Interviews and Recap
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21july2011dadonDharamshala: - As Tibetan women in exile are rapidly catching up with their male counterparts, traditional gender roles of Tibetan society are being challenged on an every-day basis. As Member of the Tibetan Parliament in exile and a Tibetan Women's Association executive, Tenzin Dhardon Sharling stands in a unique position to comment on this change. The TPI recently met with her for a talk about the current state of affairs in Tibetan gender issues, as seen from her respective chairs in Tibetan society.

The determined and ongoing democratization of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), free access to education and the global nature of the Tibetan disapora's settlements, are all factors working to make gender-inequality between Tibetans a thing of the past. Politics, administration and other predominantly male domains now include women in their ranks and Tibetan women often match their husbands' pay checks, not to mention university diplomas.

In the foreground of this development stands the Tibetan Women's Association (TWA). Founded in 1959, in a time of great oppression, the TWA's main goal was justice for all Tibetans, and the need of the hour was for the women to be able to fight with their men against the Chinese communists.

As Tibetan refugees started escaping into India and establishing new settlements, the TWA essentially relocated and became a vehicle for Tibetan culture in general, as well as a human rights advocate for the women in Tibet and a social welfare organisation for those in exile.

Now, more than half a century later, the TWA's sustained efforts to empower and encourage Tibetan women has become a solid platform for them to make the leap from housewife to professional.

28-year-old Tenzin Dhardon Sharling in many ways embodies the achievements of the TWA. As elected member of parliament and an executive member of the TWA, she plays a key role in Tibetan politics while paving the way for other women simply through the example of her high-ranking position.

The following is a select transcript from a recent interview with Tenzin Dhardon Sharling (TDS) by the Tibet Post International (TPI):

TPI: As one can see on the website, the TWA undertakes a broad range of activities, spanning from religion to political affairs. Which would you say is the most integral area for the TWA's work?

TDS: Well, if you read our mission statement, we say that this association is committed to represent our sisters inside Tibet who do not have a voice for themselves. That is why our primary goal is to advocate the right of women inside Tibet, and also alongside engage in the parliament actions in exile. It is practical as parliament action inside Tibet is not possible now.

Then alongside comes cultural preservation, religious preservation, then health-care and education, all that comes very naturally.

TPI: At the Tibet Post International, we often receive news of Tibetan women in Tibet participating in the struggle against China's communists. Is it your impression that inside Tibet the women are as involved in the struggle for a free Tibet as the men are?

TDS: Yes. But I think before 1959 I would say no because it was a male dominated society, but I think the circumstances were so grave that it kind of naturally called for the women to participate, and since 1959, the upsurge of women's presence in the struggle has been predominant and it has been very successful, I must say, not just in Tibet. Even in exile you see now women are leading the struggle and efforts.

A lot of role models are doing very well, but inside Tibet, also since 1959, women did not take the back-seat and did not give up, even today. At the 2008 protest you saw equal participation by women and by nuns, I think it all stems from the fact that women are taking the responsibility, they are not shirking saying "I have to look after the family, I have other things to do".

I think the struggle and the cause is of primary importance to them and they are willing to shoulder the responsibility and I think you will be surprised to see that they have equal participation, but back home you also see that women are doing much more than men in the house. It's equal outside the house, but in the house women are doing more.

TPI: So in Tibet you are saying that women are doing most of the household work. Is that indicative of less equality between genders inside Tibet as opposed to in exile?

TDS: What I would see as gender inequality is when that kind of work is imposed on women, wherein in our case it is not. Again, our religion, our culture really influences us to an extent. For instance, if my mother and my father, both of them are equally capable, and if both of them are just sitting idle and then someone knocks the door and says "can I have a cup of tea?", then it is always going to be my mother who is going to get up and take a flask and offer the tea.

Not that my father instructed her to do that but I think it is part of our culture, it is out of respect for your partner or respect for your family that you are willing to take the punch, you are willing to make the first move.

What really scares me is if this becomes a norm, and there are times when people take it for granted. For instance if you go to a meeting you will see that the women are serving tea and men are using the camera and setting up computers. It's not like women are not capable it's just that women they voluntarily put themselves into that category.

So that's why we do this gender sensitization trainings where we tell the men it is okay for you to serve tea and tell women it's okay for you to take the camera.

So I wouldn't say there is inequality as such but there is a difference and I think it is important for us to study what are the causes for these differences, the basic mentality, and that needs to be amended. Change is very imminent, in the last five years things have changed, women are doing things that predecessors didn't do.

Even the Central Tibetan Administration they have sensed this importance and in 2008 they formulated the 8 point policy towards women's empowerment and as a consequence they set up the women's empowerment desk, they have a coordinator who travels across Nepal, India and Bhutan and gives empowerment trainings, I think a little bit of sensitization training for men is important.

But compared to the worst case scenarios, even like India, the Tibetan society is very fortunate, especially the women, and today, sometimes men feel discriminated because there are a lot of things that are exclusively for women and not for men. I think a few years down the line, if this trend is continued women will really excel and even surpass the men.

TPI: Do you feel that there is a greater freedom for Tibetan women in exile compared to in Tibet, notwithstanding the Chinese occupation?

TDS: In exile! Primarily because we live in a free world and because we have all got education which women in Tibet are deprived of. Even if you go to Tibet today you still see women milking cows, taking care of the household chores, engaged in looking after the family, wherein here you see women working, making decisions and being upfront about everything, and, notwithstanding the Chinese occupation, I think the Tibetan women in exile are doing much much better.

TPI: Tibetan men have often described for me that there is no need for gender equality advocacy among Tibetans, because, as they say, the Tibetan women are already highly respected and an integral part of society. They tell me, however, that Tibetan women are naturally very shy and that all it takes is for them to stand up for themselves and grab the opportunities already available to them. How does that sound to you?

TDS: I would agree, but the question is why they are not able to stand? Then it is going to be because of the apathy of some men, you know, who are very indifferent. When a woman stands up on the stage or when she does something different they kind of look down on her.

If a woman is getting elected to a higher post, they will be like "oh she is a woman she will not be able to travel alone". They decide for us, it's been the trend, they have been holding the main key, and not given it to us. That's why I will say, "yes, there isn't any gender inequality but there is a difference", and I think, rather than gender equality we need more gender sensitization.

TPI: As a newly elected MP, how do you feel that the, predominantly male, parliament members are responding to the female MPs in the parliament sessions?

TDS: For me, what was surprising was that the men themselves advocated for more women presence. And if you see a lot of people who supported me and who campaigned for me, they were men who were already in the running. That was very humbling for me to realize that men do see the potential in women and they are willing to give way.

Even today, a lot of men are congratulating me saying, "we wanted that change and we see that in you". I had more men congratulating me than women which was very surprising. I don't think we can stereotype Tibetan men and say they are all against women's success.

There is a section of people who are against these changes happening, but there are well educated, thoughtful people with good vision, who wants to see women come up, so I don't have any bad experiences or feelings of being singled out because I am a woman.

In fact I see that as a bonus, I see that as something that boosts my confidence. Because of the fact that I am a woman, they listen to me more, They think we are very sharp and capable, and also what's nice is that my colleagues there, I think there are twelve of us, they are all very capable women. If we do well, I think there will be more women participation in the next parliament. A lot is riding on our shoulders and I think we are bound to do that given the expectations and the support of both women and men.

TPI: Female Kalon Tripa, do you see that happening?

TDS: I think so, it has to happen, because it has been 500 years, ever since the Gaden Phodrang institution was established, since there was a political government to Tibet, and so far we haven't had any women as the head of the state. What is interesting is that His Holiness himself is ready to give up and he is himself advocating for women leaders, I think it has to happen.

I don't know whether the next Kalon Tripa election in 2016 will see a female Kalon Tripa, but after that, definitely yes. I think it is our responsibility to make an environment which is conducive for women to reach the top level.

TPI: With Tibetan women in exile enjoying the fruits of democracy, education and globalization, the women inside Tibet remain hard to reach and to give training such as the women's leadership programmes that the TWA is offering in exile. How do you expect to be able to help the women in Tibet in the future?

TDS: Well, you know we really want to reach out to the women inside Tibet and I think before we actually step on to doing something called leadership training or anything, there is more of a need for basic, sustainable projects. The basic living conditions for women in Tibet are not very good and that is why there is a need to generate projects that are sustainable in nature and that will kind of give them an income generation for the next many years.

That is a priority for now, though it is very difficult for us to reach out to the groups who are already working there because they are fearing reactions from the Chinese government. But I think this year we will be able to do two such kind of projects inside Tibet.

And then we want to stress on education. There are a lot of groups who are giving scholarships to young women who are building hostels, schools and we are in touch with these groups, though they are very wary of hearing from us or replying to us because they are being constantly watched. But I think we will make progress.

There is something in place and the least we can do is contribute financially or just with moral support which is also required. So efforts are there on our part but we haven't as of yet reached that stage where we can actually physically impart training and programs in Tibet.

But the effort is very much there and I think that it is like a dream goal, you know, we don't see Rangzen [freedom] or anything as of now, but for the time being, the urgency of the situation calls for help in bettering the lives of these women and we are committed to doing that, because that is achievable and that's practical.

TPI: Thank you very much for your time and your views!