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Women in Tibetan society

Otto Kolbl (follow on facebook, twitter), created: 2013-03-16, last modified: 2017-11-17

Many Western specialists and even Chinese intellectuals praise the Tibetan society for its tradition of granting equal rights to women. They often contrast this with the allegedly patriarchal Han Chinese society. However, the reality on the ground is generally quite different. It is not easy to get information on this topic; many Tibetans, men as well as women, do not want to talk about it. However, the little they say clearly indicates that there are considerable problems.

Historical document often describe the Tibetan women as being gentle and very hardworking. I have found no instance of Tibetan men being described in this way. In traditional farmer and herder families, tasks requiring physical strength are done by men, but they have got a lot of spare time; women, on the contrary, are busy the whole day.

Tibet: Women harvesting barley, the most widespread crop in the Tibetan areas. Photo: Sangjike.

Women harvesting barley, the most widespread crop in the Tibetan areas. Photo: Sangjike.

The Tibetan society is becoming more urbanized. In this process, the task distribution undergoes some changes. Obviously, many Tibetan men work hard to feed their family. However, since Tibetan men are not used to do boring work all day long, the family heads will try to avoid having to find a job. If the family opens a shop, for example, they will purchase the goods and let their wife and children (if in working age) do the selling. Purchasing the goods means travelling a lot, since wholesale traders are often hundreds of kilometers away. While travelling, they will meet with their friends and have a lot of fun; meantime, their wives have to stay in the shop and serve the clients the whole day, every day all year round.

There are certainly families which do not function according to this scheme; however, it seems to be sufficiently widespread so as to be a serious obstacle to economic development. The equation is very simple: the Tibetans have to compete with the Han Chinese where both men and women work hard. The consequence of this for any development project is also quite straightforward: if you need local partners who are used to work hard, look for women.

Such teahouses have got a mainly male clientele. Traditionally, men go out to have fun, women stay at home.

Such teahouses have got a mainly male clientele. Traditionally, men go out to have fun, women stay at home.

There are signs that things are changing. The Tibetan society has never been rigidly codified like for example the Western or Han Chinese societies in the 19th century. This will make change much easier than in other comparable cases. In past centuries, especially in the Tibetan areas outside of Central Tibet, i.e. in Kham and Amdo, women could rise to prominent positions and even become respected war leaders; in Central Tibet, on the other hand, the situation of women was traditionally better than in the warrior culture in Kham and Amdo.

However, keeping the present problems in this field a taboo will certainly not contribute to improving the situation. The steadfastness with which most Western intellectuals cling to the myth of gender equality in Tibetan society is quite amazing. The status of women in Tibetan Buddhism occasionally stirs up some controversy, but hardly any information is available about their status in lay society in the Tibetan areas. Filling this gap would certainly contribute to improving the situation and make it easier for the Tibetan society as a whole to develop economically and to compete successfully with Han and Hui Chinese businesses.

Comments (2)

  • Kat

    There have been investigations, e.g. in the 1990s at University of Freiburg, a Master's Thesis from Sabine Schumann which disusses your questions in quite a differentiated way, and I am sure that there are later investigations, too.

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  • Otto Kolbl

    Thanks a lot for your comment. I have tried to find the reference you mentioned, but it seems pretty much unavailable for buying or borrowing. If you could send me a PDF, I would be very grateful (on FB as "Otto Kolbl", or info@ and the site name). I found only one reference to her master thesis in a book, but she seems to share the general conclusion I always found in academic literature, i.e. emphasis on the relatively high position of women in Tibetan society. This is not at all what I saw on the ground in Amdo; the article above is actually a huge understatement of the terrible things I saw.

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