Beijing, September 1995: nine exiled Tibetan women staged a silent protest at the United Nations World Conference on Women held in Beijing.
The essay titled ‘Tibetan Women: Devotedly Defiant’ featured in the book ‘A Force Such As the World Has Never Known,’ which is an anthology of essays by 30 women authors, published in November 2013 by Inanna Publications and Education Inc, 2013, Canada.
Lhasa, March 12, 1959: Tibetan women gather in thousands in front of the Potala Palace to protect His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Tibetan Women: Devotedly Defiant
Tenzin Dhardon Sharling, TIBET/INDIA
Early years of political struggle
In the history of human struggle, women have played a significant role. While the actions of a few extraordinary women may stand out, the efforts of ordinary women remain in the background. Early Tibetan history does not boast of heroines, and even in the early twentieth century, there was no tradition of women political leaders or government officials, and no vision that things would change with modern education. But when the fate of the nation and its people reached a critical juncture in 1959, Tibetan women united as one and conjoined the movement. Thus, for the first time in Tibetan history, women’s voices became visibly pertinent.
On March 12, 1959, Lhasa, Tibet’s capital and seat of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was filled with the sounds of feet stamping the pavement and shouted pleas for freedom: with hands raised high in the air, Tibetan women stood united against the Chinese communist regime’s unlawful occupation of their nation. An estimated 15,000 unarmed Tibetan women took to the streets of Lhasa to oppose the violent Chinese occupation of their country. As the defiant crowd grew in number, a few women spontaneously took charge. One of them was Ghurteng Kunsang who stepped forward and spoke out forcefully urging that ‘Tibet should fight back not with violence, but with peace and compassion in the effort to force the Chinese back to their own land.’[i] This day marked the first active, women-led non-violent protest against the Chinese occupation and laid the foundation for peaceful resistance in Tibetan history.
Following the historic uprising, women took part in successive protests and resistance against the repressive Chinese regime. The Chinese military responded brutally, opening fire upon the crowds. Many of the women who stood up on that epic day sacrificed their lives in pursuit of freedom. Those that escaped with their lives found themselves imprisoned and subject to inhuman torture. The surviving, exiled elders are the last generation of women left to tell the story of the Women’s Uprising, and to transmit their cultural legacy. More than half-century after Tibet’s national uprisings, reality in Tibet remains smoke-screened by Chinese Government. News and knowledge make it through a veil of repression only through the efforts of courageous men and women who risk their lives to make their stories heard.
In the early decades of the last century, there was no tradition of Tibetan women standing shoulder-to-shoulder with men in public affairs. As the Tibetan adage of the time pronounced, “the mother is the precious jewel-at-home, the father the external fencing.” In a period when women remained totally home-bound to care for the family, cocooned thus in a corner of the walls of time, the communist Chinese occupiers created havoc; women stood against this repressive regime and to this day have, with utmost resilience, courage, and dedication, driven the movement forward.
Women inside Tibet remain defiant
While Tibetan women continue to be the victims of the repressive policies of the Chinese government—systematic oppression, coercion, and sadistic state-sanctioned violence, —the spirit of Tibetan Women refuses to rest. As the official website of the Office of Tibet, New York suggests, “the present Chinese policy, a combination of demographic and economic manipulation, and discrimination, aims to suppress the Tibetan issue by changing the very character and the identity of Tibet and its people.” [ii]
For those remaining in occupied Tibet, the struggle continued, often with dire consequences. Women, in time of crisis, have stepped forward and assumed the mantle of political leadership. Nun Thinley Choedon from Nyemo region in Tibet emerged as a renowned guerrilla leader in the large-scale rebellion; she led a group of Tibetan freedom fighters in the 1960s and fought fierce battles with the Chinese. Her fame spread even in the prisons at the time where the inmate Douche Konchog Tenaha composed an unprecedented praise for her, saying; “you, Thinley Choedon, who risked her life to defend the faith are the supreme heroine in the defense of the faith. All Tibetans behold you as an example to be emulated. We shall remember you for ever.” [iii]
Thinley Choedon was captured and executed by Chinese military forces on September 26, 1969. Thirty-four others were also executed that day. [iv]
The spirit of Tibetan Nuns: the Drapchi Fourteen
Tibetan nuns constitute an important subset of the Tibetan female population; they are considered to be of a higher class than ordinary Tibetan women as they belong to the sacred realm of Tibetan Buddhism. But, in particular, the Buddhist nuns are revered more for their defiance than their devotion. The stories of the Buddhist nuns and their endurance of endless sufferings under the repressive Chinese regime stand witness to the indomitable courage and strength embodied by these female members of the monastic community.
The case of the Drapchi Fourteen, a group of fourteen nuns imprisoned in Drapchi Prison after the 1987 and 1989 peaceful protests in Lhasa, Tibet, is exemplary of human courage. Even incarcerated, these patriots never gave in. In 1993, imprisoned nun Ngawang Sangdrol and thirteen other Tibetan nuns managed to smuggle out a secretly recorded cassette tape, filled with songs of freedom, resistance, and religious dedication. The recordings first reached Lhasa, and from there, the international community. The power of the music immediately served to galvanize support for the Tibetan cause. It revealed not only the harrowing conditions within Drapchi, but also the immense courage of the political prisoners confined behind the walls.
For this “rebellious” act of mutual consolation, the nuns received extended sentences, ranging from five to nine years. After eleven years of incarceration, Ngawang Sangdrol walked out of Drapchi prison and back into the free world. Though she was beaten, tortured, and systematically humiliated as the object of a campaign of terror that sought to break her physically, mentally, and spiritually, upon her release Ngawang Sangdrol spoke unflinchingly about love, compassion, and joy, even within this living nightmare. Instead of expressing anger or hatred for her oppressors, she regarded this cruelty as “an opportunity to develop compassion”. Instead of the pit of despair it was meant to be, Drapchi prison “became [her] nunnery and the prison guards became [her] gurus.” [v]
The ‘Drapchi Fourteen’ illustrate an enduring expression of freedom in the face of tyranny, and the profound power of faith and compassion in resistance to authoritarian might. In dedication to Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness Dalai Lama, and to all the sentient beings of the world, the nuns while imprisoned prayed:
‘May the suffering and hardship of us, poor prisoners,
Never be suffered by any sentient being.
In the heavenly realm of the land of snows
The source of limitless benefit and peace
May Avalokiteshvara Tenzin Gyatso
Reign supreme throughout all eternity’. [vi]
The nuns embody positivity and keeping alive hope in times of great turmoil, each song of the Draphci 14 fundamentally reveals the hope that carried them through the torture, deprivation, and degradation. ‘They never surrendered to despair and lived everyday with the faith of a better tomorrow.’[vii]
‘The white cloud from the east
Is not a patch that is fixed
The sun from behind the clouds
Will certainly appear one day.
We feel no sadness.
If you ask why,
Even if the day’s sun sets,
There is the moon at night.’ [viii]
Protecting women’s reproductive rights
As staunch Buddhists, Tibetan women consider motherhood to be sacred, and traditionally, Tibetan families idealized having as many children as possible. Tibet is a largely agricultural land, with most of the population either nomadic or farmers; increased numbers of children means more human resources and better prosperity for the family. The family planning policies initiated and implemented by the Chinese government began a tragic chapter in the lives of the Tibetan mothers, as they underwent abortion, sterilization, intimidation and coercion. “Birth control in Tibet was tightened, imposing on the Tibetans a punitive family planning program which included reports of abortions and sterilizations and even, allegedly, infanticide.”[ix]
The story of a woman recently interviewed by the Tibetan Women’s Association and published in ‘Tears of Silence’ [x] also shows the continued prevalence of sterilization of Tibetan women as a form of population control. The courage and growing strength of Tibetan women to fight against all odds is evident in the story of Chemi Lhamo (b. 1967) who dared to give birth to 4 children despite the stringent implementation of the 2-child policy in her village, Runpatsa in Kham. After giving birth to her second child, she ran back and forth to Lhasa to hide her identity and gave birth to her third and fourth child at Lhasa. She was levied with heavy fines for failing to abide by the family planning law and going ahead in giving birth to her third and fourth child, and faced forced sterilization after giving birth to her fourth child. She was later imprisoned and tortured in prison for possessing a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and for having in her possession the phone directory of the Tibetan Government in Exile. But despite all the hardships, she later managed to smuggle her four children to exile in India in pursuit of better education.
Tibetan Women’s Association
Following the 1959 invasion, many Tibetan women fled across the border, seeking asylum along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When these women reached Kalimpong, East India, they worked to establish an organization for women in exile. As the women in Tibet were struggling to find steady footing, the women in exile fought to help them from the free side of the border. Although in those days some ninety-nine percent of the members were illiterate, with selfless service and dedication, they demonstrated their capabilities and made sizeable achievements in politics, social welfare and other fields.
On September 10, 1984, under the advice and guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) was reinstated in Dharamsala, India, the present seat of the Tibetan government in exile. The TWA took off at once as a bird does to the sky and quickly gained a reputation on the world stage, rubbing shoulders with women from progressive countries and discussing issues with them in roundtable forums as equals.
Since its initial inception in 1959 in Lhasa, Tibet, the Tibetan Women’s Association has made unwavering efforts in mobilizing political participation, in the preservation and promotion of Tibetan religion and culture, in building the identity of Tibetan women and in empowering women on the educational and leadership fronts.
The TWA incorporates Buddhist nuns within the scope of its work to ensure that all sections of Tibetan women benefit equally. For this purpose, it set up the Tibetan Nuns Project that reaches out to Buddhist nunneries in other Himalayan regions as well as to nuns in other countries. The nuns themselves have worked very hard, have made great progress, and have achieved a great deal in the field of education, and continue to persevere further. This precious journey is not by a few nuns nor for a few nuns but for generations of Buddhist nuns to come. In the effort to become modern, they have not misplaced their souls.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has over the years expressed His deep admiration and gratitude for His countrywomen in their fight for Tibet’s freedom. During a special audience for the members of TWA in 1995, His Holiness said that “Tibetan women hold a powerful significance in rebuilding their community and offering outstanding examples of spiritual and peaceful leadership to the world.’ TWA strives to justify the confidence he has placed in Tibetan women.
Women’s struggle persists
More than fifty years later, Tibetan Women lead the revolution that is now two-fold: inside and outside of Tibet.
Women inside Tibet:
Despite suffering losses owing to the worsening political situation inside Tibet, women inside Tibet have resisted Chinese repression and risen beyond the horizon. Their perseverance is palpable and laudable. Since 2009, more than a hundred Tibetans have resorted to self-immolations as a form of political protest and of them more than a dozen are women. They called for the ‘dignified return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama back to Tibet,’ and ‘freedom inside Tibet’ even in their final acts of defiance.
Brave contemporary women writers in Tibet like Tsering Woeser and Jamyang Kyi continue to write and express despite threats of detention and torture. Woeser’s gallant writings on her blog ‘Invisible Tibet’ challenge the Chinese Government despite being under house-arrest. The series of international recognition conferred on to her speaks to the effect of the valiant and indomitable spirit of Tibetan women inside Tibet.
In exile: from their principal refuge in Dharamsala to small settlements scattered across the globe, Tibetan women have become the architects and builders of the new Tibet in exile. In exile, woman like Jetsun Pema is revered as Amala, the Tibetan word for mother. Her tireless contribution to champion the cause of education and empowerment of Tibetan children in exile remain phenomenal. The University of San Francisco president Stephen A. Privett while honoring Jetsun Pema with an honorary doctorate degree in December 2012 said, ‘she models the Jesuit ideal of being a woman for others.’[xi]
Having faced imprisonment in Chinese prisons in Tibet for twenty-seven years, Ama Adhe, now 77, lives in exile and speaks to the world about how she endured endless torture but never lost courage; she stands as a living testament to a woman’s strength and spirit in times of adversity. “I am free now. There are no guards outside my door. There is enough to eat. Yet an exile can never forget the severed roots of beginnings, the previous fragments of the past carried always within the heart. My greatest desire is to return to the land of my birth, writes Ama Adhe in her book ‘A Voice that Remembers.’[xii]
For women inside and outside Tibet, their goal is singular—to nurture the future generations and to inculcate in them the knowledge of their cultural heritage, spiritual wisdom and strength of character. Tibetan women continue to share the wisdom and fortitude that bridge their worlds, ancient and contemporary. Their stories are a celebration of the female spirit.
Tibetan women have received messages of encouragement from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who stated: ‘Today, when there is a new understanding among the women in the Tibetan community, and the assumption of new responsibility among them, leading to the gaining of a new experience, there is a new determination and fruitful results in endeavors undertaken in every aspect of public life. When, thus, the term ‘Tibetan women’ becomes a recognized force on the world stage, I am gladdened by a new sense of happiness and pride; and I have a new sense of confidence.’ [xiii] The spectacular story of Tibetan women warrant the confidence and conviction His Holiness placed in them.
English poet Mathew Arnold (1822 – 1888) is said to have predicted that, “If ever the world sees a time when women shall come together purely & simply for the benefit of mankind, it would be a power such as the world has never known.” [xiv] Undeterred and unyielding, Tibetan Women have seen light in the abyss, have become the beacon of hope, the bastion of optimism and the illuminating light for the emancipation of the oppressed. Tibetan women, who have lost everything, survived decades in prison, and braved a perilous escape across the Himalayas have managed to transform the brutality of invasion into a community of compassion and courage, and of devotion and defiance.
[i] Breaking the Shackles: 50 Years of Tibetan Women’s Struggle, Dharamsala: TWA Publications, 2009, pp-8.
[iii] Breaking the Shackles: 50 Years of Tibetan Women’s Struggle, TWA Publications, Dharamsala, 2009, pp- xiv.
[iv]Goldstein Melvyn C, Jiao Ben, Lhundrup Tanzen,Chapter 6: The Capture of the Nun, pp. 137-161, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 2009.
[v] Light in the Abyss, TWA Publications, Dharamsala, 2009, pp. 51.
[vi] Song twelve, “Songs from a Tibetan Prison: 14 Nuns Sing to the Outside World” in News from Tibet, October-March 1994, TIN News Review, Tibet Information Network, London, 26 April, 1994, pp. 18-21.
[vii] Light in the Abyss, TWA Publications, Dharamsala, 2009, pp. 38
[viii] Song thirteen, “Songs from a Tibetan Prison: 14 Nuns Sing to the Outside World” in News from Tibet, October-March 1994, TIN News Review, Tibet Information Network, London, 26 April, 1994, pp. 18-21.
[ix] Craig Mary, Tears of Blood: A cry for Tibet, Counterpoint, Washington, 1992, pp. 308.
[x] Tears of Silence, TWA Publications, Dharamsala 2009, pp-105.
[xii] The Voice that Remembers: A Tibetan Woman’s Inspiring Story of Survival, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1997