Meet the Tibetan women striving for peace and democracy. Lhagyari Namgyal Dolkar is a 34-year-old Tibetan activist and sitting Member of Parliament in the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala, a hill town in Northern India. She is all set to enter the parliament for another five-year term.
On February 8th, 2021, the Chief Election Commissioner Wangdu Tsering of the Election Commission declared the results of the preliminary round of election for the Sikyong (President) and members of the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. Lhagyari’s name was number seven on the list from her region, Utsang in Tibet. She got through the preliminary round of elections held on January 3rd, 2021. On her Instagram page, she wrote, “Democracy is not and should not just be about vote but as Cardozo had said, ‘strengthening each citizen’s possibility and capacity to participate in the deliberations involved in life in society”. As a female activist striving for women’s visibility and parity within the Tibetan movement, Lhagyari finds it limiting to be labeled as a feminist. “Women have equally contributed for to the movement to free Tibet’s freedom as men have. They need a voice and visibility”, she asserts.
Born and brought up in Dharamshala, Lhagyari’s parents were former political prisoners in Tibet. Her father came to India on a pilgrimage after spending 20 years and 6 months in prison. In India, he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama who suggested that he stay back and work for the cause. Her mother too, a former political prisoner who spent over three years in prison in Tibet, came to India around the same time. They met and married. “I belong to a family of political prisoners. My grandmother was also a political prisoner. I have grown up listening to these accounts. I am aware of Tibetan women’s contribution and sacrifice towards challenging Chinese oppression”, says Lhagyari in a high-pitched voice. She added that it is these stories that have shaped her identity as a woman, a political activist and a Tibetan. Importantly, Lhagyari uses the agency of this intersectionality to carve a space for women’s narratives within the Tibetan movement. “The female population within the movement is small. However, I belong to a family where women have been political prisoners. This has to be reflected in exile too. We need to populate the movement with all voices”, says Lhagyari.
Tibetan women as protestors
Historically, women’s presence is not witnessed in Tibetan society, culture and public affairs. However, in response to the political developments and oppressive policies by the Chinese, they revolted and mobilised an uprising. Tracing the trajectory of Tibetan women’s activism, one comes across accounts in Chapter one of the book ‘Breaking the Shackles: Fifty Years of Tibetan Women’s Struggle’ by the Tibetan Women Association, the second largest Tibetan NGO in exile. According to the book, the first semblance of a revolt by Tibetan women was seen exactly 62 years ago on International Women’s Day in Lhasa. In 1950, when the troops of Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered the capital city of Lhasa, they used several tactics from friendly overtures to covert methods through high-ranking Chinese officer’s wives to slyly use women from influential backgrounds to sway Tibetan ‘political leaders’ towards accepting Chinese policies. To this effect a Lhasa Patriotic Tibetan Women’s Association was formed. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Beijing in 1954, the Chairman of the women’s organization, Taklha Tsering Dolma, and Ngapoe Tseten Dolkar also went after receiving an invitation from the Chinese government.
On another occasion, specifically when International Women’s Day was marked in the new meeting hall in Lhasa on March 8th, 1959 and a Chinese military leader began delivering a speech, Tibetan women rose in unison to counter and protest. It was the first-time Tibetan women made their mark as protesters.
Although the establishment of the patriotic women’s organization benefitted the Chinese government in terms of its external propaganda efforts at the time, most of its members later joined the Tibetan women’s uprising on March 12th, 1959. Those who had been appointed to leadership posts (such as the Chairperson) in the patriotic women’s organization in Lhasa later fled Chinese oppression and escaped into exile. In exile, Taklha Tsering Dolma and Taring Rinchen Dolma took responsibility to take care of hundreds of orphans. They set up two networks of schools for Tibetan children in exile that have today become renowned around the world. All Tibetans in exile wholeheartedly recognise the two of them as great individuals of the snowland of Tibet.
A movement continues
From the very beginning of the patriotic women's rights movement in Tibet until now, 60 plus years later, Tibetan women have struggled and persevered through some of the most miserable and epic moments in history without using guns or violence. “Our struggle is peaceful and non-violent. We choose to walk the Middle path for genuine autonomy as advocated by His Holiness”, says a soft-spoken Dolma Yangchen, President of Tibet Women’s Association. With more than fifty years in India, she had to escape with her parents in 1959 because of Chinese oppression. In India, the struggle was anything but easy. However, she dedicated herself to the cause of women’s empowerment and worked in various Tibetan settlements on livelihood projects. Today, she continues to play a role in politically and socially modernising Tibetans, while stoically preserving cultural identity, for that is what their struggle is all about.
Pictured: Dolma Yangchen, President of Tibet Women’s Association.
Where do women’s voices and experiences find themselves within the socio-cultural political narrative when we celebrate Internal Women’s Day this year?
Responding to this question, Dolma, narrating the story of escape in 1959, recalled that while many women were captured, killed or tortured, many escaped to India. However, in the initial years they could not think of starting any organization yet around 40 of them grouped together to start economic centers in Indian cities like Darjeeling, Dehra Doon and Dharamshala. Their focus was to keep their cultural identity alive and support women in distress. In 1984, His Holiness reminded the women about their organisation and role in Tibet and urged them to form a formal association. “That is how Tibetan Women Association came into existence”, Dolma points out. She further informs, “Women went from one settlement to another across the country asking women to come forward and become members. That is how women’s association was revived. Today we have around 50 regional chapters all over the world including Nepal, Bhutan, India, Europe, Australia, UK and the US with around 16-17 thousand members”.
Our conversation steers towards democracy, diplomacy, dialogue, leadership, peace and women’s role in it. “We have contributed in a genuine way to building democratic institutions, our parliament in exile, diplomatic initiatives with political leadership in other countries, paved way for dialogue and worked towards the idea of peace within our community and at global level”, says Dolma convincingly. Elaborating on women’s pivotal role for achieving their political goals Dolma walked me through the TWA’s journey from its inception to its current vision. “As the largest women’s NGO we have never shied from our political responsibility. However, from directly fighting the Chinese, we adopted the policy of working with world leaders, spreading public awareness by providing data about Chinese oppression and violation in Tibet, lobbying to enable release of political prisoners inside Tibet. We engage with diplomats, researchers, media and our supporters to build awareness about the Tibet issue.”
Building democracy from within
A fascinating dimension of Tibetan democracy is not just the electoral processes that has evolved over the last fifty years to include all sections of the Tibetan polity, but also the way Tibetan institutions, including NGOs, have been instrumental in strengthening democracy from within. As the largest women’s body advocating for ‘genuine autonomy’ through non-violence, the TWA elect their members to also engage in dialogue with organisations who seek complete independence. In doing so they remain mindful of four democratic pillars: dialogue, representation, inclusion and co-operation. “When we decided to opt for Middle Path, it was discussed at all levels, in all branches with all the members. It was not a random decision by a few women. We all choose to follow what His Holiness had suggested as a political solution. “We don’t have our country or army, non-violence is the only way we chose to defeat our opponent. We follow the advice of His Holiness for he believes that Tibetan woman can play a powerful role in the Tibetan community but in the world to bring peace."
Pictured: Lhagyari speaking to students about the Tibetan Freedom Movement.
Located at two different political positions Lhagyari, who wants complete independence from China and advocates for ending ‘One china Policy’, and Dolma who chooses the Middle Path of genuine autonomy, they however transcend binaries to embrace one common vision of unity, increasing women’s equal participation in the social arena and political movement. Plain speaking Lhagyari stresses, “With participation, visibility and recognition of women’s role in Tibetan Freedom Movement does not make the movement different or better. It makes it real. We always say, we represent Tibetans inside Tibet. Inside Tibet the freedom movement consisted of women, female voices which need to be reflected in exile too.” She adds that during her tenure as Vice President and President of GhuChuSum (Political Prisoners Movement of Tibet) and as an MP she has always brought the narratives of former women political prisoners and activists to bear. “The way she has suffered is more because of her being a woman. This has not been highlighted in the movement and my effort is to change this. It is about making our movement more humane and inclusive”, stresses Lhagyari. This is an agenda that Dolma pitches through women’s political and leadership training in TWC. “We play an important role in building relationships, opening doors for dialogue and reaching out to Chinese democracy activists. We train women for leadership through our women’s empowerment and leadership programmes. Many Chinese trust TWA and they have approached our centre. We exchange ideas. It may take long but this is the path to peace and justice”, says Dolma. Chasing a similar vision, Lhagyari adds, “It is not about seeking rights, it is about being included. I have worked for inclusivity and security of Tibetan women within the movement just as feminist work towards including voices of the male the feminist movement”.
According to Dolma, while Tibetan society is equally patriarchal in nature as other societies, Tibetan women have come a long way from the old system. Since 2017, reforms and affirmative action for equal rights has also started to penetrate to the community of nuns. They are getting equal rights to education and excellence, just as their male counterparts, monks. From surviving the exodus and setting up economic and social organisations, to taking up leadership positions within the Tibet Central administration and now contesting elections or becoming MPs or politicians like Dolma Gyari*, Tibetan women are beginning to occupy public spaces. They are battling to assert their centrality within the Tibetan narrative. Many more women like Dolma and Lhagyar are engaged in the movement for equality, democracy and peace. Women in Tibet, despite their political standpoints and perspectives on independence, unite in a common vision of peace for their country, and equality for all. Through their work they are opening up new spaces for parity and inclusion; the movement for freedom goes hand in hand with that of gender equality. Both deserve recognition and support.
*Dolma Gyari is a well-known Tibetan politician in exile, a former activist, active since the early 1980s. In 2004, she was appointed by the Dalai Lama to be the Chairperson of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. In 2020, Gyari announced her candidacy for Sikyong. According to the current election result which she contested for Sikyong, she is at a number three position.