Conflict of Desires: Female Tibetan Leaders and Gender Advocacy
This is also the longer version of the essay, retitled “Gender Violence, Leadership, and the Modern Tibetan Woman,” that I presented on the 22nd of May with other Tibet and Buddhism scholars at a panel titled “Beyond Goddesses and Yoginis: Buddhism and Gender Across Asian Societies and Traditions” at the Berksire Conference on the History of Women at the University of Toronto, Canada. That essay was later published by the Tibetan Political Review on their website on May 30th, 2014.
The last few decades has seen a rise in Tibetan women’s voices that has led to an increase in women’s leadership positions in the male dominated Tibetan state apparatus in exile—Central Tibetan Administrations (CTA) and leading Tibetan NGOs in Dharamsala, India. This is in part due to the exile/diasporic Tibetan state apparatus’s longstanding cultivation/fostering in both its male and female de facto citizens of a desire to rise to the level of “leadership” in order to politicize Tibet and to serve an already disenfranchised community of Tibetans in exile following Chinese invasion in 1959. But what happens when Tibetan women loyal to their community desire subjectivities not endorsed by the exile government?
Leadership, throughout Tibetan history, has shifted through gendered terrains. In Janet Gyatso’s Women in Tibet, an edited collection co-edited with Hanna Havnevik, Gyatso and Havnevik explores lives of leading female figures throughout Tibetan history. The book details the lives of women who became recognized for their leading roles in arenas such as politics and spirituality despite traditional Tibetan notions of women as “low-births” (2005). In regions such as Kham, stories existed of armed women that led tribal men into wars over tribal feud and territory. Women such as Tsering Drola, Khangsar Yangjan Kandrol, and Tonpon of upper Nyarong Gyari Chimi Drolma, who were known in the region as, “The Three Devils of Yangchen Lama of Khangsar Tribe.” However, the women in these historic narratives were the exception, not the norm. Women in Gyatso and Shakya’s narratives were remarkable, in that they defied the gendered norms of their time period that were dictated by their communities; challenging communal beliefs and those in power. Their stories reveal that throughout Tibetan histories, female leaders, prior to the Chinese invasion, were neither desired nor resisted. The Chinese invasion and exodus, however, presented Tibetan women in exile the opportunity to assert the desire to become leaders within their own communities.
The rise of Tibetan women in prominent leadership positions in exile can be attributed genealogically to elite Tibetan women who cared after the welfare of Tibetan refugee collective during the establishment of the exile community in India and Nepal. This essay is interested in tracking this history to understand how the project of leadership materialized for women in exile as a desired subjectivity. Leadership was promoted by the Tibetan apparatus as a crucial desire that could meet the crisis of invasion and exile. This essay is interested in tracking such developments in leadership through the framework of gender. It does so by examining and analyzing the history of one of exile’s most prominent women’s organization, the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA).
In contemporary exile Tibetan understanding, a leader was someone who used their personal and professional successes to advance the Tibetan cause and/or their community. Leadership at its base involved someone who invested in their own education and achieved some level of professional success, and used such successes to benefit the Tibetan society. Leadership in this context is achieved through an investment in ones own education to access avenues that could empower the individual to become self-making. Such emphasis on education and economics affords Tibetan refugees a level of flexibility needed to survive in exile.
In “Neoliberal respectability: Entrepreneurial marriage, affective labor, and a new Caribbean middle class,” Carla Freeman writes about Caribbean women with middle class desires in Barbados. Such desires, according to Freeman, required a “neoliberal mandate for flexibility in all realms of life” (2012, 88). Flexibility involved “the capacity to constantly retool, retrain, and respond to the shifting tides of the global marketplace” (2012;88). While Freeman frames “the neoliberal mandate for flexibility” on “the shifting tides of the global marketplace,” which has come to embody “middle-class experience” in Barbados; I frame the Tibetan desire for leaders, with flexibility as a prerequisite, on the “shifting tides” that the Chinese invasion brought to Tibetans who became refugees in Nepal and India. The need for flexibility and self-made subjectivities following exile in Nepal and India was not based in just the desire for “middle-class experience,” but the desire to survive, build community, and to politicize Tibet in exile.
Gendered Labor in the period of reconstruction
In the aftermath following Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Tibetan refugee collective required immense labor from its newly displaced population to re-establish community in exile in order to ensure their own survival as a people. With thousands of Tibetans escaping into Nepal and India, the Tibetan apparatus (specifically The Dalai Lama and his administration) had no choice but to swiftly respond to the crisis as it unfurled. Division of labor and roles quickly became gendered. While elite men handled external work involving political advocacy and securing aid in the international arena, the women busied themselves in domestic arenas as caregivers to the refugee collective. For instance, at the begining of exile, elite Tibetan women cared after the welfare of orphaned Tibetan children in facilities that they later transform into residential schools. Women from the Dalai Lama’s family, his mother Diki Tsering and sisters Tsering Dolma and Jetsun Pema, and other elite women such as Rinchen Dolma Taring are affectionately remembered in contemporary exile Tibetan society as exemplary leaders who tirelessly cared after orphaned Tibetan children.
In Hardt’s “Affective Labor” (1999), he identifies women’s “caring-labor” with “biopolitical production.” According to Hardt:
“Biopoltical production here consists primarily in the labor involved in the creation of life—not the activities of procreation but the creation of life precisely in the production and reproduction of affect. […]. Labor works directly on the affects; it produces subjectivity, it produces society, it produces life. Affective labor, in this sense, is ontological—it reveals living labor constituting a form of life and thus demonstrates again the potential of biopolitical production” (99).
It is important to note, using Hardt’s framework, that the role these women took on to care for orphaned Tibetan children involved “biopolitical production.” The children raised from these orphanages went on to become the mothers, fathers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors, and other leading figures that the Tibetan refugee apparatus and community at large needed and desired to “produce [a fully functioning Tibetan] society” in exile. The caring-labor produced by these women, who performed the roles of mothers—literally called Ama, mother, by Tibetans who were raised under their guidance—ensured the “lives” needed to sustain the continuity of the Tibetan collective in exile. These same mother figures went on to become the founding members of the oldest and only Tibetan women’s organization: Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA). Because of TWA’s historic involvement with these historic female figures, TWA becomes an important location to explore the changing roles of the exile Tibetan women, especially in the figure of leadership as desired by the Tibetan apparatus.
Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA)
TWA’s historic ties with leading female figures helped the organization gain recognition by the highest levels of authority (the Dalai Lama and CTA). The organization has regional offices across the Tibetan diaspora (Butler 2007). TWA is also well known to have launched leading female figures, in the past and the present, in the exile Tibetan polity. Many former and current female parliamentarians in the male dominated Tibetan Parliament in Exile (TPiE) were either former TWA staff or were promoted by the organization. As an organization that has launched the careers of many female leaders in Tibetan diaspora, it becomes important to review TWAs history to better situation female Tibetan leadership in contemporary Tibetan society
In Alex Butler’s Feminism, Nationalism, and Exiled Tibetan Women, Butler discusses TWA’s history and its changing roles and ideologies in the exile Tibetan polity, which ultimately matched, as she argued, CTAs own projects in exile (2007). According to Butler, between 1985 and 1992, TWA functioned primarily as a nationalist and welfare organization within the exile [Tibetan] community in India and Nepal” (3). This makes sense since the exile Tibetan community was busy constructing refugee Tibetan communities—with Dharamsala serving as its center—during this time (Diehl 2002; McGranahan 2010). Although the organization’s main objective, is to “raise public awareness of the abuses faced by Tibetan women in Chinese-occupied Tibet,” the majority of their role between mid-80s to early-90s in the exile consisted of providing welfare projects—handicraft centers—which provided employment to the continuing flow of undocumented Tibetan female refugees escaping to India. While women during the construction period of the refugee community demonstrated their leadership by providing care-work, leadership in the era between the 80s and 90s seems to have operated under “entrepreneurial imperatives” initiated by TWA to provide “flexibility” to the refuged Tibetan women so that they could become “entrepreneurs of the self” (Freeman 2012;85-88). Such economic initiatives helped Tibetan women ensure income so that they could support themselves and their families, which contributed to populating the Tibetan community. However, by the mid 90s and onwards, TWA’s leadership began shifting their focus beyond welfare projects to include assertive workshops that aimed to “empower” Tibetan women in exile.
Between 1994 and 1995, TWA became internationally recognized for their political activities at the UN Women’s Conference held in Beijing (Butler 2007;26). The Tibetan community regarded the campaign in Beijing a success and the women who participated in the campaign became widely celebrated as exemplary leaders by the Tibetan apparatus for actualizing the desire for subjects that politicized Tibet. According to Butler, it was soon after the success of the Beijing campaign that TWA began shifting their focus from welfare projects to include leadership trainings—which had been the central theme at the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing. Leadership trainings, according to Butler, involved “[the] introduction and development of the concept of the ‘empowerment’ of women” (4) with an emphasis on the need for “education” (76). As previously stated, CTA’s desire for leaders involved education. During the initial construction of the refugee community in exile, the Tibetan apparatus spent large portion of their efforts in developing schools both as a place to sustain life and to ensure a future generation that would lead the exile Tibetan community and its message.
Desiring Educated Leaders
Education has always played the central theme promoted by the Tibetan apparatus as the avenue through which Tibetans could articulate the Tibetan political message at the national and international level. At the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), the Dalai Lama lectured, “the future direction of our program will be in the field of further education in specialized studies to meet the human resource needs of the community during our period in exile and more importantly when the time comes for us to go back to our homeland”. The huge wall overlooking TCV’s soccer field contains the motto “Enter to learn, Leave to serve” in big letters. CTA’s heavy investment in children’s education emphasizes that to become the leader that the apparatus desires and needs, one needs to attain a modern education and secure a professional employment that would allow individuals to “serve” the community in exile in the present and the future in a sovereign Tibet. By the mid 90s, the Tibetan apparatus’s heavy investment in educational infrastructure seems to have paid off. With large numbers of adults, who as children were educated and cared for at these institutions, took on roles (as mothers, fathers, teachers, government workers, nurses, doctors, property owners and so on) within the community that “served” to ensure the continuation of the Tibetan community. More importantly, the labor that men and women poured into the building and maintenance of these educational institutions contributed to a generation that helped accelerate the transition of exile Tibetans from a precarious state of survivability towards a thriving exile community that places such as Dharamsala, India, currently exemplifies.
Although CTA’s promotion of education was, in McGranahan’s words, “not gendered male or female in exile (see D. Norbu 1994; Phuntsog 1994; Shastri 1994)” (1996;169); prevailing belief in traditional gender roles kept a large number of exile Tibetan girls from accessing education—especially in poor rural Tibetan communities. TWA’s decision to shift their focus to proliferate leadership workshops with an emphasis on “education” made use of the apparatus’s own desire for leaders with education as a criteria, to meet the gender gap between boys and girls in schools. In addition, the emphasis on education as a path to “empowering” women and girls to access economic and social opportunities coincides with the globalization of neoliberal ideologies that championed “empowerment” through educational and economic avenues. These ideologies were rooted in, as Freeman describes, “affective individualism, self-mastery, and introspective selfhood” (2012;103). TWA’s leadership workshops echo these neoliberal ideals by encouraging Tibetan women to be assertive, informed, and “self-mastered,” in order to become female leaders. By using CTA’s emphasis on education as a desired trait for leaders, TWA is able to campaign for equal opportunities in education and economics for women within the community, while creating spaces that allowed women and girls to discuss how they could also participate in leadership that the apparatus’s desired. Neoliberal desires provided TWA the opportunity to advocate for women’s educational and leadership advancement in arenas that had traditionally been male dominated.
In an article called, “India’s Tibetan women assuming bigger roles,” published January 1st 2014, Krishnan, the author, covers TWA’s recent workshop efforts to empower Tibetan women. The participants are described as “graduate students, professional workers, political activists, and teachers.” These workshops, “taught [women] how to take up leadership roles in their community” with trainings on “mainstream media and conflict situations” that could assist them in political campaigns such as lobbying efforts to further “the Tibetan cause.” Workshop facilitators, Dhardon Sharling, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile (and former TWA staff), and Nyima Lhamo, the General Secretary of TWA, share observations on the recent rise in the number of Tibetan women participating in leadership positions in the Tibetan community. Sharling, who was a TWA member in the past, comments, “ I feel that the Tibetan women in exile are catching up with their male counterparts and traditional gender roles of Tibetan society are being challenged.” Lhamo ends the article with “despite their day-to-day struggle, the desire to win independence for Tibet is still very important for Tibet’s female diaspora.” As can be seen in the statements given by the participants, workshop facilitators and participants exemplify the leaders that the apparatus desires as educated and professional women who are active political and social agents that desire to advance “the Tibetan cause.”
Complicated Desires: Advocating Against Gender Violence
Sometime around July in 2011, a story regarding violence against a Tibetan woman carried out by other Tibetans in Tenzigang, a rural town located in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, India began circulating on Facebook. According to TWA, “On July 18 this year TWA received some shocking news by email; a Tibetan woman had been beaten, stripped naked and taken to the market by fellow Tibetans in Tenzinghang, a Tibetan Settlement of 800 people across four camps, 160 km from Bomdilla in Arunachal Pradesh, [India].” The victim, according to the report, was attacked for having started a family with a married man, and the attackers had been the wife and her male and female family members.
As the story began taking on a life of its own on the Internet, a transnational network of Tibetans began asking, “what happened?” out loud. Further, why did CTA remain silent on the issue? TWA responded quickly by dispatching several Tibetan women from Dharamsala to investigate the incident. By August, after having received TWA’s report on the Tenzigang case, CTA’s light handling of the situation sparked off a transnational network of Tibetans criticizing CTA on different social network spaces. Female members of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile (TPiE) responded in September to the growing criticism by drafting a resolution to, “condemn all violence against women [and] to ensure the effective enforcement of the host country’s laws and acts on dealing with any forms of violence against women, and to issue new guidelines to the settlement officers aimed at protecting women’s rights and submit it to Parliament, with a deadline of March 2012.” By May 2013, TWA followed by introducing a new workshop titled “Legal Empowerment of Tibetan Women” (LETW) in seventeen different Tibetan settlements in India. According to the report complied by TWA members, the purpose of the workshop was to collect information on gender violence in each settlements, followed by workshops that informed settlement women on their “legal rights” as defined by India. The following year TWA led the second LETW workshop, in which participants of women between ages 20-40 discussed TWA’s report, which revealed high levels of gender violence currently taking place in the Tibetan exile communities. 
In Ann Stoler’s “Affective States,” she argues, “that the ‘political rationalities’ [of the state]– that strategically reasoned, administrative common sense that informed policy and practice – [are] grounded in the management of […] affective states, in assessing appropriate sentiments and in fashioning techniques of affective control” (2004:5). While Stoler’s work looks specifically at the management of affects in Indonesia under the colonial Dutch, her emphasis on the management in “affect” as prescribed by the state, in this case desires, can be applied to the Tibetan state apparatus in how they manage certain desires as “appropriate” while deeming others not appropriate.
Gender violence, which covers sexual and domestic abuse, is not new to the Tibetans experience. However, the high level of public participation in discussing the subject that’s currently taking place in the transnational spaces online is new. I would argue that it was not TWA but the transnational network of Tibetans in diaspora, especially women, who were talking about it in the virtual space, that prompted TWA to act on the issue as swiftly as they did. Former TWA staff, such as Dhardon Sharling and Tenzin Palkyi,  became leading figures in discussing gendered violence in public Tibetan spaces online. This public conversation was met with criticisms largely from Tibetan men. Men who have responded negatively to public conversation on gender violence have largely dismissed the issue by falsely concluding Tibetan society as having always been a gender equal society, or accusing women advocates of trying to emulate western concepts of modernity by taking on western feminist ideologies. At a workshop on women’s empowerment led by CTA’s women’s empowerment desk, Prime minister Lobsang Sangay gave a speech that encouraged empowerment and leadership of Tibetan women through “education [and] job opportunities,” however; nothing on domestic violence was mentioned. CTA’s general lack of actions targeting gender violence and TWA’s embrace of the campaign presents conflicts between two desires. Although TWA’s campaigns have aligned with CTA in the past, in which both organizations desired educated subjects that desired to become leaders through communal or political engagements, TWA’s current desire to enact leadership by politicizing gender violence, does not seems to align with CTA’s desires; reflected by their inaction on the issue.
Although CTA has not condemned nor celebrated TWA’s new initiative to take on gender violence in the Tibetan community, its general lack of action on the issue reveals how the desire to end gender violence, as advocated by Tibetan women, is neither encouraged nor discouraged by CTA—deeming the issue a non-issue for the male dominated Tibetan apparatus. CTA’s inaction around the issue of gender violence suggests that it will encourage TWA projects as long as they are advocating empowerment for Tibetan women through education and professionalism, which CTA has marked “appropriate,” but will not support or give voice to efforts that have yet to be marked “appropriate.” Women advocates enacting leadership by desiring an end to gender violence diverges from CTA’s own desires for leaders, which include education, but not advocacy for ending gender violence. Unlike TWA’s previous engagements, which prioritized and matched CTA’s own desires; TWA’s recent shift to take on gender violence has complicated the “appropriateness” of the issue. CTA’s lack of advocacy on the subject trivializes the issue and can be interpreted to mean that they don’t consider the desire to advocate against gender violence an approved or encouraged desire.
Following CTA’s lack of actions condemning gender violence, my Facebook newsfeed became flooded with Tibetans engaging in a firestorm of Facebook discussions/fights/rants initiated by posts that discussed gender violence and CTA’s role on the subject. There were people on all spectrums making arguments for or against the subject. More interesting discussions that I noticed taking place were by Tibetan men who were either CTA staff or were former staff members with positions ranging from administrators to civil servants. Their comments varied between denying the issue with the claim that that Tibetan society is gender equal, supporting this issue wholeheartedly, and supporting the issue with a twist. Some commenters acknowledged gender violence in the community but dismissed the issue as distracting from the larger issue of Chinese colonization by revealing the imperfections of the Tibetan collective that would ultimately, in their opinion, damage Tibet as a likable cause to the outside world. In other words, they view the public airing of gender violence in the community as harming the current success of the Tibetan cause.
In McGranahan’s Arrested Histories, she explains historical arrest as, “the apprehension and detaining of particular pasts [and present] in anticipation of their eventual release. Pasts [or presents] that clash with official ways of explaining nation, community, and identity are arrested, in the multiple senses of being held back and delaying progress but also in the ironic sense of drawing attention to these pasts [and presents]” (2010;24). While McGranahan is specifically talking about the “arrest” of Chushi Gangdrug resistance army histories, women who desire the public airing of an issue that has haunted Tibetan women’s past and present are being told by a certain group of Tibetans to put their desires on “arrest” because these desires “clash with official ways of explaining nation, community, and identity” (24) Advocacy against gender violence is deemed problematic because it engages wrongdoings within the community, not China. Because the issue does not deal directly with China, critics (who don’t deny the issue but accuse women advocates of harming the larger political movement for freedom) tell women advocates to put the issue of gender violence on “arrest,” at least until freedom is achieved. However, advocacy against gender violence, as a desire promoted by TWA and other women advocates, call attention to the present realities of the Tibetan women in exile. Such advocates like the CTA, are invested in producing leaders that desire the project of sustenance in exile, the politicizing of Tibet, and a future free Tibet; however, they also want to promote a desire for a Tibetan society, present and future, free of gender violence and discrimination.
In tracing the desires of the exiled Tibetan female leadership figure using TWA’s own historical trajectory, I’ve emphasized how the leadership figure, for Tibetan women, have gone through different transitions that either align with or diverge from the official desires as prescribed by the Tibetan apparatus. However, what about Tibetan women who desire or inhabit subjectivities that are not promoted by CTA or TWA?
Desiring Other Subjectivities
Recently, I was talking to a female friend who asked about my sister. After I told her that my sister was in India studying Tibetan Buddhism, she sarcastically responded with “please don’t let her become a nun.” I asked whether she was joking or was she actually against the idea of my sister becoming a nun, she confirmed she was against the idea. When I asked her to explain, she responded, “Well, the Tibetans are having less babies and as a result our population is decreasing”–a belief rooted in recent studies which reveal the decreasing number in Tibetans due to having less children. In another incident following a close friends decision to become a nun who later joined a nunnery, other Tibetan friends who know us both questioned me on why she choose that lifestyle. My friends framed the question as, why would Rinzin (name changed), as someone raised in the U.S. with a Bachelors degree who graduated from a well-known college, who is considered attractive and worked at stable and respected job, choose to become a nun? They always followed that question with, “I get it, and good for her, but what’s the point?” The not-so-positive response seems to imply that nun’s lifestyle could maybe achieve some spiritual gratification but what tangible outcome, especially for Tibet, would it serve otherwise?
The desire to study Buddhism or to become a nun involves renouncing not only worldly matters in the spiritual sense but includes the rejection of prescribed gendered subjectivities in the traditionalist Tibetan sense and subjectivities promoted as “modern” under neoliberal capitalist ideologies—which promotes the idea of “empowerment” through ‘modern’ education and consumption. Although the Tibetan religious institutions are not free of gender discrimination, the desire to become a nun rejects the gendered subjectivities prescribed by politicized Tibet or the capitalist oriented independent/educated self-making modern woman—this desire is also strangely an indigenous Tibetan response and desire. Yet, the expression of such desires evoked responses such as, “but why?” from Tibetans living in exile, whose subjectivities reflect their concrete reality in which they and the apparatus desires leaders that can ensure the continuity of the community and/or its political message. Religious or ascetic lifestyles as a subjectivity desired is not discouraged by CTA, TWA or the modern Tibetan youth; however, they are not desired either.
Tibetan monastic institutions in exile have seen a sharp drop in the number of exile Tibetans—women and men—desiring monastic subjectivities. Such decreases in numbers reflect how the desire for certain subjectivities, such as religious lifestyles, are neither promoted by CTA or TWA nor desired by the current generation of Tibetans in exile. It is also about the promotion of certain subjectivities as “modern” (educated/professional/leaders), while other subjectivities—such as homemakers, spiritual cave dwellers, and/or story telling grandmothers who also contribute to the sustenance of the Tibetan community and culture in Tibet and across the diaspora—take a back seat to the desire for Tibetan leaders that lead community and politicize Tibet.
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Shakya, Tsering. 2014. Private conversation with Dr. Tsering Shakya who shared information regarding the three female warriors of Kham from his private research notes.
Stoler, Ann. 2004. “Affective States,” In A Companion to Anthropology of Politics, Nugent, David and Joan Vincent, ed. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
 Shakya, Tsering. 2014. Private conversation with Dr. Tsering Shakya who graciously shared information regarding the three female warriors of Kham from his private research notes.
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 “Revisiting the ‘Tenzingang Incident’ after the Delhi Rape/Murder Case,” http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=32874&t=1, (May 2, 2014)
 “Know your Right: Legal Empowerment project,” http://tibetanwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/summer-voice-edition-2013.pdf (May 4, 2014)
 “Legal Empowerment of Tibetan Women-Symposium Report,” http://tibetanwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Voice_for-website.pdf, (May 4, 2014)
 “Growing Up a Girl in India,” http://www.phayul.com/mobile/?page=view&c=4&id=34417, (May 4, 2014)
 “Gender Equality & Women Empowerment crucial for holistic social growth: Sikyong,” http://tibet.net/2013/12/17/gender-equality-and-women-empowerment-crucial-for-holistic-social-growth-sikyong/, (May 2, 2014)