Dialogue  October-December, 2012, Volume 14 No. 2

7.      Tibetan Women: Past and Present

Madhu Rajput


Tibet, an esoteric place, has always evoked interest in its history, religion and customs. The endeavour has been to know the unknown facts of Tibet due to its isolation and political compulsions which made its accessibility extremely difficult. Socially, Tibetans share a considerable genetic background with Mongols. Living in extreme altitude and cold, the change in Tibet was always painfully slow. In the land which is synonymous with Dalai Lama and Buddhism, instead of peace it was a constant struggle people of Tibet had to wage against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army since 1949. The efforts made for peace failed miserably. Dalai Lama took flight on the night of March 17, 1959 towards India, hoping to appeal to the international community to take action against Chinese aggression in Tibet. On March 31, 1959, exhausted and seriously ill, the Dalai Lama crossed onto Indian soil. China swiftly consolidated its control of Tibet murdering more than a million Tibetans and arresting and sending thousands to the labour camps. Over 6,000 monasteries, repositories of centuries of scholarship and culture were looted and razed. All hopes for the survival of Tibet’s 2,000 year old civilization lay in India with the Dalai Lama and 100,000 refugees. Since then the inflow has only increased with time.

In March 1959, a massive uprising took place against the Chinese. Tibetan women were also involved in one of these revolts. It marked the beginning of the Tibetan Home in Exile. In India, Dehradun and Dharamshala are areas concentrated with Tibetan refugees. In this paper an attempt has been made to understand the lives of Tibetan refugee women who, despite the challenges in an alien land totally different in

* Dr. Madhu Rajput, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Lucknow, India; email: drmadhurajput@rediffmail.com

social and political set up have worked hard to carve a niche for themselves. During my visit to Dharamshala and Mcleodganj in October 2012, their strong presence was felt in their homes as well as workplaces.

Women in Traditional Tibetan Society

Traditional Tibetan women had a strong position in their homes but were hardly expected to work outside. They formally never took part in politics before 1950s. Socially, they were the epicentres of the family and in Asia, they can only be compared to the Bhutanese women who had a stronghold in the family and decision making. They did not suffer from social evils such as foot binding (a practise in China) or Sati (widow burning- a practise in India).

Bell (1928) who has analysed social structure of Tibet says that those who have studied social life in Tibet can hardly fail to agree that the position of women in Tibetan society is remarkably good.

"The condition of Tibetan women with regard to men, especially in the provinces may be considered as surpassing the ideal of western women, so far as the theory of equality of rights between the sexes is concerned." (Quoted in Bell, The people of Tibet, 1928: 156).

Bell (1928) mentioned in his work that they did not rank a son higher than a daughter; therefore female infanticide had never been found in Tibet. Women usually enjoyed much more freedom and prestige in old Tibet than in other Asian countries.

In former times when Tibet was split up in different principalities, some have been under the rule of women. Even later ministers and officials consulted their wives in their official work. Contrary to above mentioned facts, it seems that women had an inferior status to men. This is expressed in the word ‘kyemen’ the ordinary Tibetan word for women, which means the lower birth. (Bell, 1928: 161/162).

According to Aziz (1978) the dominance and social status a woman could obtain had to be in accordance with other rules of behaviour which demanded passivity and compliance at certain times. More than a man a woman had to be mindful of rules and protocol in public. It would seem that she could take the most liberties only with her husband. In general social situations, much more was expected of a woman than of a man. While men might lose control and be forgiven, women were not given this licence. (Aziz, 1978:180).1

An aspect of the inequality of the position between men and women could be found in rituals. The central feature of the nomadic ritual was the yoghurt vow, indicating that the bride would make good yoghurt, which is considered auspicious food. There was no equivalent for the groom. Thus whereas women might conduct trade as men did, men did not make yoghurt (Klein, 1985: 123) Inequality between men and women was also obvious in the treatment of boys and girls. Girls were treated in a different way than boys.

The power which a Tibetan woman enjoyed was something that developed after she was married. Before that she was regarded as innocent girl, and her life was largely designed by others. Often it happened that a girl was led away under pretext to go a pilgrimage and was introduced to her husband at the gate of his house where she was going to live (Aziz, 1978: 169). Many D’ingri (Aziz did research among D’ingri women in southern Tibet) women remembered that they knew nothing about their marriages and sometimes they even ran away and lived as nuns. Their choice was not a common one but it had happened often enough to suggest that the more noble religious life of a Tibetan female ascetic was often motivated by oppression and lack of choices in normal life (Aziz, 1978:169). In the choice of her husband a Tibetan woman had a little say. A son was consulted by the parents, but a daughter hardly was. According to Bell (1928), however, the practise was growing that young men chose their own brides. This was more common among the peasants and traders than among the gentry (Bell, 1928:175). Marriage was arranged by parents and other relatives of the boy and the girl who were going to be married (Klein, 1985:122).

If there was a daughter in the family and no son, the daughter’s husband lived in the house of her family. He adopted the family name and took a position subordinate to his wife in the management of the family estate (Bell, 1928:157).

Women and Education

In general there was education in monasteries and in private schools in traditional Tibet. If a boy wanted to be a priest, he was educated in a monastery. Secular education was meagre but not entirely lacking. Very often a teacher had other work of his own and taught only for a part of the day. A nobleman had very often his own private tutor. Very few girls got education (Bell, 1928: 203). If there was a choice to be made between the education of a girl or a boy, mostly the boy was chosen for education.

According to Aziz (1987) the girl/sister had to begin labouring at an earlier age. In the house she was the first one to get up in the morning, making the fire, fetching fuel and water. She assumed the domestic duties when a boy/brother was sent to school. A boy who was sent as a servant to an uncle who was a monk had better chance of becoming educated and promoted to higher monastic ranks than had a girl who attended a relative who was a nun. In this way women are assigned to greater hardships while limiting their opportunities (Aziz, 1987: 75-76).

Women and Religion

A Tibetan, when asked about his parents, mentions his mother first. The high reputation and prestige of wives and mothers have been promoted by the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism training the devotees to view all beings as his own mother. Klein (1985) stated that Buddhist philosophy appears to support an egalitarian vision and a cluster of values one would expect to work positively for women (Klein, 1985:111/112). Is this egalitarian vision also mirrored by women’s place in society? In some way Buddhism may have helped Tibetan women to maintain their position, but in official religious affairs they don’t have such powers (Bell, 1928: 163). Whenever hierarchic structures were emphasised as they were in Tibetan monastic order and theocratic system centred in Lhasa, women were excluded from power (Klein, 1985:120). Although Tibetan society preferred women to be in domestic roles, where the religious performance consisted of offering butter lamps, water and incense at the household altar, religious life was open to women as well as to men. Tibet was the home of one of the largest communities of Buddhist nuns in the world (Tsomo, 1987: 87)

Economic Position of Women

Generally men did the outside works while women tended to all the works within the household. Activity which women did outside the household was mainly trading. Tibetans are famous for trade and women of virtually all classes have been engaged in this sphere. Bell (1928) referred to Tibetan women as active and shrewd and that most of the shops were kept by them (Bell, 1928: 159). Klein (1985) too mentioned that in Lhasa women were active in the shops of their family and some had their own business. But despite a certain equality in work, there was a certain preference for male offspring (Klein, 1985:119). The position of unmarried women was not inferior in economic sense. Dargyay (1982) mentioned that for a single unmarried woman a house was constructed near the family house, she received the share of the family’s herds and food stores. She had her own economic unit helped by the other members of the family (Dargyay, 1982:57).

Traditional Tibetan women economically contributed to the income of the family and their position was strong in trading, weaving and handicrafts, but socially their position was not at par with men. In education and monastic order, preference was always given to boys, and girls were expected to be at home. However, the difficult and changed circumstances in exile forced them to bear the burdens of the struggle and development outside homes along with their traditional household duties.

Tibetan Women in Monastic Community

Tibetan women have had the opportunity to lead a monastic life for many hundred years. As with the monks in Tibetan Buddhism, the nuns follow the guidelines Buddha Shakyamuni set forth in 6th century BC.2 However, Tibetan nuns, unlike their male counterparts, are unable to obtain full Bhikshuni ordination.3

Traditionally in Tibet, becoming a nun did not carry the same advantages as becoming a monk. Nunneries were often poor institutions that were sub-branches of bigger, more important monasteries and the abbot of the nunnery was usually a monk or a yogi, and therefore, male, from the nearby monastery, thus affording the nuns little opportunity for self-governance and/or self-determination. Often the nunneries were of the village variety, which meant that they were more involved with meeting the needs of the local community. There were no "national nunneries" in Tibet that could serve as the equivalents of Drupeng, Sera or Ganden.4 As a result, there was little or no formal education provided for the nuns.5 There were very few official positions that could be filled by nuns and they were often excluded from debates on philosophy and from the spiritual arts, such as thangka painting and mandala construction. Instead, they were confined to more elementary religious practices such as performing the daily rituals and reciting mantras.

Despite this, throughout history, several nuns have made a significant impact upon Tibetan history by acting as religious administrators, yoginis, and advocates for a free Tibet. However, many nuns chose not to pursue advanced studies in Buddhist philosophy or to follow the path of the yogini, instead focusing their time and energy into the daily practices and prayers. Many women did not actually see this as spiritually limiting, for there is much merit found within this type of practice and it is seen as both necessary and very beneficial for all sentient beings.6 However several factors are changing this view within the current exiled community and many nuns are now opting to pursue alternative paths and higher levels of education and philosophy.

Nuns constitute an increasingly important demographic part within the monastic community and occupy a progressively larger role not only within the strictly religious realm, but also in scholarship, administration, politics and activism. As the Tibetan community and the Tibetan cause march into the future, it will be of primary importance to understand the integral contributions of Tibetan nuns to their society.7

In the freedom struggle they played a very positive role as most of the demonstrations in Lhasa were initiated by nuns. Many of them spent their lives in prison for demanding an independent Tibet.

Life in Exile

Today’s Tibetan women are educated, hard working, and confident and show the capacity to imbibe the changes which they have to face due to changed circumstances of living in exile. The indomitable spirit to fight for Tibetan independence reigns supreme in them. Even the Tibetan society today attaches more value to the welfare of women. The new constitution of Tibet, promulgated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama proclaims equality among sexes. The change of the Tibetan society from nomadic herding to handicraft business and education has opened new vistas for Tibetan women.

In the new situation, the traditional Tibetan family system is losing its importance. The joint family structure is giving way to nuclear type of families. Reasons such as lack of enough money, no land holding to support the whole family under one roof are behind this change. The small areas allotted to the refugee families could not adjust to large number of people. Their engagement to non-agricultural occupations has seen them move from one city to another in search of job.

Majupuria (1990) mentioned that the family and marital forms of Tibetan society are greatly influenced by economic factors. The change which had taken place by leaving their country and settling in a place where land and property was limited, contributed to a different family structure. Also the fact that most Tibetan refugees had left Tibet not as families but individuals and loss of family members affected the kinship stability. In the Tibetan families, who are living in exile, the family pattern is mostly conjugal (Majupuria, 1990:129/130).

Not only the family structure, but, marriage customs also changed. In traditional Tibet 30% of the marriages were polyandrous and nearly all marriages were arranged by the parents. Majupuria mentioned that polyandry is now uncommon both in Tibet and outside, as it is closely connected with property and the conception of unity of the patrilinear line which should not be broken. But even if polyandry had died down the paternal right on the property of the family still exists (Majupuria, 1990:130).

Education for Women

One of the first realisations that dawned upon Tibetan refugees in South Asia at the beginning of their exile was, how much they had "fallen behind" the rest of the world. Each encounter with a car, train, bicycle or plane provided evidence of it. The refugees believed that Tibet had fallen behind due to the utter lack of modern education in their country. They also drew a direct connection between their lack of modern education and the loss of their country. Consequently they felt a tremendous need to have their children educated and both the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee leadership saw this as one of the refugee’s most important goals. The formal education began with two goals in mind, first- education was perceived as a tool of modernizing future Tibet and second to defend and preserve traditional culture and national identity (Gombo, 1985: 254).

Through the Tibetan School Society, the Indian Government established and funded the residential schools together with a number of day schools. Beside these schools, many small schools were funded with Tibetan efforts independently from the Indian government. One of the most important schools was the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) in Dharamshala which was started as a nursery for orphans but gradually grew into an important school (Gombo, 1985: 257).

From the days when they could only look into the accounts of the family or write letters, today Tibetan women have moved to getting higher education. They have even learnt the local language of the place of their settlement Hindi and English. Almost every Tibetan woman in exile is a working woman. They are employed in Tibetan administration and various service institutions controlled by Government in Exile. We can say that about 90% women have education. As a result, there is a higher rate of literacy among women. They are in high professions like doctors, teachers and administration today. This is in direct contrast to their traditional society where hardly there was emphasis on education. Even men expect that women should not sit at home if they are capable of doing either business or a job. Rape and suicide are not a common feature.

Tibetan Women’s Association

Tibetan Women’s Association was founded on 12 March 1959 when thousands of Tibetan women staged an uprising and large scale demonstrations where the brutality of the Chinese troops could not crush their spirit. In 1960s, this Association was set up in exile. At that stage, it was purely a social welfare organization. In 1984, Tibetan Women’s Association was re-established in Dharamshala. This organization today has 56 chapters and 1650 members.8

In an interview, Ms. Mingi, the PRO of TWA, Mc Leodganj informed that the organisation started with giving scholarships for women, tailoring and leadership training workshops. Today TWA stands as a pivotal force in empowering women, socially, economically and politically. Many more organizations such as Ka-Dor Women’s Friendship Association, North east India; United Women’s Association at Dharamshala, Tibetan Women's Association, U.P. State have come up. Tibetan Cooperative Society at Dharamshala (H.P.), Tibetan Women Cooperative Handicraft Centre at Rajpur, Dehradun are working for women employment and preservation of Tibetan society, culture, traditions and language. They have been advocating Tibet’s complete independence and follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s advice of non-violence and middle path dealing with the changing political realities.


Buddhism is kept alive in Tibet through the laymen and nuns. The nuns rebuilt nunneries in Tibet. They worked to get spiritual teachings and escaped to India where they found and joined nunneries.9 Few nunneries remained in Tibet after the invasion and the cultural revolution of 1966-1976. It is difficult today to carry on the tradition of nuns.

Today, with even the nunneries in ruin, young nuns have, so to speak, to create their own roles as nuns. They copy tradition, but they also transform it by combining it with new elements called for in a situation of critical urgency; they became political nuns.10

The mammoth Kalachakra initiation ceremony in Sarnath in 1990 drew hundreds of nuns from Tibet, who risked life and limb and the disapproval of the administration in Lhasa to make it to the ceremony.

The testimonies of nuns arriving in India, taken by the Tibetan Women’s Association of women political prisoners (even nuns were not spared) who escaped between 1987 and 1994, reveal a pattern of resistance and repression that Tibetans who still live in their homeland are vulnerable to.

This nunnery, as the one in Mundgod, another major settlement in Karnataka, is over crowded. The long-held perception that nuns can contribute nothing to the movement to free Tibet is slowly giving way to the idea that they should be drafted into the struggle. Nuns now practice severe austerities, and engage in Buddhist studies, and have barely gained a toehold in the male-dominated field of religious and spiritual studies.11

Tibetan Women as Working Mothers

Dharamshala represents Tibetan community’s development and distress both. Around 700012 Tibetan nationals residing there are learning a new way of life. In Mc Leodganj, whether one walks in an office, restaurant or shop, it is invariably managed by Tibetan women educated and capable of delivering the demands of their jobs.

The division of labour in household is as follows:

- Division of household work (both share it)

- Final decision-making (by mutual consent in majority of cases)

- Childcare activities (a female dominion)

De Kleer Kuhn wrote, "Women felt responsible for the well being of the children, even if the children were living in boarding schools. Many women who were working took a day off when one of the children was sick. Their husbands were generally more interested in the progress of learning, the children made.

In Mc Leodganj was a quite good system of Daycare Centres and nurseries. Most of the working women availed these facilities for their children. Other women had a mother or somebody else at home who was looking after the children. Housewives cared for the children themselves. As they were not working, they felt it their duty. Sometimes their husbands helped, controlling the homework of the children."13


India has provided Tibetans to develop and adopt new skills as well as preserve the traditional professions such as agriculture, trading and carpet weaving. They are utilising the advance technology to build their traditional professions into an industry which has a world-wide market and appreciation. In Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala traditional products are produced and sold giving employment to many as well as keeping the Tibetan art alive.

The modernization process is not a casualty of their refugee status as the government in exile is taking care of matters concerning education, health and youth. The Tibetan Library in Dharamshala has been totally modernised and emphasis has been on making available the traditional literature in Hindi and English both along with the Tibetan language.

As told by the PRO of the Tibetan Women Association in Mc Leodganj, as far as the socio-cultural position of women is concerned, the development is positive and evident. Nuclear families have taken the place of joint family system. Polyandry has given way to monogamy. People do marry outside the Tibetan community but the exceptions are few. Mostly marriages are within the Tibetan community. Today, it is a traditional society keeping to its past but it is now more open and free. Marriage is now a personal choice and there are only few incidences of arranged marriage.

Religion is still important and rituals are observed. The position of nuns is still inferior to that of monks. They do not appear in the position of powers in the religious hierarchy. Education has changed their lives. Education is given free in Tibetan Schools established by Government of India with the help of various sponsors from the different parts of the world. Almost all the women are educated and working. Only the elderly may not have been to schools.

The empowered Tibetan women today have taken up the challenge successfully whether it is demanding the political freedom of Tibet or by economically contributing to the development of the community in exile. Women contribute to income either by a salary or working in self-owned or family business. Housewives contribute by doing household chores and by savings. They have created a lot of self-employment opportunities and alternative occupations. Tibetan markets testify to their omnipresent existence there. However, the problem of single mothers as well as growing number in prostitution in Tibet is a sign of alarm.

In short, the determination which they represent gives them courage to accomplish the task which is credited to them through history.


1. Quoted in the Doctorate Script Changes in the Socio-Economic Position of Tibetan Women in Exile by De Kleer- Kuhn, University of Amsterdam, p. 22.

2. Tibetan Nuns, The Status of Exiled Tibetans Nuns in India, published by Tibetan Women’s Association, Dharamshala, Kangra, India, p.5.

3. CBW, Abstract: Tibetan Nuns and Bhikshuni Ordination (2007): http:www.congress-on-buddhist-women.org/index.php?id=50).

4. Havenevik, Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms and Social Reality, p.40.

5. Tsomo, Tibetan Nuns: New Roles and Possibilities, p. 355.

6. Hanna Havnevik, The Role of Nuns in Contemporary Tibet. Resistance and Reform in Tibet, Robert Barnett and Shirin Akiner eds, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994), p.261.

7. Tibetan Nuns, The Status of Exiled Tibetans Nuns in India, published by Tibetan Women’s Association, Dharamshala, Kangra, India, pp.6-7.

8. As told by the Public Relations Officer, Tibetan Women Association, Mc Leodganj, Ms. Mingi in an interview with the author on 27 October 2012.

9. Devine Carol, Tibetan Women and the Struggle for Independent Tibet, 1993, p.15.

10. Quoted in Devine Carol, Tibetan Women and the Struggle for Independent Tibet, 1993, p.16.

11. Jayasri Alladi, Empowerment of Women: Answers from Tibet, Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, New Delhi, India, p.23.

12. Figure given by Ms. Mingi, the Public Relations Officer, Tibetan Women’s Association, Mc Leodganj, in an interview by the author in her office on 27 October 2012.

13. Kuhn De Kleer, Doctorate Script, Changes in the Socio-Economic Position of Tibetan Women in Exile, University of Amsterdam, p.49 .


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