Tibetan women - and especially nuns - are key activists in a unique freedom struggle which follows the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassion. Although nuns appear to be spearheading the pro-independence movement, laywomen have and continue to play, an important role.
While women were very active in the resistance movement before 1959, it was in the tense month of March that women visibly organised political action as a distinct group. In the aftermath of the March 10th Uprising, an estimated 3,000 women met publicly at Drebu Lingka, the ground below the Potala Palace, on 12 March 1959. Dolma, the journal of the Tibetan Women's Association, described this historic gathering as the day "that the women of Tibet revolted against the illegal and forcible occupation of their country by the People's Republic of China" ('Tibetan Women's Uprising Day Dolma, Summer 1991). Lobsang Choney, a nun who was present at the Women's Uprising, said that more than just the wives of high Tibetan of officials came out: "What happened during the Lhasa Uprising was a spontaneous movement of ordinary women including nuns." (Philippa Russell & Sonam Lhamo Singeri, The Tibetan Women's Uprising, 1992; p.51) Tibetan women gathered once again at Drebu Lingka on 18 March, this time for an even larger show of solidarity, with at least 5,000 women participating. The following morning the Chinese crackdown began.
One of the outstanding leaders of the resistance was the daring Pamo Kusang. Having played a traditional role as a minor officials wife before the Uprising, she inspired many women with her both her bold words and determined appearance. She was immediately imprisoned, but even within the prison walls Pamo Kusang managed to assert her convictions. She formed the organization Thu Wang Ku along with other prisoners, and in 1970 they began an anti-Chinese demonstration. Pamo was later executed, and became a legendary martyr for Tibetans (Carol Devine, Determination: Tibetan Women and the Struggle for an Independent Tibet, 1993; p.21).
Tibetans also revere nuns for their leadership in uprisings. Chong-kso Jetsun-ma Rinpoche is well-known for her religious accomplishments and her "courage as a freedom fighter." She was killed for opposing Chinese rule in 1959 (Devine; p.21). In a second large-scale rebellion in 1969, a nun from Nyemu County emerged as a freedom fighter. Thinley Chodon (also known as Nyemu Ani) was said to have killed many Chinese through the vast guerrilla movement she set up. She was executed in 1969. Soon afterwards the Chinese stepped up their persecution of nuns and the destruction of nunneries (manna Harnevik, The Role of Nuns in Contemporary Tibet, 1990; p.5).
The role of the nun in Tibetan society has changed dramatically during the 40 years of Chinese occupation. Their unique position enables them to fight for Tibet's freedom. Knowing they may be arrested and tortured during their protests, and knowing they do not have children who would suffer as a result of their imprisonment or death, they are willing to be leaders in the independence movement (Devine; p.18).
Most of the demonstrations in Lhasa are initiated by nuns although they face automatic arrest. Nuns took part in 15 of some 25 incidents reported between September 1987 and September 1989, and almost entirely staged 13 of them (Tibet Information Network, TIN News Update, 21/02/92). According to a TIN report in July 1993, in the previous six years 49 of the 120 known pro-independence protests in Lhasa (40%) had been led by nuns (TIN News Compilation 1992-1993, 1993; p.44).
Between 1980 and 1987, nunneries and monasteries grew significantly in number and size. Since then, however, the Chinese crackdown on resistance to the occupation has become increasingly centred on nunneries. Nuns are seen as powerful political enemies by the Chinese authorities, who have tried to weaken the nunneries and their spiritual teaching by imposing strict rules, planting informers and "workers", devising schemes of political re-education and expelling nuns. Work teams of Chinese officials have been holding regular indoctrination sessions and refusing to allow nuns convicted of political offenses to return to their worship (TlN News Update, 21/02/92).
Multiple arrests of nuns are recorded each year, particularly during religious festivals, and seemingly minor acts of nonviolent protest are met with the "iron fist".
In October 1993, 14 nuns from Gari Nunnery received sentences of up to seven years for allegedly being involved in demonstrations the previous year. Another 14 nuns in Lhasa's notorious Drapchi Prison had their sentences doubled or tripled because each sang a pro-independence song in their prison cell in June 1993. The 14, including one woman whose sentence was increased from nine to 17 years, were serving terms of "reform through labour". Such reports run contrary to recent statements by the Chinese authorities about the leniency with which Tibetan prisoners are treated (TlN News Update, 20/02/94).
Latest figures show that 77% (362) of political prisoners in Tibet are clergy, of whom just over 30% (113) are nuns. Nearly a third (27%) of the 467 political prisoners in Tibet are women (TIN News 24/09/93). These prisoners include three 15-year old girls, all novice nuns, who were taken after arrest to Gutsa Detention Centre. There has been no news of their whereabouts since (TIN News Compilation 1992.1993, 1993; pp.47-49).
Although nuns appear to be the most active female dissidents, it is believed that laywomen take part in protests more often than gets reported. Due to the different security structures surrounding lay people, there is far less material on them. During the demonstrations of 1987, laywomen played a major role, being the first to venture forward from the crowd to damage property or throw stones at the police (TIN News Update, 17/11/89). Several nuns have also testified that lay people helped them during demonstrations in Lhasa.
First- and second-hand reports by Tibetan women reveal that torture is a common response to non-violent protests. Human rights groups and the press, both national and international, also provide strikingly consistent accounts of political actions by Tibetan nuns and laywomen, and the subsequent punishments meted out to them (Devine; p.47).
Sexual assault is a particular form of torture used to punish, humiliate and coerce women. Torturers force electric batons into Tibetan women's mouths or vaginas, set dogs on them, strip them naked before interrogation and beat them with clubs (Women in the Front Line: Human Rights Violations Against Women, Amnesty International, 1991; p.30). Although women are the main targets of severe sexual abuse, there have been an increasing number of reports of men who have been sexually assaulted.
The Tibetan Women's Association in Dharamsala collects the testimonies of women who have been tortured for taking part in demonstrations. Statements from these women confirm the abuses described by human rights groups. They also report the laceration of nipples - sexual torture that has not been documented by other human rights organisations, but that was reported in an article which appeared in The Independent in February 1994. Dawa Hansum, a nun who is still in Gutsa, one of Tibet's most notorious prisons, after taking part in a 1989 pro-independence demonstration, had one of her nipples severed with scissors. The TWA also reports rape, drugging and other abuses of Tibetan women by Chinese army personnel (Devine; p.53). Amnesty International has no reports of rape of Tibetan women by guards, but a report published in May 1992 described the testimony of a Buddhist nun from Shungsep who was "raped with electric cattle prods" (China: Repression in Tibet, 1987-1992; p.41).
In Drapchi, where 10% of the 300 or more prisoners are women, Prison Governor Yin Xingwen claims "women prisoners are given special care." Reports of recent beatings of women prisoners, however, refute his claims (Devine; p.66). The revelations of four nuns, who escaped to India in
February 1994 to tell of tortures and beatings in Chinese prisons in Tibet, also cast doubt on China's willingness to cease its human rights abuses (The Independent, 12/02/94). Two of the nuns, Ngawang Kyizom, 22, and Tenzin Choekyi, 24, said they were shocked repeatedly with an electric cattle prod applied to their breasts, thighs and tongues. During interrogation, Choekyi also had her thumbs tied diagonally behind her back in a torture known as the "flying aeroplane", and was suspended from the ceiling and beaten.
There are many conflicting images of the status of women in Tibetan society. While earlier accounts claim Tibetan women had equal rights with men and enjoyed a higher status than women in neighbouring countries like India and Burma, recent feminist thought suggests they were relegated to an inferior position in society. To discover which is true, we have to understand Tibetan society as a whole and look at the role of women in the pro-independence movement.
Namgyal Phal, who leads the Tibetan Women's Association in Zurich, Switzerland, believes Tibetan women have equal rights with men. In contrast Yangdol Panglung, who grew up in Switzerland and now lives in the United States, believes the women who say "there is no discrimination between men and women in Tibet" enjoy a status where either religion or aristocracy cover their gender. Panglung, however, points out that women's struggles in Tibet are part of a nationalist movement, not a women's liberation movement (Devine; p.25).
Although views on the status and roles of Tibetan women vary enormously, there is a common thread: that Tibetan women suffer immeasurably under Chinese rule. Despite this, they are still unwilling to let the Chinese authorities treat Tibet as part of the Chinese "motherland".
All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Here the term Tibet is used to refer to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U'Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965).
For further information on the Tibetan Womens movement and the situation in Tibet for women.