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Everybody agrees that we need to protect our culture. Some people take that to an extreme by hiding embarrassing truths and condemning critical opinions. Unfortunately, it seems to me, these people are exactly some of the ones harming Tibetan culture the most, replacing our imperfect reality with a fake image.
The fake image is not even our own myth, it’s a reflection of what foreign supporters want Tibetans to be like. Dissatisfied with the societies they are familiar with at home, foreigners often look to Tibetans to represent the kind of peaceful, harmonious, and deeply spiritual community they wish for. It has more to do with their desires than our actual way of life, but we play the part. We make sure the whole world sees, and only sees, us in terms of what other people would like us to be. Although we all know it’s just a show, the danger is that we spend so much time acting that we forget who we were in the first place.
The benefits aren’t worth it. Our audience is not even that large, just ask a random Westerner about their views on Tibet and wait for the puzzled look. A typical answer might be, “Umm…Is that part of China, right?” or “Oh right, I saw that movie” if they have any idea at all. Yes, there are enthusiastic supporters, but they are a tiny piece of the population of the places they come from. As hard as we work to impress supporters, most people still have little or no idea that Tibetans exist.
Instead of sacrificing our identity to appear a certain way, I’d like to see all of us working both to embrace the best parts of our culture and to improve on the areas that need it. If we are truly proud of ourselves and our traditions, and we should be, we don’t need to worry about that anyone else thinks.
They’ve done it again, just like Beijing 2008, the Olympic Committee has decided to pick a host country with an authoritarian government using the Games for political purposes. The Olympic Committee is not responsible for passing moral judgments, that’s true, but it is difficult to believe that they can’t see how this event has become a tool for dictators to solidify domestic control while building international prestige. As Tibetans learned in 2008, the Olympics directly contribute to human rights violations and the loss of freedoms.
Not only did the political situation in Tibet become worse during the 2008 Olympic Games, it got worse because of them. China launched a heavy handed crack-down on dissent targeting anyone who was suspected of protesting, or even potentially protesting. One of my own relatives, who had escaped to India and later returned to live in Lhasa, spent a year in a sunless prison for no reason other than accusations he knew protesters based on the fact he’d been in India. If China hadn’t hosted the Olympics, he would never have been arrested, never have spent one day in jail. Travel restrictions also increased, preventing those of us in exile from visiting our families.
Now, in Russia, the Olympics are being used for political gain much the same way they were in Beijing, again at the expense of the public. News reports show critics of the government being harassed while a smiling President Putin has his picture taken with successful athletes. Rather than something to cheer about, the Olympics have become a disgrace.
The main problem with domestic and sexual violence in the Tibetan community is in the way we respond to the issue. Although some people find it easy to dismiss abuse in the Tibetan community by saying these things happen everywhere, there is a difference, the difference is that other societies have systems to deal with it. There are safe places for women to go if they need to flee, phone numbers to call if a woman needs help or someone to talk with, legal consequences for those who inflict violence, and social support. That’s what we need. We will never live in a place where everyone’s perfect, so we need systems to deal with real life problems that come up.
My husband was looking for information on the Central Tibetan Administration budget, and found that it was much higher than either of us expected. For the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the exile administration authorized spending 153.5 crore rupees. That’s equal to over 25.5 million American dollars. In India, it would be easy to maintain low expenses for a plan to help victims of violence, it could be done, but there is no will. We have so many offices around Dharamsala, but no space for a support center. We have so many charities, but no one will openly address violence against women. The reason, I believe, is that an official response would be an admission that Tibetans have all the same failings as every other human community. Unfortunately, we are so invested in preserving a certain image that we’ve become willing to hide any truth to protect it, and the victims of violence are paying the price.
When I lived in Tibet, I had no idea what freedom was. I’d never heard of free speech, voting, personal liberty, or anything like that. It was only in India and later America that I saw and experienced what other parts of the world take for granted. Comparing their liberty to what I knew in my early life was eye-opening, the more I understood about freedom, the more I realized how little I’d had.
Chinese authorities deserve much of the blame, but I’ve also realized that there are freedoms we Tibetans denied each other. For example, I was amazed in America when I met women living alone. I used to think any woman had to get married or else endure constant harassment, but in America it was no problem. Women living alone laughed when I asked if they were worried about men coming to rape them, the idea hadn’t even occurred to them. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Tibetan women in either Tibet or India have that kind of freedom. Women who are very unhappy in their marriages often feel trapped because it’s hard for women to live independently if they leave.
Another example is how gay people can’t easily live in the open in Tibetan society. At first, after meeting gay and lesbian people in America, I honestly didn’t know that there was anyone like that in our community. I’d never heard of it at all except for a few rumors. Now I realize people are people everywhere, the only difference is some people in our society have to hide.
The argument that these other freedoms have to wait for political independence has it all backwards. Why should we wait for the freedoms we can take now? If we want to be taken seriously when we ask for freedom, let’s start in our own community.
I know many Tibetans think women’s rights should wait because they believe addressing our social problems honestly will discourage foreign support for Tibetan freedom. This article that recently appeared in Outlook Tibet and The Tibet Post shows why we can’t expect the outside world to save Tibet, we need to focus on standing up on out own feet. Worrying about what the West thinks has only prevented us from moving forward, with little to show for it. Part of standing on our own feet is taking care of the community and building healthy families. Instead of hiding our problems in false hope of someone else coming to our rescue, we need to find the strength to fix our problems and create a strong independent society wherever we live.
Many thanks to the anonymous woman who sent me this, I can see she really cares about this community and spent a lot of time writing this excellent article.
This report can only be accurately described as the experience of one woman. It cannot be said, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it represents the absolute truth of our entire society. Commentators will almost certainly attack it and its contents anyway. Enemies of the truth will look for any small weakness in my thesis, and exploit it until the point is completely lost. But I do not claim that this report represents the entire truth of every individual in the Tibetan community-in-exile. I do, however, make a firm claim that it represents the truth for at least some. And every person’s truth is equally as important as another’s. This is not a scholarly article or a research paper. It is a simple record of my experiences and opinions as a woman living in Dharamsala. All the anecdotes contained herein are true stories, but names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.
The official stance of CTA is that there is almost no gender gap in Tibetan society, and that domestic violence is not a problem, and has only occurred in a few isolated incidents. This stance sickens me, as I know firsthand that it is a problem experienced by many women in my community. Just because women are too scared to report it does not mean that it’s not happening. I have heard many stories of domestic abuse, occurring in all levels of our society, and most of the stories are firsthand. Tibetan women are starting to speak up more, amongst trusted friends, and before long the great lie we have been telling ourselves will be uncovered publicly.
Tibetans are so scared to debunk the mystical and magical myth of Tibet – the peaceful land of compassion and nonviolence. This is the Tibet that the western grant givers latch onto when they decide to send our government and our NGOs lots of money. We fear, ‘What if they knew the truth? Would they still care?’ The truth is, in my personal experience, that Tibetans are no more and no less nonviolent and compassionate than any other people in the world. Yes, we have violence. And more importantly, we have domestic violence. The worst thing about it though, is that unlike our western friends, who of course also experience domestic violence, we are in strong denial of its existence, which translates to women having absolutely no institutionalized support system in place for when abuse does occur. At least in the west there is help. There are safe houses, shelters, employment assistance, legal repercussions, and psychological support. For Tibetan women, there is nothing. And that is our greatest shame.
Dickyi is a young woman from a small settlement in the northeast. She fell in love at an early age, and forwent her education to live with this man and be his wife. By the time the abuse started, it was too late. He regularly beats her, severely, locks her in the closet for hours on end, and has forced her to give up contacts with all her friends and family. She doesn’t even have a phone, internet access or money in her pocket. She is an innocent woman who only wants to be loved in return, but instead has fallen victim to a mentally ill man who is set only on controlling his slave-wife while he runs around with friends and acts recklessly. Now the violence is escalating. A knife has been used, and Dickyi’s life has been threatened. Why doesn’t she just leave, you may ask. She says she feels ashamed. Like a failure. She refuses to tell her family or friends for fear of being ridiculed. Systematically her husband has eroded her self-esteem, and this young, attractive and intelligent woman actually believes that she has no future should she leave him. She is scared to stay, but even more scared to leave. And now she has become extremely depressed and suicidal. And she feels she has no one to ask for help –especially her own community.
For other women, the physical violence is not as dramatic as Dickyi’s. However, psychological, or emotional, abuse is widely accepted by the medical profession to be even more damaging than physical abuse. Phurbu started a relationship with a man who portrayed himself as being very loyal and in love with her. The truth is that he came from a very violent and traumatic family background, but no one warned her in time. Slowly she saw the signs. First, he tried to discourage her from speaking with certain neighbors. Then, from even smiling and greeting community members on the street. Soon the insults began. And slowly but surely, within a few months of beginning their relationship, this talented and beautiful woman had lost all her confidence. She knows he is abusing her, she understands it. But she cannot leave him because she fears her own community will not accept her decision. Meanwhile, she has become severely depressed, has trouble doing any work or connecting with other people, and lives in constant fear of her partner’s severe anger. She is afraid to speak, for fear that she will unintentionally ignite the rage stored inside him. She has lost herself.
The “Cycle of Violence” is a psychological model that explains why so many women remain trapped in these kinds of situations. The cycle begins with the ‘honeymoon’ period, during which the relationship feels harmonious. Gifts are given, promises are made, and the victim feels safe and hopeful. But soon the ‘walking on eggshells’ or ‘tension-building’ stage begins. The victim feels more pressure to do and say everything perfectly, so as not to provoke their partner’s anger. A feeling of anxiety builds, and the victim is determined to act so perfectly and compassionately that nothing bad could possibly happen. The final stage of the cycle is described as the ‘explosion.’ For some abusers, this means physical violence, for others, it could be verbal/psychological, or even sexual. But the victim is attacked severely, and made to feel like it is her own fault for provoking it. She is made to feel like she is the one with the psychological problem – like she deserved it. Finally, after a brief period of silence, the honeymoon phase begins again, and the cycle continues.
If you still have doubts that domestic violence is a problem in our society, I suggest you ask some children about it. Children are brutally honest, and have not yet developed the societal filters that hinder clear and honest communication in so many adults. Ask some Tibetan children if they have ever seen a man hit a woman. I have. And almost all of them say yes. And it will be no surprise that these very same children will one day grow up to become abusers and victims themselves, having had it modeled for them so clearly during their youth.
InPema’s case, it was common knowledge in our neighborhood that from time to time her husband would attack her verbally and end it all with a good punch or two. I do not claim to know the details of their altercations, but heard on several occasions comments from other men in my neighborhood that Pema was a ‘good woman’ for not leaving him after he did it. I would admire Pema a lot more if she did decide to leave him. And that is what I simply cannot understand about Tibetan culture. When did it become admirable to completely abandon your self-esteem so that your husband can use you as his post-traumatic stress disorder punching bag? It’s not compassionate to enable an abuser. It’s more compassionate to leave him and hopefully make him realize that what he is doing is unacceptable so that he can try to change.
And I know you must have witnessed it yourself – upon hearing the rumor that a man has beaten his wife, usually the first question one asks is, “What did she do wrong?” I implore you, Tibetan men and women alike, to instead ask, “What can we do to support her without judgment?” Yes, there are major policy problems that need to be changed within the government, but the government represents the public. And they have no reason to take action until we the public demand it. Do not tolerate domestic violence in your family or in your neighborhood. Do not treat it as if it’s normal or expected or the woman’s fault. Stand up for what is morally right, follow the teachings of our beloved spiritual leaders, and stop perpetuating the slow torture of thousands of women by keeping your silence.
Instead of being scared to lose the support of the west should they learn the truth about domestic violence in our society, choose to see the tremendous value and potential of empowering our women. Happy, strong families will produce happy and strong children, and will inevitably lead to a stronger and brighter future for Tibet as a whole, politically and spiritually.
Surgery is an unpleasant procedure, full of pain and suffering. Yet, we choose to undergo it because we understand that the cancerous tumor growing inside us is far worse in the long run. Now is the time for Tibetans to choose to perform this painful surgery on ourselves and address the most basic, pressing issues affecting many families in our society before it’s too late.
Why is this happening? I cannot say. I am not even sure whether it is ingrained in traditional Tibetan society or if it is a product of being in exile. I can be fairly sure though that lack of proper emotional expression and psychological support are at the heart of the matter. So many refugees have experienced severe trauma in their lives, and almost no therapeutic models have been put into place to help us process and release our negative impressions and emotions. We suppress our feelings, and then they later reappear as dangerous manifestations of anger, depression and disease. The irony is that the therapeutic models exist, right under our very noses. Our religion offers many methods and teachings on how to overcome suffering and live a happier, more fulfilled and compassionate life. But so many of us, the vast majority, do not hear or practice these teachings. We listen to the words, but we do not truly hear.
It is up to us, the public, to make the first move and admit there is a problem. I know you know the truth, dear Tibetans. Don’t be afraid to speak it. The government and NGOs will have no choice but to follow. We have to unite together to fight domestic violence if we are ever going to be a truly strong and happy society. Let’s move together towards that beautiful idealistic view of Tibet and its people- let’s become, for real, the model of compassion and nonviolence that the world has always assumed us to be.