Women Energize Tibetan Struggle

The five who self-immolated follow a long history of resistance by Tibetan women.
2012-03-05
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Tibetans-in-exile mourn the self-immolation deaths of two Tibetan women in McLeod Ganj, India, on March 5, 2012.
AFP

Tibetan women are at the forefront of long-running resistance against Chinese rule, with five women having burned themselves to death in the last five months in protest against Beijing’s crackdown on monasteries and policies curtailing Tibetan cultural rights.

Experts warn that the protests by Tibetan women and especially Tibetan nuns, whose tradition of standing up to oppression dates back half a century, are expected to resonate with the people and throw the spotlight on the Tibetan plight.

“In the past 25 years, women have played a significant role in new forms of protest that have developed in Tibet, especially street protests,” said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University.

Tibetan nuns, three of whom were among the five women self-immolators, set their tradition of resistance in 1959 when they waged nonviolent demonstrations along with monks and their other male counterparts who spearheaded a failed bloody revolt against Chinese rule.

Tibetan women made up about one-third of Tibetan protesters against Chinese authority between 1987 and 1996, a period of significant demonstrations in the region, Barnett said.

“The protests by women never degenerate [into violence]. They are much more important to the creation of the idea that Tibetans are committed to nonviolence,” he said, expressing little surprise that Tibetan women had participated in the 26 self-immolations that began in February 2009 to protest Chinese rule.

The latest Tibetan women self-immolators were Rinchen, a 34-year-old widow and mother of four, and Tsering Kyi, a middle-school girl, who set themselves on fire and died at the weekend in China’s Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

The two were the first laywomen to self-immolate, joining the three nuns who set themselves ablaze in their campaign to highlight the Tibetan plight in October last year.

Tenzin Wangmo, 20, was the first nun to self-immolate as she set herself on fire outside the Dechen Chokorling nunnery in Sichuan province’s Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture while shouting slogans for the return of the Dalai Lama and the end of Chinese rule in Tibet.

The other nuns were Palden Choetso, aged 35 and from the Darkar Choeling nunnery in Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, who set herself on fire at a public prayer session in Kardze (in Chinese Ganzi) prefecture, and Tenzin Choedron, aged 18 and from the Mamo Nunnery in Ngaba.

This history of protest has also inspired Tibetan women overseas in their activism for the Tibetan cause.

Tibetan women choose to set fire to themselves “in an attempt to reject the power and oppression,” said London-based Free Tibet Director Stephanie Brigden.

She said the self-immolations by desperate Tibetan monks, nuns and laypersons are “an extremely worrying and absolutely unprecedented trend that we hope will end.”

“Tibetan women have always been at the forefront of this [resistance] movement, historically and today, with many strategic and courageous leaders in exile,” said Kunsang Kelden, a Tibetan woman living in New York.

She cited Tibetan activist Lhadon Tethong, the head of the exile Tibetan Action Institute, and  Beijing-based writer Woeser among the role modes for Tibetan women.

“These women have inspired me since I was a student. They taught me that possibilities can be endless and that women are incredibly strong and creative,” said Kelsang, who grew up in the U.S. and contributes to the Lhakar Diaries website, a blog about Tibetan identity.

The Tibetan Women’s Association, headquartered in Dharamsala, held a candlelight vigil to mourn and express solidarity with these women, and called for support for “the growing female resistance in Tibet against Chinese oppression.”

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Three of the five women who have self-immolated are (from left to right) Tenzin Wangmo, Palden Choetso, and Tenzin Choedron.

Women's Uprising Day

Unrest in the 1950s was a crucial period for the organization of Tibetan women’s political involvement, experts said.

The Tibetan Women’s Association points to 1959 as a turning point for women’s political participation in the Tibetan resistance against Chinese rule.

That year, in the midst of a Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule in Lhasa, women organized a peaceful demonstration.

On March 12, 1959, two days after the Tibetan Uprising broke out, thousands of women gathered in front of the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama, in Lhasa. Organized by the Lhasa Patriotic Women’s Front, the women sparked demonstrations that lasted for weeks.

Afterward, many of the women involved were imprisoned, including the leader of the demonstrations, Pamo Kusang. Some of them were tortured, died in prison, or were executed.

Following the Dalai Lama’s flight to India and the establishment of an exile government in Dharamsala, the Tibetan Women’s Association was set up to maintain the vibrancy of the women’s struggle to uphold Tibetan rights.

Tibetan scholar Barnett said that although women's protests have not been as large-scale as those of their male counterparts, they are effective in conveying any message to the grassroots.

“The groups were probably sometimes five people, sometimes two, sometimes 10. They always did them in symbolic places, such as a temple. They never threatened public safety or traffic ... They were mainly about making a symbolic statement.”

Protests organized specifically by women, he says, have traditionally been more thought-out, careful, focused on sending a message of nonviolence, and “more attentive to the symbolism of a protest.”

He pointed to mass protests in Tibet since 2008, when demonstrations in Lhasa on the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising unleashed a series of riots and violent clashes, as very distinct from those organized by women.

“In 2008 we saw massive protests that were initiated by men. They were all mass street protests, so they’re about numbers of people, and they could happen very fast as a spontaneous reaction to a political event. So they’re not about symbolism, they’re about immediate expression of some emotion or political anxiety,” Barnett said.

“It’s possible that Tibetan society has reconsidered their attitudes toward nuns as a result of their role in protests."

Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.