
these countries. One important reason could be
Tibetan Buddhism, which, theoretically at least,
preached love, care and empathy, not just to
fellow humans, but also to all other sentient
beings as well. Such a culture has indeed been
relatively helpful in mitigating the harsh
treatment that is normally given to the less
powerful sections of the society. However, this
doesn't means that all is clear blue sky when it
comes to women's status in our society. Women
indeed are discriminated against, although on a much more subtle level.

The most outrageous form of discrimination and
inequality practiced against our women can be
seen in the arena of sexual freedom. Although
Tibetan women have made tremendous stride in this
regard, they are still not as free as their male
counterparts. This is most visible when it comes
to upholding 'moral virtues'. We all are familiar
that when it comes to relationships, whether
between husbands or wives or between boyfriends
and girl friends, by and large, it is woman who
is expected and pressurized to uphold 'moral
virtues and disciplines.' We are all familiar
with the fact that our men are still obsessed
with virginity! Moreover, it is an open secret
that when it comes to issues of adultery,
extra-marital affairs and divorce, women are
often discriminated against. A woman found
'guilty' of indulging in these affairs are looked
down upon as not having 'virtues,' and are often
ostracized in our society, without making any
efforts to understand the simmering underlying
issues which compelled her to such
'transgressions'; whereas men committing such
affairs are taken for granted, and even normally
given a sort of iconic status that needs to be emulated by others.

They say suppression of sexuality is one of the
greatest crimes perpetrated against women in our
conflict-ridden world. Pleasure of making love
and enjoying it is God's greatest gift. It is in
this context that Tibetan women are much
discriminated against. In other words Tibetan
women are still deprived of complete sexual
freedom and sexual happiness. In suppression of
this right, that is the right to enjoy free and
joyful sex, our 'culture' is playing a crude
role. All cultures and customs are primarily
based on religion, and religion, by and large, is
a human creation that is used by the powerful
sections of the society, as against the ideals of
religion itself, to dominate the less powerful
ones; in short religion is often misused by men
to prevent the full blossoming of women's freedom and right.

One example that can be given is the concept of
'shame' and 'modesty,' so much exemplified and
upheld as sacrosanct in our religious culture, as
if they descended straight above from the sky!
Women are invariably expected to be 'shy' and
'modest' when it comes to sexuality, while men
can be open, blunt and even aggressive in this
regard. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see
that man manipulate this 'shame theory' to
suppress woman's own sexuality and thus its own
unique identity. Here, I don't imply women should
act wild like bitches, throwing all their sense
and intelligence in the wind; what I am trying to
insinuate is the subtle manipulation of 'modesty'
and 'shyness' by men to control women's sexuality and freedom.

So what can Tibetan women do to overcome the
discrimination that is meted out against them? In
other words, what should Tibetan women do to
regain their true identity, which has the
tremendous potential to change the world for
better? The only solution is nothing but
education, an education that is not just confined
within the boundaries of the Tibetan world. Apart
from having a critical reappraisal of their
traditional culture, aspects of which men
manipulate to control them, such as shame and
modesty, Tibetan women must venture out into new
worlds and new ideas by absorbing the works of
feminist writers from other societies. By
learning from the writings of authors I mentioned
in the beginning of my essay, Mary Wollstonecraft
and Emma Goldman, Tibetan women will be garlanded
with new and refreshing ideas that will help them
advance their true freedom and independence.
Remember, all the great discoveries in this
world, including the concept of human rights and
freedom, are created by ideas. Ditto with the emancipation of women!
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