What Women Want

Both men and women in Bhutan still function under a prescribed patriarch socio-cultural order. Our social values and norms imply that men are the focus of life and women, the subsidiary and supportive aspect. It’s about time this changed, or the public domain and decision-making forums will continue to be male preserves, argues Sonam Chuki, from the Royal Institute of Management.

Patriarchy can be broadly defined as a male defined social rules and patterns. The general observation is that gender inequalities in societies have relationship with kith, kin and family customs. Scholars such as Kabeer view women’s subsidiary status in certain societies as being the result of social norms, ideals and practices that obstruct their ability to make choices in core aspects of their lives. Such impediments are stated to operate at “cognitive, social and material” levels. Socially, both men and women internalize “societal norms and values that situate women as inferior to men”. Women are held to be less capable in controlling their own lives and less valuable in determining broader “institutional arrangements” that influence society. This manifests in the form of unequal power. Men have authority over women’s lives and women rely completely on male-defined societal values about their position in society. As a result, their well-being and status in the community depends on “the given social order”. Thus, any attempt to question the patriarchal order may endanger women’s welfare and place in society.

Patriarchy as the Source of Inequality

Contemporary socialist feminists perceive patriarchy as the source of inequality. In Bhutan, this theory holds water when examining women’s late participation including under-representation in public decision making realms. Unlike the liberal and socialist perspectives, radical feminists vie that “distinctions between the personal and public realms are fallacious”. Iris Young, for instance, contends that the slogan “the personal is political” rejects a social division between public and private areas with various kinds of institutions, acdtivities and human characteristics. This thinking argues for the need to assert the difference between men and women. It assumes that men have power over women and will continue to exercise that power for the former has the edge over the latter. Radical feminists argue that only women can fight against the patriarchal attitude which encompasses society.

Bhutan Culture and Patriarchy

Bhutanese culture is definite as Bhutan’s traditional norms, customs, values, beliefs, festivals, songs and sports. The constitution identifies language, literature, music, visual arts, dzongs, lakhangs (temples), goendyes, ten-sum and religion as culture. It also states that the state will “preserve, protect and promote cultural heritage of the country.” In addition, it mentions that the state will “recognize cultural as an evolving dynamic force” for “progressive society”. Also, the Department of Culture aspire to build “a harmonious and progressive society” in its vision.

Bhutanese culture is generally based on Buddhism and Hinduism. Vajrayana Buddhism in particular has a high degree of influence on our daily social norms and values. Vajrayana is held to be a Secret Mantrayana, a unique gateway to an instant liberation in a single life-time. It involves the use of special techniques of the tantra to attain enlightenment. Tantra refers to a text, which is “based on the original purity of the nature of the mind, whose fruit is the realization of that nature.” The tantra mentions a significant role for women in the form of wisdom dakini in seeking a teacher and to draw inspiration from the nature of the dakini much like the example of Yeshi Tsogyal.

Dakini in Sanskrit means “the feminine principle associated with wisdom.” In Tibetan or Dzongkha, the word is khandro, which literally means “sky walker” or “traveler through space”. It has a positive meaning for it is associated with wisdom. Moreover, the essence of khandro and the Buddha is “the awakened one” and therefore holds equal s status in terms of interpretation. The female is stated to inherently possess wisdom essence and the male, compassion. The union of wisdom and compassion is the quintessence of Vajrayana. For the Hindu community, their religion seemingly appears not to place females as equal to males. Buddhism does not hold a chauvinistic view against women. Lama Kunzang Dorji Rinpoche, a trained and disciplined Vajrayana teacher, comments that women are deeply respected in Vajrayana. The negative gender stereotype about women is a result of misunderstanding the true concept of Vajrayana. He mentions that Vajrayana neither stresses on the greatness of women nor on their inferiority. Instead, the emphasis is on women’s equal status.

In Bhutan, the general population often engages in Buddhist cultural practices without really understanding the rationale embedded in Buddhist philosophy. Similarly, despite women’s raised status in Vajrayana practice, women are referred to in Chokey as “kay may” or those of lower birth. However, this can be attributed to the word’s origination in Brahmanical Hindu culture. Buddhist itself does not regard females as being of lesser birth. But there are several derogative beliefs and proverbs that degrade female birth: that men are nine times superior by birth to women; that women should not plough the field as the oxen will not be reborn as humans; that one must not talk like a morem (single woman). Menstruating women and girls are seen as impure and are not permitted to enter the shrine room. Women are perceived to be sexually vulnerable and the phrase, da rang gi zuka yoed, literally means the enemy is within one’s body – implies lower status for females.

This means that it is hard to separate the cultural explanation from real philosophy. Often is it difficult for well-established cultural norms to evolve for positive social change. As a result, such narrowly defined cultural stereotyping has subtle but deep implications on women’s involvement in public life.

Women’s Participation in the Public Domain

In principle, our state policies, expect for the citizenship rights, promote gender equality and women’s participation in public decision-making forums. However, earlier research indicates that women joined late in public realms such as paid employment and decision-making platforms. This is mainly attributable to women’s later participation in traditional and modern education, which is an off-shoot of deeply seated patriarchal culture. In fact, the significant gender gap that existed in education about 40 years ago results in women’s under-representation in the public domain.

Modern western education has positively influenced the general population’s thinking and behavior. The emerging middle class, living in urban Bhutan, for example, has a liberal outlook towards gender issues. But the process of positive change as delineated in the constitution and the Department of Culture’s vision is very slow for it involves human psychology. Gender studies in the Bhutan indicate the socio-cultural barrier as the critical factor to over-coming stereotypes. The CEDAW report for Bhutan, for instance, states that the biggest challenge in Bhutan is the eradication of the more subdued and indirect forms of gender bias encountered at home and in the workplace. Despite the alternative development of Gross National Happiness (GNH) attempting to address gender equality, deeply rooted socio-cultural beliefs perceive women as less capable and confident than men. Such stereotypes in ingrained in our society’s collective sub-conscious.

Ultimately, the process of women’s share in leadership and decision-making positions in public, corporate, private and political organizations in the country is minimal. Gender statistics show that there are no ministers or Dzongdas although there are two judges and one government secretary who are women. Women constitute 31.33 percent of 22,018 civil servants and 13.9 percent of 72 parliamentarians.

Broadly speaking, women’s late entry into politics in industrialized western countries has carried a long and difficult history. Athens, the very birthplace of democracy, excluded women, slaves and foreigners from political participation. Similar constraints existed on voting in western countries way into the 20th century. Both classical and modern academic study of politics has focused on men and masculinity and defined politics as a masculine business. The result is that traditional political science theory has largely neglected the subject of gender. As many researchers were men, it appears that traditional political theories did not accommodate discussion on women’s substantive inequality originating from gender ideology.

Bhutanese women are fortunate for their western sisters have fought the major battles in the history of women’s empowerment in the 19th and 20th centuries. Bhutan is blessed to learn both positive and negative lessons from the advanced democracies and to be able to pave a direction which suits its political soil. However, recent trends shows that patriarchy is alive and well here. During the June Local Government elections in 20122, for instance, only one gup elected out of 205 was a woman. A woman candidate from Tewang Geog in Punakha stated that rural voters may not elect a woman gup as one of the traditional roles of the Tewang gup involved participation in the Punakha Domcchoe (annual festival). During the domcchoe, the gups from all the gewogs must play the role or act as pazaps (warriors). This entails the wearing of monk’s robes, entering the goenkhang (inner sanctum of the monastery) and dancing as a warrior. This duty has traditionally been carried out by men. The voters’ concern was that a female gup may not be appropriate to perform the warrior dance. In fact, a woman gup candidate pointed this out on national television. Also, a vocal woman parliamentarian commented that it was difficult balancing her political career with family and that her parents wept when she decided to join politics.


Bhutanese culture needs to evolve and change to suit the needs of the 21st century. As a latecomer in modern development and democracy, Bhutan has the opportunity to learn some critical lessons from advanced democracies on gender and politics. One of the vital factors is to elevate the position of women in the public sphere of life. This means breaking the traditional conservative patriarchal mindset in both policy and practices. The constitution has defined “culture as an evolving dynamic force”. This must be translated into real action Only then can Bhutan move towards building a progressive society as enshrined in the constitution.

Article by Sonam Chuki, who is a lecturer at the Royal Institute of Management (RIM), in Thimphu and from “Drukpa” monthly news magazine – March 2012 edition – Getting a Grip on Democracy.