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Gender Violence, Leadership, and the Modern Tibetan Woman

posted May 30, 2014, 6:28 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jun 2, 2014, 9:52 AM ]

By Dawa Lokyitsang

The last few decades has seen a rise in Tibetan women’s voices that has led to an increase in women’s leadership positions in the male dominated Tibetan state apparatus in exile—Central Tibetan Administrations (CTA)<FN1> and leading Tibetan NGOs in Dharamsala, India. This is in part due to the exile/diasporic Tibetan state apparatus’s longstanding cultivation/fostering in both its male and female de facto citizens of a desire to rise to the level of “leadership” in order to politicize Tibet and to serve an already disenfranchised community of Tibetans in exile following Chinese invasion in 1959. But what happens when Tibetan women loyal to their community desire subjectivities not endorsed by the exile government? 

Leadership, throughout Tibetan history, has shifted through gendered terrains. In Janet Gyatso’s Women in Tibet, an edited collection, Gyatso explores lives of leading female figures throughout Tibetan history. Gyatso’s book details the lives of women who became recognized for their leading roles in arenas such as politics and spirituality despite traditional Tibetan notions of women as “low-births” (2005). In regions such as Kham, stories existed of armed women that led tribal men into wars over tribal feud and territory. Women such as Tsering Drola, Khangsar Yangjan Kandrol, and Tonpon of upper Nyarong Gyari Chimi Drolma, who were known in the region as, “The Three Devils of Yangchen Lama of Khangsar Tribe.” <FN2>  However, the women in these historic narratives were the exception, not the norm. Women in Gyatso and Shakya’s narratives were remarkable, in that they defied the gendered norms of their time period that were dictated by their communities; challenging communal beliefs and those in power. But their stories reveal that throughout Tibetan history, female leaders, prior to the Chinese invasion, were not desired but resisted. However, the Chinese invasion and exodus to exile presented Tibetan women with opportunities to assert their own desires to become leaders

    In contemporary exile Tibetan understanding, leadership at its base involves individuals that achieve professionalism through education, who aspire towards leadership by using those learned professional skills to serve the Tibetan society by engaging in communal empowerment and/or politicizing Tibet. Leadership in this context is achieved through modern educational and/or economic investment in the self to access avenues that could empower the individual, in every sense, to become self-making. Such emphasis on education and economics affords Tibetans with, what Carla Freeman calls, “neoliberal mandate for flexibility in all realms of life,” which suggests that the individual be provided with “the capacity to constantly retool, retrain, and respond to the shifting tides of the global marketplace” (2012;88). However, for Tibetans in exile, such “flexibility” was a necessity needed to meet “the shifting tides of” challenges that Tibetans in exile had to face as refugees following the Chinese invasion in 1959.

    In reviewing Tibetan women’s history in exile through Tibetan Women’s Association’s (TWA) activities, the female leader figure between the late 60s to the 80s, it is clear that when the first generation of refugees escaping Chinese invasion were trying to meet the challenges of having been exiled and trying to rebuilt community in exile, female leadership was embodied in the mother-figure. Women from the elite families, such as the Dalai Lama’s mother and sisters, fulfilled the roles of mother figures whose caring-labor sustained the lives of children left orphaned from the journey following invasion and the harsh conditions associated with poverty and disease from which many Tibetans perished. While elite men went into the international arena to secure international support and aid for the crisis of invasion and refugees, the women stayed within the refugee’s camps to meet the challenges of refugees on the grounds.

Aid secured by government officials was used to start boarding school institutions such as the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) and Central School for Tibetans (CST), these institutions were both caring centers to sustain orphaned life and to train them through education to become capable members/leaders that would sustain the newly emerging refugee community. Indeed, between the 80s and 90s, children sustained in these institutions that were funded from the aid secured by the men and lives cared for by the women began populating the growing Tibetan community as mothers, fathers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and other leading figures that would serve community and its political message regarding China and Tibet.

During this time, TWA, as the only NGO led by and for Tibetan women, whose founding members included women who performed the leadership role of motherhood in caring for orphaned refugee children, shifted its initiative from welfare to include assertive leadership workshops that empowered Tibetan women to become leaders in the community. This shift took place following TWA's successful campaign to politicize Tibet in Beijing at the UN Women’s Conference in 1995. The women who took part in this campaign were celebrated in the Tibetan diaspora as heroes’ and championed by the Tibetan apparatus as exemplary leaders. They were also women whose lives had in part been sustained by the caring-labor performed by their predecessors.

Through out the mid 90s into the 2000s, TWA’s efforts in campaigning for the rights of women to take up leadership positions within the diaspora, with heavy emphasis on the right to female education and professional opportunity, has paid off. Although women are still under-represented in the governing body, there are currently more female representatives in the governing apparatus both as parliamentarians and cabinet leaders from diverse, not just elite, backgrounds, something not seen in the experiences of the previous generations. Although the Tibetan apparatus’ heavy emphasis on the need for all Tibetans to rise to the level of leadership through education remained genderless, beliefs in traditional gender roles kept large numbers of girls from accessing education, especially in poor rural Tibetan communities. TWA’s emphasis on women’s education through their leadership workshops and advocacy has challenged these traditional notions on gendered and carved out opportunity for women to access education and leadership positions. However, TWA’s recent campaign to advocate against gender violence and discrimination has not been met with the same enthusiasm as their past projects.

While leadership in the role of motherhood performing caring-labor or China-Tibet political advocate in the international arena were celebrated by community and the apparatus, the current move by TWA and other female leaders to embrace gender advocacy as a subjectivity desired for female leadership is being met with hostility from the public and silence from the apparatus. Although CTA has not condemned nor celebrated, TWA’s new initiative to take on gender violence in the Tibetan community, its general lack of action on the issue reveals how the desire to end gender violence, as advocated by Tibetan women, is neither encouraged nor discouraged by CTA—deeming the issue a non-issue for the male dominated Tibetan apparatus.

Gender violence advocacy is deemed problematic or silenced because it engages wrongdoings within the community, not China. Because the issue does not deal directly with China, critics (who don’t deny the issue but accuse women advocates of harming the larger political movement for freedom) tell women advocates to put the issue of gender violence on “arrest,”<FN3> at least until freedom is achieved. However, advocacy against gender violence, as a desire promoted by TWA and other women advocates, call attention to the present realities of the Tibetan women in exile. Their desires, like the apparatus, are invested in desiring leaders that desire the project of sustenance in exile, politicizing Tibet, and a future in a free Tibet; however, they want these desires to also include the desire for a Tibetan society, present and future, with gender equality and a society free of gender violence. However, what about Tibetan women who desire subjectivities that don’t reflect CTA or TWA’s desires?

Recently, I was talking to a female friend who asked about my sister. After I told her that my sister was in India studying Tibetan Buddhism, she sarcastically responded with “please don’t let her become a nun.” I asked whether she was joking or was she actually against the idea of my sister becoming a nun, she confirmed she was against the idea. When I asked her to explain, she responded, “Well, the Tibetans are having less babies and as a result our population is decreasing.” In another incident following a close friends decision to become a nun who later joined a nunnery, other Tibetan friends who know us both questioned me on why she choose that lifestyle. My friends framed the question as, why would Rinzin (name changed), as someone raised in the U.S. with a Bachelors graduated from a well-known college, considered attractive and worked at stable and respected job, choose to become a nun? They always followed that question with, “I get that, and good for her, but what’s the point?” The not-so-positive response seems to imply that nun’s lifestyle could maybe achieve some spiritual gratification but what tangible outcome, especially for Tibet, would it serve otherwise?

The desire to study Buddhism or to become a nun involves renouncing not only worldly matters in the spiritual sense but includes the rejection of prescribed gendered subjectivities in the traditionalist Tibetan sense and the consumer oriented modern-western sense. Although the Tibetan religious institutions are not free of gender discrimination, the desire to become a nun rejects the gendered subjectivities prescribed by politicized Tibet or the capitalist oriented independent/educated self-making modern woman—this desire is also strangely an indigenous Tibetan response and desire. Yet, they evoked responses such as, “but why?” from Tibetans living in exile, whose subjectivities reflect their concrete reality in which they and the apparatus desires leaders that can ensure the continuity of the community and/or its political message. Religious or esoteric lifestyles as a subjectivity desired is not discouraged by CTA, TWA or the modern Tibetan youth; however, they are not desired either.

Tibetan monastic institutions in exile have seen a sharp drop in the number of exile Tibetans—women and men—desiring monastic subjectivities. Such decreases in numbers reflect how the desire for certain subjectivities, such as religious lifestyles, are neither promoted by CTA or TWA nor desired by the current generation of Tibetans in exile. It is also about the promotion of certain subjectivities as “modern” (educated/professional/leaders), while other subjectivities—such as homemakers, spiritual cave dwellers, and/or story telling grandmothers who also contribute to the sustenance of the Tibetan community and culture in Tibet and across the diaspora—take a back seat to the desire for Tibetan leaders who will lead the community and politicize Tibet.  



1.  “Central Tibetan Administration,”, (May 2, 2014).


2. Shakya, Tsering. 2014. Private conversation with Dr. Tsering Shakya who shared information

regarding the three female warriors of Kham from his private research notes.


3. [T]he apprehension and detaining of particular pasts [and present] in anticipation of their eventual release. Pasts [or presents] that clash with official ways of explaining nation, community, and identity are arrested, in the multiple senses of being held back and delaying progress but also in the ironic sense of drawing attention to these pasts [and presents]” (McGranahan 2010;24).


Works Cited:

Freeman, Carla. 2012. "Neoliberal Respectability: Entrepreneurial Marriage, Affective Labor, and a New Caribbean Middle Class." In The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Gyatso, J., & Havnevik, H. (Eds.). 2005. Women in Tibet. Columbia University Press.

McGranahan, C. 2010. Arrested histories: Tibet, the CIA, and memories of a forgotten war. Duke University Press.

2010. “Narrative Dispossession: Tibet and the Gendered Logics of Historical Possibility.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 52(04), 768-797.

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