Tenzin Palkyi on Gender, Feminism and Women’s Empowerment

Palkyi’s ground-breaking talk on Gender, Feminism and Women’s Empowerment


The talk was delivered at the first ever Tibetan Women’s Empowerment Conference- October 2016 organized by RTWA NYNJ

Good Afternoon everyone. First of all, I want to start by thanking the Regional Tibetan Women’s Association of New York and New Jersey for organizing this very important conference. You guys are an excellent team and this is exactly the kind of work that those of us who care about women’s empowerment and gender equality need to be doing more of. I am very hopeful that this conference is only the beginning of our collaborative work together as we embark on this journey to empower ourselves and our fellow Tibetan women.

I am very happy to be here today, and I am especially thrilled to be in the company of two women whom I admire and respect greatly…Our other key speaker for the day, Tseyang la is someone who shouldered the enormous responsibility of the Women’s Empowerment Desk at the Central Tibetan Administration, all by herself, for a number of years. She has a very unique set of experiences and insights to draw upon for this topic and I look forward to hearing her remarks.

For today’s discussion, I was tasked with the responsibility of looking more deeply and carefully into the opportunities and challenges of empowering Tibetan women in diaspora–meaning women who live outside of Tibet, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Tibetans, as many of you’ll know, are scattered over 30 countries around the world and we all have our unique circumstances and realities within which we situate our lives. Many of us moved to a different country as an adult, sometimes with young children in tow, to build a new life in a new country, to provide better opportunities for our sons and daughters — those families overcome challenges that I could not even begin to fathom. So, I will not stand here and pretend to know what’s going on with Tibetan women in over 30 countries around the world and prescribe solutions on how to empower them. That is not what I am here to do. Instead, what I hope to do today is to ask a series of questions, to examine gender roles, responsibilities, expectations, and stereotypes as it is currently practiced in the Tibetan society, and to encourage us to collectively re-imagine how gender could be different.

I want to begin by telling you about a conversation I had a few years ago with an older Tibetan woman. She had heard me talk about women’s empowerment and gender equality on a couple of different occasions and she approached me one day with this really confused look on her face. She asked me why I was speaking out about gender equality, when in reality, genders are equal in the Tibetan community. She asked, “what are Tibetan women lacking in? Ngo-tso la gha-ri dik-ki min-dug pe?” And I must add, she was asking these questions from a very genuine and sincere place. So, naturally, we entered into a discussion about gender expectations and its impact on both men and women. After a while, we started talking about role of women in Tibetan Buddhism and how nuns, at the time, were not allowed to pursue Geshema degree. Now, for those of you who may not know, a Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Geshema examination is a highly rigorous process that takes four years with examinations lasting 12 days each time. Candidates have to take both oral and written exams. And this is not including the 17-20 years on average that one has to study Buddhist texts to even qualify to take the exams.

So, anyways, when I shared with the older woman that I thought nuns should have the same right to earn Geshema degrees as monks have had, for centuries, to earn Geshe degrees (the male version of Geshema), she looked at me, genuinely perplexed, and asked if there was even a single Tibetan nun out there who could pass this test even if the opportunity was there. I remember being shocked at her inability to imagine a single Tibetan nun who could pass the Geshema exams.

But what my conversation with the older woman illustrated for me is the tragic ways in which we internalize the expectations that society places on us just because of our sex. It renders us unable to fully recognize our own abilities and strengths, and the abilities and strengths of other women. Prescribing gender roles and responsibilities constrains our ability to think openly, and to dream freely, and we go about setting these strict parameters around what’s possible. It limits our imagination and inhibits our understanding of our own capabilities.

While I know that we still have a long way ahead of us to attain genuine gender equality, I acknowledge the significant ways in which there has already been a shift in the right direction, at least in the way that we talk about gender in the Tibetan community. This reframing of discourse around gender is already visible within various segments of the society, be it the Tibetan parliament, social media, in the religious community etc. Recently, when Sikyong Lobsang Sangay was assembling his current Kashag, there was a noticeable call from various parts of the society to include women in the Kashag as well. I don’t know that such a demand would have been placed on the Sikyong a decade or so ago.

And individuals who voice their opinion on this issue, those who call out and push back on patriarchal social values and practices, groups like RTWA NY&NJ, and the Tibetan Feminist Collective, they have all played a role in bringing about this positive change. But we should never be complacent in the gains we have made as gender activists, but should continue to push in different ways to make the Tibetan society a truly equal society, a society where you are not judged by what reproductive organs you have. We, as a community in exile, have already begun to re-calibrate societal norms and expectations along gender lines and we need to be continually pushing the envelope on this issue.

But before I get to the specifics of things that I think need to happen for us to make further progress on women’s empowerment, and it won’t be an exhaustive list by any measure, I thought it was first of all very important for us to clarify what we mean by the terms ‘gender equality’, ‘feminism’, and ‘women’s empowerment’. What do those terms mean?

If I can do a quick audience poll here. And it is not to call anyone out, but just an experiment to help illustrate a point.

  • Raise your hand if you self-identify as a feminist?
  • Now, raise your hand if you believe in the equality of men and women, socially, politically, and economically?

A lot more of you raised your hand for the second question.

Actually, believing in the social, political, and economic equality of all sexes makes you a feminist, but I understand that there is this general tendency to shy away from that word. We shy away because of the baggage that the word carries. We shy away because the image that this word conjures in our minds is of a woman who hates men, who hates make-up, who hates high heels. Feminism and feminists are described so much, in the popular imagination, by what we stand against, and not enough by the values that we stand for.

Let me tell you about this other conversation that I had recently with another Tibetan woman. She had grown up in Tibet and she still had a lot of family members there. She talked about the pride and joy her mother and sisters feel when they cook for their family. She said they were truly happy to take care of all the household chores that is expected of them. They are happy, she said, to be the last ones to eat. And if anyone were to insist for them to sit at the front of the table, or eat before other family members, she said there was no way they would do it. And although, she never said it outright, what I took away from that conversation was that she feels the way feminism and women’s empowerment is being defined in the Tibetan discourse at the moment doesn’t recognize the contributions and challenges of those women who didn’t have the same educational and employment opportunities in life. It was almost like, she felt that the outspoken Tibetan feminists looked down upon women like her mother and sisters.

I remember having two very distinct reactions to what she had said.

First, the Tibetan feminist movement and those individuals who are at the helm of driving this movement forward, must do a better job conveying our message of feminism and women’s empowerment. Feminism is never about looking down upon another woman. It is not about judging other women for functioning within the parameters of their lives. Women’s empowerment cannot be narrowly defined by how much education someone has and what kind of job the person has. We have to recognize the agency that many women exercise in their daily lives, in ways both small and big, and try to bring along as many men and women into this movement from various backgrounds and not make them feel alienated.

Second, I thought, if given an alternative option to choose a life other than being the primary home-maker, what choice would have this woman’s sisters and mother made? Would they choose to forego a chance to perhaps seek higher education, seek employment outside of home, or would they still choose to stay at home. At the end of the day, I think all this advocacy around gender can be boiled down to freedom of choice. The freedom of choice for both boys and girls to be who they are, and not having to give in to society’s imposition or expectation of how they should be.

So, when we talk about women’s empowerment, we do not mean that individuals like this woman’s mother and sisters ought to shun their traditional way of life and seek employment somewhere and be financially independent. No, that is absolutely not what we are saying.

This reminds me of a very popular criticism that is often hurled at Tibetan feminists, I suppose, in the form of the lowest hanging fruit if you will, that we are influenced by western ideas. Especially, those of us who live in western countries, become susceptible to that kind of criticism. Every time I hear that criticism, I think about this statement that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a popular Nigerian novelist, made about the ever-changing nature of culture during a TED-X talk. And this applies to the Tibetan culture as well. She said, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. So if it is in fact true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we must make it our culture.”

For me, women’s empowerment is all about recognizing the different talents, skills, and natural inclinations that we have as individuals. For me, women’s empowerment is about all of us working together to create a conducive environment for young girls to explore their interests to the fullest extent possible, giving them a chance to discover themselves and define for themselves what their priorities are in life.

As Tibetans, I know that our collective biggest priority is our political struggle. It is our shared dream to see His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama return home to a free Tibet. We want the political repression in Tibet to end and we want our brothers and sisters in Tibet to have the kind of freedom that you and I take for granted living in a free and democratic country. But for us to make this dream a reality, we need the best minds among us to be engaged in our political movement. We need the most committed among us, the most patriotic, the most skilled among us to be involved.

We need a deep bench of activists, of political leaders, thought leaders, and artists involved in the political movement. And a sure way to not have a deep bench is by tapping into the potential of only half our population. I mean, look at the makeup of our current leadership– be it the parliament, the Kashag, heads of Tibetan civil societies. They are mostly men. There is so much untapped potential that Tibetan women have. There is a lot that women can contribute to our political movement, but for us to do that, we need to be sitting around the table. We cannot contribute if we are not there.

So, the Tibetan society really need to consider carefully why there is a dearth of female representation in the leadership positions. And it cannot be all chalked up to just women not taking individual responsibility. There is some of that, I admit, but there is also the looming patriarchal values and beliefs that is so infused in our culture and in our way of life, that we, as a society, do not produce enough women who are confident, women who are strong-willed, and women who are ambitious.

But it is not all set in stone. Things can change. I mean, feminism is premised upon the hope and belief that cultures can change to accommodate the full humanity of women–the part of us that is ambitious, the part of us that loves to bake cookies and really looks forward to becoming a mother, and the part that is strong-willed and confident.

So, for us to guarantee a deep bench of human resources to lead our political movement effectively, we need to dramatically change the way that we perform gender. We need to examine how we raise our daughters and sons. We need to ask ourselves what role can I, as an individual, play in empowering women.

Let me first spend some time on what I think women can do to empower other women.

I think it is so critical for us, the women, to play supportive roles in the successes of other women. Whenever we see a woman working towards achieving her goal, at the very least, we should play the role of cheerleaders, and not detractors. Do not give in to the Indian soap operas that will have you believe that women are just brimming with rage and jealousy whenever another woman does better than us. We really ought to make it more of a habit to take joy in another woman’s successes. I say this because, you will notice that, sometimes women tend to be really tough on other women. On some occasions, we, not only subscribe completely to the double-standard that society levies upon us, but we also go out of our way to hold other women to this double-standard. We just need to completely stop doing that.

And whenever possible, those of us who may be in a position to assist another woman, especially in terms of advancing their careers, we really need to be willing to spend our social and political capital in helping them out. If a younger Tibetan woman is interested in entering the field of studies or work that you occupy, take the time to meet with them. Sharing with them your experiences, insights and providing some guidance, some words of encouragement and occasionally checking in with them, will surely go a long way in empowering younger Tibetan women. A tradition that I really wish we can cultivate in the Tibetan community is that of older and more experienced women taking some promising younger women under their wings and acting as their mentors.

Obviously, there are a variety of things women can do to empower other women, but for our society to produce more empowered women, the partnership and engagement from men is indispensable. Men play very significant roles in our private lives as fathers, sons, husbands, brothers etc. I think the most important thing that Tibetan men can do at this point is to make a conscious effort to be more sensitive about how gender prescriptions affect both men and women. With greater awareness about gender, you will begin to notice what we call ‘male privilege’– which are the advantages that are awarded to men solely on the basis of their sex. You will also begin to notice the implicit biases held against women, by both men and women, and how they can be powerful obstacles for women’s empowerment. Educating yourself about gender takes time. It takes effort. But for men to become stronger allies in this push for women’s empowerment, it is imperative for more men to become gender sensitized.

There have also been numerous studies done that show that we raise our sons to be much more confident in his abilities and performance compared to our daughters. There is a very interesting article called ‘The Confidence Gap’ that came out some years ago in the Atlantic magazine, that presents study after study that proves this confidence disparity between men and women, and deliberates on how to close this gap. Studies have shown that success correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. According to a psychology professor at Ohio State, “confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action”.

There is this incredibly interesting study that a research psychologist in Milan conducted a few years ago. He gave 500 students a series of test that involved reorganizing 3-D images on a computer screen. When the results came out, the women had scored much worse than the men did. But when he looked at the results more closely, he saw that the women had done poorly because they hadn’t even attempted to answer a lot of questions. So, he repeated the experiment, this time telling the students they had to attempt to solve all the puzzles. This time, the women’s scores increased significantly and matched the men’s scores. What this study points to how low confidence results in inaction. And when we don’t act, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, we perform just as well as men do.

The authors of the article argue that, luckily, confidence can be self-perpetuating. Meaning, for women to become more confident, they say that we need to stop thinking so much and just act. That is clearly easier said than done. But I think, all of us, both men and women, as friends, as colleagues, as family members, can play crucial roles in supporting other women who might be going through this phase of self-doubt and encouraging them to “just act”.

We also need to do better as a community in combating domestic violence and sexual violence. First of all, we don’t talk about these issues openly enough. Every time, such a case does become public, our knee-jerk reaction, as a community, is to quickly classify it as an isolated incident. We don’t have enough support system build in for survivors. On top of that, there is a strong culture of impunity for perpetrators of such violence. But the worst thing that we do, I find, is we often tend to blame the victim. There are no simple and easy solutions to rid a society of gender based violence, but the first step of correcting any wrong is to acknowledge that we have got a problem. We, as a community, need to take that first step.

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Rinpoche, who has been a staunch supporter and a wonderful advocate for women’s empowerment and gender equality, has devoted an entire chapter on ‘Gender Identities’ in his book called, ‘The Heart is Noble’. I strongly encourage all of you to read it, if you haven’t already. In the book, he talks about how gender is nothing more than a socially constructed identity and how gender tends to define our place in the world and deeply inform our life experiences. He said because of gender prescription, we can end up feeling boxed into a particular role in life. Last year, during a talk His Holiness the Karmapa gave at Princeton University titled, “A Buddhist Perspective: Gender, the Environment and Activism”, he made an incredibly crucial point about activism for social justice. He said, “Our aspiration for social justice can never be a lonely one. It must be one that is cultivated in community. They require the fellowship, the company, the support of other people who share the same goals, and have the same concerns and motivation. By embracing community and fellowship in our aspirations, we’ll no longer feel ineffective or powerless.”

I believe, many of us who are gathered here today belong to this fellowship of being gender activists. We have similar concerns about women’s empowerment in the Tibetan community and we have a shared vision of a Tibetan society where men and women are truly equal, in every sense of the word. We require one another’s support and company, and I want to thank the RTWA NY&NJ one more time for bringing all of us together and creating this space and opportunity to discuss this very important issue.

Finally, I want to end here today by going back to the question that the older Tibetan woman had asked me about whether there was a single Tibetan nun who could pass the Geshema exams. Well, her question was answered very soon afterwards, when the historic decision to allow Tibetan nuns to sit for Geshema degrees was made in May 2012, at a conference that included representatives of the dharma community. And as of July 2016, twenty Tibetan nuns sat for their fourth and final year of Geshema examinations, and all twenty of them passed. They are due to formally receive their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a special ceremony some time later this year.

Whenever I think back on this conversation that I had with the older woman, I am struck by how – for a woman of her generation, the idea of a Tibetan nun passing Geshema exams was almost unimaginable. And for you and me, it’s something to celebrate. And for the next generation of women, it will be something they take for granted. And that, to me is indicative of the positive change in how we, the Tibetan women, are beginning to view ourselves. We need to continue on this progressive path, so that the women who are younger than us won’t have to doubt their own abilities so much and can grow into confident, strong-willed, and empowered Tibetan women.

Thank you.

PS: you can also watch Palkyi’s talk on youtube

One response to “Tenzin Palkyi on Gender, Feminism and Women’s Empowerment”

  1. Miss Palkyi la,

    Wonderfully impressed ! I more than concur to most of your views. However, I would also appreciate if there was any way of knowing what may have been concluded in the conference and what were the proposals for any future activity with the Tibetans on the issue of gender.


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