High Peaks Pure Earth presents a guest post by Paris based Tibet scholar Françoise Robin looking at the hard-hitting topics of domestic violence, inter-ethnic marriage and gender from the point of view of Tibetan women in Tibet today, as discussed via the app WeChat.
The starting point for this essay was a WeChat post by Palmo (དཔལ་མོ།), a female professor of poetics and literature at the Northwest Nationalities Institute in Lanzhou who has played a vital role in nurturing women literature and feminist activism in Tibet for the last fifteen years. Françoise wrote a longer profile of Palmo in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines in 2015. We learn also about the burgeoning debates on gender issues taking place on WeChat amongst Tibetan women.
Today, November 25, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Thank you to Françoise for this and your many important contributions to High Peaks Pure Earth.
“Debating Marriage and Domestic Violence in Tibet Today”
By Françoise Robin
The short piece “The ‘In-Laws’ In Other Nationalities” by Palmo, translated at the end of this essay, was posted on WeChat in mid-October 2019. This essay can be summed up as follows: an increasing number of Tibetan women, especially from poor and rural backgrounds, “decide” not to marry Tibetan men and go for men of “other nationalities” (i.e. Han and Hui, mostly; some become nuns, as Palmo recalls, but she does not cover the topic here). Palmo then goes on to offer some testimonies and clues to explain that situation. Her essay is not without its own contradictions and offers assumptions that a Western readership may find disturbing: wariness of inter-ethnic marriage for Tibetans; apparent acceptance of gendered domestic tasks; idealisation of Tibetan culture. Also, the apparent belief among Tibetan women that they will be better treated in any other ethnic background is not discussed by Palmo.
Palmo’s discomfort with inter-ethnic marriage is shared by many Tibetans today, and must be seen against the background of strong ethnic insecurity; it does not lay at the heart of her analysis. Rather, after having stated that inter-ethnic marriages are on the rise, she urges her readers not to put the blame on women only for what is commonly seen as a problematic situation, but to reflect upon the responsibility borne by Tibetan men themselves, and the necessity for them to reform if what she perceives as a problem must be addressed.
Chief amongst the gender-based problems that her essay highlights are lack of commitment (འགན་ཁུར་བ།) on the part of men in family matters, and domestic violence. Scholars have written on the latter topic, Chelsea Hall from Harvard University has a blog on gender in Tibet which includes a post about domestic violence and Hamsa Rajan from Oxford University has dedicated ground-breaking articles based on her research in Amdo.
Palmo’s essay was posted on a WeChat group set up in late September 2019 by the relentless female gender activist, Jamyang Kyi (འཇམ་དབྱངས་སྐྱིད། b. 1967). Called “Today’s Women” (དེང་གི་སྐྱེས་མ།), numbering at the time of writing about 180 Tibetan women from all parts of Tibet and exile, young and old, educated or just interested in questions of gender, this new women-only forum began in the first weeks with exchanges of views regarding a field often and traditionally associated with women, that of education.
It soon strayed away from gender to switch to language, as in Tibet the so-called ‘bilingual education’ programs are sources of a growing anxiety among Tibetan-language educated parents, given the lack of balance offered between Tibetan and Chinese.
But it suddenly found a new rhythm, and perhaps started fulfilling its initial aim, after October 25, 2019. On that day, news spread like wildfire that Tsewang Lhamo (ཚེ་དབང་ལྷ་མོ།), from a herding community in Draggo (བྲག་འགོ།, in Kham, Sichuan province), had been stabbed to death by her husband two days earlier. He had first cut off her nose, a traditional punishment imposed upon attested or alleged unfaithful women, although in the present case, it seems Tsewang Lhamo’s only crime was to have refused to reunite with her husband after he had eloped with his lover. Tsewang Lhamo was 24 and had a 2-year old daughter. The sharing of this piece of news opened the floodgates of online expression of grief in the usual forms of poems, but also with opinions, testimonies and reports about domestic violence and murder of one’s wife (referred to as ‘uxoricide’ recently in the West but not given a specific term in Tibetan, at least among the conversations surveyed for this short introduction).
In the wake of that murder, many other short prose pieces and poems have been posted, paying tribute to Tsewang Lhamo, and her picture is now everywhere to be seen on this women’s network. Interestingly enough, the active, cultural, and rather male-dominated website Tsanpo, had not posted any articles related to the murder at the time of writing this short introduction, eleven days after Tsewang Lhamo’s murder.
Testimonies about domestic violence (including a disturbing short video featuring a man beating his wife while the video maker giggles at the scene – see below) and spouse murders have also appeared, prompted by Jamyang Kyi who has taken upon herself to establish statistics on that topic. In the 6th of her 7 posts related to the murder, Jamyang Kyi has announced that she had collected information about roughly forty to fifty ‘uxoricides’ having occurred in “the last years”, with the caveat that each case should of course be verified and that many more cases may have gone unnoticed or undocumented yet.
The tragic murder of Tsewang Lhamo sadly coincided with Jamyang Kyi’s social network initiative, giving “Today’s Women” an unexpected momentum. Giving a platform to some concerned and vocal women to share their grief, worries, wariness and questions, this WeChat group appears to be completely in tune with what has been characterised as “social network feminism” or “networked feminism” by Kira Cochrane, who sees the use of technology as typical of the fourth wave of feminism: “What’s happening now feels like something new again [after the 1st, 2nd and 3rd waves of feminism]. It’s defined by technology: tools that are allowing women to build a strong, popular, reactive movement online.”
Not only has Jamyang Kyi set up this group and started to collect precise data on spouse murder, but she has also launched the idea of creating a day against domestic violence; more ideas will certainly follow. It is of course difficult to tell how long the forum will last. Gender-related problems, uxoricide being possibly its worst avatar, will not disappear instantly, and problems faced by Tibetan women, shared in fact by many other women in the world and not Tibet-specific, are numerous. For instance, poor education or lack thereof for present-adult women population is often lamented by the participants to the group, who establish a link with imbalance of power in gender relationship. What “Today’s Women” may bring is awareness-building among women of the dis-symmetrical situation they live, leading to a more confident, elaborate and vocal expression about it. As is the case with other WeChat groups, it also acts as a linguistic bridge across a multi-dialectal Tibet, as the use of Chinese language is not allowed by Jamyang Kyi. Contributors regularly comment about the difficulty of understanding one another across the breadth of the Tibetan plateau, while others share their satisfaction at having been able to grasp roughly what another member said – comments to which Jamyang Kyi often replies that this problem is not insurmountable, with a little training and habit.
This WeChat group also enables a slight feminisation in language: for instance, it introduces the neologism “authoress” (རྩོམ་པ་མོ།) and rehabilitates the little-used but traditionally attested “mi mo” for “woman”, using it on its logo. In this compounded word, “mo” acts as a feminine marker attached to “mi”, i.e. “human” or “person”. It thus means “human-feminine”. According to A. Jaeschke’s 1881 Tibetan-English dictionary, “mi mo” is used in opposition to “lha mo”, literally ‘deity-feminine’, thus “goddess”, thus referring to human feminine beings, per contrast with feminine divine entities (a quick survey on the Buddhist Digital Resource Center reveals several occurrences of “mi mo” in the context of ritual texts). As for the contemporary Great Tibetan-Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary, it offers “bud med” (i.e. “woman”) as the synonym of “mi mo” – a search for the masculine symmetrical equivalent of “mi mo”, i.e., “mi-pho”, shows that it does exist but not with the plain meaning of “male” but as a “wild/untamed man” (“skyes pa rgod po”). The re-introduction, in this feminist context, of the word “mi-mo”, reveals also a gender-based reflection about language, a search for linguistic neutrality on the part of gender-aware (mostly women) Tibetans. That quest is not totally new: feminist activists have already shown a rejection of the two most commonly used nouns for “woman”, i.e. “skyes dman” which means literally “inferior birth” and “bud med”, where “med” acts as a privative affix, indicating that women lack something, compared to men (not to mention equally disparaging but more dialectal words such as “nag mo”, literally “black-feminine” or “chung ma”, literally “small-feminine”, for “wife”). Instead, feminist discourses have privileged the traditionally little-used “skyes ma” (lit. “born-feminine”), the feminine symmetrical word to the much more commonly used “skyes pa” (lit. ‘born-masculine’), for “man”. Through this linguistic shift in commonly used language, among other effects, the WeChat group surveyed here may contribute to a more substantial sharing and acceptance of gender-aware discourses among Tibetans. Although men are not invited to take part in the WeChat group, women do share the posted documents among their male contacts, as shown through shared screenshots of their mobile phones. These often show support from male friends – although, quite expectedly, some men question the authenticity of some testimonies or news, or minimise the prevalence of domestic violence.
In such cases, members of “Today’s Women” occasionally ask for advice to their fellow group members on how to react or to reply to negative and male-chauvinist comments that are seen as emblematic of ‘pho mchog mo dman’ (ཕོ་མཆོག་མོ་དམན།, literally ‘male superiority, female inferiority’) views, a term coined to refer to the lowly status of women in Tibetan society (the earliest instance on Internet found of the term could be on a post by US based Tibetan journalist Palden Gyal dated 22 May 2009, where he introduces Western feminism to a Tibetan audience).
Functioning as a woman’s collective, as a self-help group (a woman lawyer offers legal advice), a platform to share news (Palmo posted recently an article about the first Tibetan female pilot), to present remarkable women (for instance the AIDS activist Drolkar Tso སྒྲོལ་དཀར་མཚོ།, who is a member of the group), as well as gender-related anxiety, or to vent one’s frustration and anger, “Today’s Women” offers the possibility to establish more firmly a Tibetan female-centred discourse, and to cultivate self-confidence among women often scattered in a male-dominated discursive and material world. This does not preclude diverging views: for instance, some contributors have pointed to the lack of blatant or common cases of domestic violence in their community, while others have urged some to refrain from using slandering words to describe men.
In spite of its resemblance and timely coincidence with a global fourth wave feminism that seems to have gripped the whole world thanks to technology and social networks, the current and very recent wave of online discourses which I have briefly surveyed here follows its own path. It is still very Tibeto-centered, and does not deal with issues that have characterised the third wave of Western feminism, such as intersectionality, race, contestation and complexification of gender identity, due perhaps to more pressing concerns in today’s Tibetan society or to the lack of material available in Tibetan translation.
It is not without its ambiguities, at least seen from an outsiders’ point of view: for instance, it celebrates a post by a male educator who, while lamenting the murder of Tsewang Lhamo, focuses mainly on the poor fate of her now orphaned daughter and the need to provide her with a sound education to make up for the trauma, without giving much thought it seems to even more tragic fate of the victim, and without reflecting upon the husband’s responsibility or the larger issue of domestic abuse. Female contributors to the WeChat group also praise the famous Serthar monastery Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro (ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས་བློ་གྲོས།), for a post where he does offers support to women, but which ultimately limits woman’s role to domesticity, that of a supporting mother and educator. In a word, “Today’s Women” offers a real time and instructive survey into a burgeoning feminism with Tibetan characteristics currently being produced by Tibetan women from the Tibetan plateau.
“The ‘In-Laws’ In Other Nationalities”
It is clear and obvious to everyone that, in the current years, ever since phones and WeChat have become widespread in people’s lives, big changes have affected and are still affecting the life of the whole Tibetan population. Serious problems are what’s more becoming more and more numerous every day. For instance, nowadays, more and more Tibetan women are marrying other nationalities, and among Tibetan women, some drifters follow men who lure them with sweet mouths, nice words and wealth without resistance; at university and in high school, few are the girls who strive to increase their general knowledge by reading books; rather, they focus solely on exam results. Even though they are attached to Tibetan language, few of them in fact strive to use it to actually achieve something; many become pregnant, etc. When reflecting upon these social phenomena, these problems, the family members and the elders, or else the teachers etc., in sum, those who are committed, do not discriminate between men and women and try to educate them as much as possible and they try to find solutions, hoping to solve these problems, and they must implement these. Still, in the old days, Tibetans in Tibet as well as in exile were happy to merely mention these issues and very few were looking for solutions or took charge of them. From that perspective, women seem to considered only as targets of slander and accusations.
Among the problems listed above, I intend to discuss in this essay that of women who marry into other nationalities. If I point at this problem and this situation, and discuss it, many persons who feel concerned might feel hurt and many people may attack me, but one cannot avail oneself only to mention [this problem] in passing. So I intend to discuss its root and origins, so as to uproot its cause. Based upon that, (I want to show that) it must not be considered as solely a woman’s problem, not a problem that can be solved by women only, but that of the whole Tibetan society, a problem which men and women alike must show interest in, commit to and strive to correct.
There are many types of reasons why Tibetan women marry into other nationalities.
The first set [of reasons] concerns women from a rather high social background (this case is attested among men too, cf. the many “Salegyal”) They show the utmost interest for their own comfort, in accordance with the consciousness and the tendencies resulting from their native environment. They are not that preoccupied with the difference in nationality and religion (not they may never have given a thought about it, given their high social background).
These are people who marry willingly into other nationalities if (the man) suits their worldly expectations.
The second type consists of women who marry out of love, but whose husbands, after having welcomed them in their kitchen, and made them pregnant, soon fail to commit themselves towards their family soon after the birth of their children. Many of these men behave violently at home and engage in domestic violence. Because of that, it is a fact that many women helplessly flee to a nunnery or marry into another nationality. This has occurred and it is still happening in great number.
The third type are persons who come from a poor family background. Faced with great difficulties, their work burden is heavy, they have no-one to rely on and their life is so miserable that they choose another path. They follow any man who will just tell her about “freedom and free-will” and they will drift to whatever in-laws. These women hailing from rather under-privileged social backgrounds cannot possibly possess the leisure to think about the fate of their own nationality and family or about social development.
The fourth type consists of women who are fooled by the sweet words and nice speeches of treacherous men from other nationalities, and who are deluded by riches and possessions. They follow them, without thought or analysis. Particularly numerous too are those who are taken away by force and sold or stolen.
I have real-life examples for each of the four types but for the time being I shall not summon them.
If we categorise these problems, the reasons for the first type concerns mainly women who live abroad or in big cities. They belong physically to the higher upper social strata but, having grown up from childhood in a materially privileged environment, their mentality is influenced solely by other nationalities’ cultures and they are not protected by what makes the core of their own traditional culture. As a consequence, they are rather relatively free and they mostly cherish their own well-being, with few among them developing a great sense of love for their nationality.
For instance, here is the conversation between two Tibetan women and one Mongolian woman who hold PhDs from China People’s University in 2015: “The reason for our nationality’s backwardness is because it lacks a culture or science like other nationalities. If we want to catch up with advanced nationalities, we must first relinquish our traditional culture, which makes us backward”. Listening to them, I feel it is difficult to attract their mind back to their own nationality.
In mid-June last year, I went to a certain town in Inner-Mongolia. As I was attending an evening meeting, I saw some young Tibetan women, educated and self-reliant, saying they had no intention to marry a Tibetan in the future. When I asked why, what they told me is that Tibetan men are violent and hit (their wives) because they are unable to commit themselves. Others are unable to perform economically, and moreover, they have no idea how to respect and cherish their spouses.
As for the second type: if domestic violence that has occurred and is still occurring in rural areas, can’t it be solved through legal means in the first instance, or if rural men fail to demonstrate an awareness or to improve their minds, and do not commit themselves, thanks to a caring attitude, it will be difficult to stop the flow of women who marry into another nationality.
For instance, in a pastoral community located south of Lake Kokonor, a husband lost all the family’s wealth and cattle due to long time alcoholism and gambling. Unable to stand the pain of that loss, every time he returned home he would violently beat them both. That lasted for a long time but, as no one among the relatives or neighbours would intervene, the daughter left and disappeared. As for the wife, she managed to divorce and after that she stayed with a local Chinese man working on the roads. Everyone in the community was surprised, asking: “You cannot speak one single word of Chinese and that Chinese man does not know a single word of Tibetan. How can you live together, without being able to communicate?”. She replied: “It is true, we cannot communicate, but he does not hit me and, moreover, he helps me with homework and he accompanies me”. When I heard this, I cried. Although she had high hopes in life, she had been deprived of basic conditions to live.
It saddens me greatly that, in Tibet, there should be many women like her for whom it is difficult to even live. Each and every one wants happiness, and no one wants suffering. Be they men and women, no one wants to live in an environment where the body is not at ease and the mind is not warm. For instance, according to a research conducted among thousands of Tibetan ‘daughters-in-law’ living in Kachu, by a team of professors from a given university, none harboured any regret or disappointment about having married into a Muslim family. They said that their economic wealth – their material comfort -, and their many sons and children – their mental comfort –, made their body at ease and their mind content. When they declared that, they had a wide smile of contentment on their faces.
The reason behind the third type is that women who have fallen into misery and who have become antagonised from their husbands, having no income, are driven to hopelessness and despair. They have no other choice than forsaking shame and modesty and marrying someone from another nationality. Some even engage into prostitution, and can feed and clothe themselves – and this is fact.
The reason for the 4th type is the taste among many women for sweet words and nice speeches. This is the reason why their life and future are dragged into darkness. Women who are not self-reliant do not have the mind and capacity to differentiate between truths and lies, and are easy prey of men. Nowadays, many other nationalities like Han Chinese in the mainland, when they take a wife, must spend lavishly on housing and cars, etc., bringing them many financial difficulties. But if they pick a wife from a Tibetan area and a poor economic background, they do not have to spend anything. Moreover, realising that they (their new wives) have a good heart and they are kind, they fool them, bringing them home but, a few years later, they make them suffer for a long time. See for instance, the post by Jamyang Kyi about the real-life girl from Drakkar in Qinghai, posted on 6 November 2018.
Besides, I have been told that some well-off men who know how to please girls who come to study in big cities, wait at sunset, after the end of classes, and insert a lot of money into the bags of girls when they go out of their schools. They [the girls]] are then ready to be taken away anywhere.
If leaders in this world are men, then those who can make changes in women’s life are, in reality, men too. If men can commit themselves to their family, spouses and children, women will not have naturally the will and taste to abandon the kitchen and go out roaming in the streets. This is not only Tibetan women, this is a characteristic of all women in the world.
In summary, whatever is the category and reason told above for Tibetan women going as a bride into other nationalities, if we must solve the problems and the overall aspects of our society, we must first change men’s current mentality: their awareness must be increased in a significant manner, and they must become fully committed towards their family. In particular, if men from rural background do not relinquish playing dice and gambling, and if they do not reform their laziness, and beat their wives and terrorise their families, women will learn how to secure their own future by giving priority to their own well-being, and as a consequence they will marry into other nationalities and, in the end, there will be fewer and fewer people with a sensitivity for a clean ancestry and for their good quality nationality. Either the number of mixed people will increase, or single women will become more and more numerous. If this happens, there is a possibility that the number and quality of the Tibetan population will fall into oblivion. This has been discussed again and again by the learned persons of the previous century, who are like our sun and moon.
This is why the nationality and society’s progress depends on both men and women and not only on one of them and this is something we should all understand.
Palmo, 2019, Lanzhou.