The status of women in old and new Tibet is an increasingly popular topic, with studies headed by Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik (eds.), Women in Tibet, including Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s chapter on women in expressive culture (outlined here), Charlene Makley on nuns (cf. her book The violence of liberation), and Robbie Barnett on women in contemporary politics.
Jamyang Norbu has long been a challenging voice in the Tibetan exile community (see The Lhasa ripper, The enchanting world of Tibetan opera, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes). I also appreciate his
a “rambling essay is based on a rambling talk” that he gave to Tibetan students in Delhi on 1st April (sic) 2019.
I made a hash of my talk. A 20-hour flight, jet lag, and an injudicious self-prescribed nostrum [excellent expression—Ed.], didn’t help. But the hundred or so curious, outspoken, eager-to-know students just brushed aside my incoherence, and bombarded me with arguments and questions—even on issues considered terrifyingly taboo in our subservient exile society. I had a great time.
Indeed, the article makes a refreshing complement to more arcane academic studies. His typically virtuosic discussion mainly concerns old Tibet, with notes on the Maoist era. He opens by noting that, by contrast with other Asian societies,
in numerous accounts of visitors and travellers to pre-1950 Tibet one comes across positive and even laudatory comments on the role of women in Tibetan society.
He cites the work of Yudru Tsomo (Sichuan University) on the traditional role of women in business and trade. Socially too,
not only did the lady of the house receive guests and socialise with them, it was in fact required of women to dine and drink with male guests and take part in the conversation.
He notes that
Such social freedoms were not only the preserve of the aristocracy but widespread in all classes. In Lhasa, women drank and made merry publicly during the summer and autumn picnic seasons. […]
Once as a schoolboy in Darjeeling, I passed by a large group of Tibetan women on the Chowrastha road. They had gone for a Sangsol (incense offering) ceremony at the Observatory Hill, or Gangchen as Tibetans called it, the site of the oldest Buddhist temple in the district. They were returning home, arm-in arm, singing songs, strolling down the main Chowrastha and Nehru Road where all the posh stores were located. They were dressed in their best silks and jewelry and all happily drunk, oblivious of the amused stares of passers-by. Some sheepish looking Tibetan men and servants accompanied them.
He also discusses social freedom and equality, and legal issues such as property rights and divorce. As he observes,
Financial independence gave Tibetan women the freedom to ignore or disregard male (particularly priestly) condemnation of their lifestyles, in particular the use of Western cosmetics that were in vogue from the 1930s.
He cites Alexandra David-Neel (1934), who observed that women
had achieved a de facto equality despite law and scripture unfavourable to them, this by virtue of innate independence and physical stamina…Tibetan women had mastered a harsh environment and gained sway over their men. Tibetan women were clever and brave and therefore valued by their husbands. It also helped that a large portion of the retail trade was in women’s hands.
Even after the Chinese invasion,
In the mid-1950s, when motor-biking became the rage in the Holy City, one of the first and most glamorous of bikers was the celebrated Lhasa beauty, the younger Lady Lhalu Sonam Deki, who roared around the holy city on a black BSA 500.
Women in religious life
He is careful not to portray Tibet as some kind of feminist paradise.
Women had no major role in the great religious institutions, particularly in the Gelukpa monastic universities, and also in the clerical power structure of the Tibetan government. There were important female incarnations as Samding Dorje Phagmo and also some important nunneries, but these were admittedly minor compared to the scale and importance of the male priestly institutions.
Still, as shown in several chapters of Women in Tibet, women played an important and recognised role in spiritual practice and teaching, Jamyang Norbu adduces early figures like the dakani Yeshe Tsogyal, the 11th-century Tantric practitioner Machik Labdron, the Samding Dorje Phagmo lineage (see the work of Hildegard Diemberger), and the Nyingma teacher Shukseb Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953). As he notes, female spiritual teachers play a prominent role in Tibetan opera.
Women in politics and nation building
Again, while women played no role in the formal official, political, and military life of old Tibet, they were involved in national political life from early times—such as Semarkar, sister of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (547?–649), and Trimalo Triteng, consort of emperor Manglon Mangtsen, the grandson of Songtsen Gampo. Here Jamyang Norbu refers us to the work of Helga Uebach, which again features in Women in Tibet.
In modern times, the Lhasa aristocrat Yeshi Dolma became queen of Sikkim in 1882.
Women in war and revolution
Women played a significant role in the resistance against the Chinese. In the 1930s Gyari Cheme Dolma rose up against the Sichuan warlord/governor Liu Wenhui.
During the 1956 Uprisings in Eastern Tibet we know of at least two women, Ani Pachen Lemdatsang of Gonjo and Gyari Dorje Yudon of Nyarong, who personally lead their male tribal warriors in violent insurrections against the PLA.
The “female warriors” Galingshar Chöla and Gurteng Kunsang were principal figures in the Women’s March on 12th March 1959 against the escalation of Chinese repression. Jamyang Norbu cites a joint statement by two eyewitnesses in 1961:
On October 21, 1959, a 60-year old nun Galingshar Anila was taken around the Barkhor in Lhasa. The Chinese ordered the people to beat her but no one would do so. Then the Chinese gathered some thieves and beggars, gave them some money and had them beat her at her house… She died on the 31st of the same month.
Gurteng Kunsang was imprisoned, but remained defiant; she was executed along with fifteen other prisoners in 1970.
The story of Trinley Chödrön’s role in the 1969 Nyemo uprising is documented by Melvyn Goldstein. And recently, women as well as men have self-immolated in protest at Chinese rule.
Women in old Tibet certainly had more freedoms and rights than their counterparts in India, China, and the rest of Asia, and perhaps even more than in Victorian England. Of course it would be wrong to claim that women in Tibet were equal to men in the full contemporary sense—an equality that in spite of tremendous gains over the years, women in present-day democracies still strenuously contend they have not fully realised.
Well, as tends to be my way, this summary is superfluous—you can read the article!