Tibetan Women

The Sexism in Tibetan Society seems to be a popular topic so I’ve decided to make a post about Tibetan women:

I got a book from the university library called The People of Tibet written by Sir Charles Bell and in the book there quite a large section dedicated to Tibetan women. The book is quite old, published in 1968 but I’ll post a few of the author’s comments on Tibetan women from his experience in Tibet. His experience seems to be more with the upper class Tibetans, which shows in his writings also you have to keep in mind that this book was written or published in the 60’s.

The author points out areas where Tibetan women were equal or well treated:

  • -“Tibetan women were not kept in seclusion, unlike Indian women”.
  • -“They are accustomed to mix with the other sex throughout their lives”.
  • -“They are at ease with men, and can hold their own as well as any women in the world”.
  • -“…many of the ladies stay in their houses as far as possible during winter for the sake of their complexions.”
  • -The author also says that Tibetan women think their appearance to be very important to them. He has a few stories about it and also describes treatments that different Tibetan women do for their appearance.
  • -“The position of women in Tibetan society is remarkably good. Such is the verdict recorded in the books of the late Mr.Rockhill, an American, and of Shramana Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese, both of them among the leading foreign authorities on Tibet”.
  • -“Kawaguchi considers that, ‘The condition of Tibetan women with regards to men…may be considered as surpassing the ideal of Western women, so far as the theory of equality of rights between the sexes is concerned’.
  • -“Chinese writers, too, have noted the high status accorded to Tibetan women”.
  • -“But one reservation must be made. A girl does not, as a rule, choose her own husband. The choice rests with her parents…”
  • -“The Tibetan woman is brought up with the boys and men. She is physically strong; she is undeniably intelligent.”
  • -“When still a girl, she may hold charge of part of the household. Later on, she will probably have great influence with her husband. And if her husband be absent or dead, she may manage the estate till her son grows to manhood”.
  • -“In an ordinary household the husband appoints the menservants, the wife appoints the maids and has the chief power indoors”.
  • -“Probably Buddhism also has had a share in elevating the women’s position to some extent. The Buddha, though at first unwillingly, admitted women into the religious order. During the early days of Buddhism women were influential; in Tibet, as we shall see presently, some held high positions”.(*This is contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere).
  • -The author writes about Tibet in the past when it was ruled by a number of “petty principalities”, he points out that some of these were under the rule of women.

The author also points out areas where Tibetan women were treated unequally/inferior:

  • -When the Dalai Lama grants blessings to worshipers he has 3 varying grades of blessing which he accords: He places both hands on the heads of those of the highest rank (granted to very few), one hand on ecclesiastical and civil officials (ex. monks; granted to less than two hundred laymen, and several thousand monks), and a tassel, held in his hand, for all of the others. This tassel blessing is the last and commonest form of blessing and it includes all women, except for one woman, Dorje Pamo who is one of the only female incarnations in Tibet and is one of the highest. She is granted a one handed blessing.
  • -Laymen are generally considered common and unclean (kyu-ma tang tsok-pa), and so are all women, even nuns”.
  • -“The very word ‘kye-men’ i.e “the lower birth”, shows that we Tibetans think so.”
  • -The author writes about the monastery of Ta-lung where women are prohibited from entering, nor does any female dare to look towards this monastery.
  • -“In Burma, another Buddhist country, in The Soul of a People, Fielding Hall records that it is to some extent believed there ‘that a woman must be born again as a man before she can enter on the way that leads to heaven'(This doesn’t have to do with Tibetans but I thought it was interesting and also because someone commented something similar to this within Tibetan beliefs in the Sexism in Tibetan Society post.
  • -“In some measure Buddhism may have helped the Tibetan women, strong, intelligent, capable, to maintain their position; but it does not give them such power in religious affairs as it does to the men. And perhaps they do not want it. They are religious up to a point, more so than the men”.
  • -“For every nun there are thirty or forty monks”.

On Tibetan women’s work and recreations:

  • -“At midday [a Tibetan woman] goes, not infrequently, to visit relations and friends. The talk perhaps turns on some fascinating piece of jewelery, which, being for sale, one of them wishes to buy; about the beauty or otherwise of their lady friends, which of these go about with their male acquaintances more than is seemly, and so forth”.
  • -“A Tibetan nobleman expressed himself to me thus as to the duties of Tibetan ladies: ‘She will love and obey her husband. She will show kindness to her relatives. She will not be harsh to her servants, will explain their faults to them, not punishing hastily. She must avoid making favorites among them. She will not trouble her husband the the faults or disputes of servants, but will settle these herself. She must be an adept in all household management. she must avoid making favorites among her children. Tibetans do not rank a son higher than a daughter, but both as equal. The crime of female infanticide, though found in some countries, has never found a home in Tibet. She ought to go to plays and spectacles, be sociable and not keep to herself. She ought to visit her friends frequently and give them presents and entertainment, thus showing a friendly and affectionate disposition.” The author claims this opinion to be the general among the men of the upper classes and that the whole of Tibetan ladies fills the part well.

5 thoughts on “Tibetan Women

  1. Bhod ki Bhumo

    Thanks for the excerpt from the book. I am sure Charles Bell is accurate since he has lived in Tibet for long. I think it was your comment that said “Kye Men” meaning “lower birth” that is not true. “Men” means something to do with the uteres (belly) or the area around there in Tibetan. I donot know the exact word but people have corrupted the word to mean “lower” birth!!I will find the right explanation later.

    In terms of religious activity. I truly feel women are treated like lesser equal. I grew up being told you need to be male to get enlightened. In a sense, you have to be born a male first, then as a monk and so forth.

    Interesting topic. Keep going

  2. Jigme32

    All of the points I put up for that post were from the book except for the parts I marked with a *. So that point about “Kye-men” meaning lower birth was from the author.

  3. tsering chopel

    i always thought tibetans womens are really privilged compared to women of other countries, guess that was true… and feels good about it. regarding kemen (lower birth)… thats just a word. in practicality tibetan women enjoys pretty much same priviledge as man do and thats what matters.

  4. Anonymous

    i was glad to go through your research and its pretty facinating and interesting. keep up the good work. i m looking forward to read more from your page.

  5. This is very interesting. I know that the Women of Tibet film series is involved in making a documentary wherein the Dalai Lama and other prominent Tibetan monks are interviewed about the monastic order, their sexuality, and their relationship to the feminine. I’ve seen one of their documentaries on Tibetan women and their history- called “A Quiet Revolution”. One of the points it made and demonstrated is that in exile – women do everything. 11 out of 46 of the Tibetan exile parliament are women. They are involved in all walks of life. So, it will be interesting to see what the documentaries reveal about women in modern Tibetan Buddhism.

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