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Age Discrimination and Gerontocracy in Tibetan Exile Politics?

Ageism is a form of discrimination toward an individual or group based on their age. The term often refers to the treatment of older people but is occasionally used to define prejudice against young people as well.

With the re-election of a Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, whose policy is that Tibet remains part of China, the public appointment and subsequent speedy withdrawal (in the space of two days) of the sole female member of the Tibetan Exile Government Cabinet, Dhardon Sharling, has led to more incredulity by members of the exile community and their friends and supporters.

The Tibetan Charter states that a member of the Tibetan exile Cabinet cannot be younger than 35 years old. Sharling is apparently 3 months short of 35 years old and so the Tibetan PM withdrew her nomination after a row broke out about her appointment.

According to a report in Phayul, the Tibetan Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay stated that Sharling:

… told me that she was born in 1981 which if taken only on the basis of the year of birth amounts to 35 years of age. Of course, under the circumstances, she had not noticed that she was ineligible by a few months. Hence I apologize to the house and declare that it was not an attempt to deceive anyone.

Tibetans reacted strongly to the decision on social media. Some cited it as incompetence and dubious motives of the Tibetan Prime Minister and his advisors. Others called for the minimum age requirement to be changed. One Tibetan, Wangchuk Tsering, stated on Facebook that:

This is the height of irresponsibility by our elected Sikyong & Chithues as well as the Chief Election Commissioner. How could such an important matter go un-noticed by all of them? Disgraceful!

Many people associate ageism with elderly people but it also often effects younger people as well.  There are several forms of ageism, including adultism, gerontocracy and jeunism. Adultism is a favoring of adults over children and teenagers. Gerontocracy is a form of government wherein the leaders are all significantly older than the average adult population. Jeunism is the favoring of younger people and youthful beauty over older people. Women in particular are often subject to all three, a no-win situation.

Ironically, for Tibetans in particular, such a form of leadership is common in communist states in which the length of one’s service to the party is held to be the main qualification for leadership. In the time of the Eight Immortals of Communist Party of China, it was quipped, “the 80-year-olds are calling meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire”. For instance, Party leader Mao Zedong was 82 when he died, while Deng Xiaoping retained a powerful influence until he was nearly 90.

A new definition of ageism was introduced by Iversen, Larsen, & Solem in 2009:

Ageism is defined as negative or positive stereotypes, prejudice and/or discrimination against (or to the advantage of) elderly people on the basis of their chronological age or on the basis of a perception of them as being ‘old’ or ‘elderly’. Ageism can be implicit or explicit and can be expressed on a micro-, meso- or macro-level (Iversen, Larsen & Solem, 2009).

As Hung Vo, UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board, North America Representative, points out in Youthists and Age Discrimination:

Age discrimination is something that is prevalent in many countries. This is evidenced in the United States: The average senator and congressman are the ages of 60 and 55, respectively. While age does not reflect competency, there is a disservice done when there is such a disconnection between the policymakers and the youth. Although those under 18 may not be able to vote or sometimes may not have the intellectual ability equivalent to an adult, it does not mean that we do not have a right to have our voices heard…….

In countries of extreme poverty, age discrimination can manifest itself as cruelty. Violence is an expression of power, and since children do not have power, they are often left vulnerable to abuse. The devaluing of youth contributes to problems such as human trafficking, abuse and the existence of sweatshops. The core of this problem can be extrapolated as society viewing young people as being of inferior intellect, and as a result, they are left doing physical work. When children are discounted, they do not express themselves when they are hurt or abused because they do not see adults as friends or confidants, only as a threatening authority figure. The deconstructing of age stereotypes and the fostering of mutual understanding is another step for all young people to have the opportunity to pursue the happiness they so rightly deserve.

The new Tibetan Cabinet has an average age of 55, with three members of the six being above 60. However, according to data the Tibetan population is overwhelmingly young:

 In fact, 35.27% of them are under 19 years old while 54.69% are under 29 years old! The 2010 world population has a similar breakdown – 35.33% and 52.06% for ages 19 & under and age 29 & under respectively. However, when we look at the population of China alone (Tibetan population included), only 24.10% are age 19 & under while 41.24% are age 29 & under! These differences mean that for both these age groups (19 & under and 29 & under) in China – the population of Tibetans is greater by ~46% and ~33% respectively.

Researcher James Connell whose PhD is on subjectification, historical trauma and marginal youth agency in the Tibetan exile community said:

I suppose in many ways the withdrawal doesn’t surprise me and reflects what I have generally found -despite the mostly tremendous care for the ‘seeds of the future’- that intergenerational inequalities in exile (particularly in terms of political participation) are hampered by patrifilial norms that have been institutionalised and very much internalised. Even quite politically aware youth are constrained by a profound respect for elders which is, of course, tightly bound to the political cause -making ‘standing’ or ‘speaking’ up not only socially taboo, but also quite painful for fear of betraying the elder generation or HHDL. It’s disappointing because not only is Sharling the youngest, but she’s also a woman -and both groups desperately need better representation in exile. I hope -as I guess you do- that this will prompt closer attention to the general exclusion of young voices and an effort to institute change.

Sharling is only 3 months short of the arbitrary age restriction. Considering that the election rules were quickly changed by the Tibetan Election Commission to ensure that Independence candidate Lukar Jam was removed from the final round of voting, it is  disappointing that the Tibetan Prime Minister caved into pressure to abide by these rules on this occasion.

If Sharling is old enough to be elected she is old enough to be chosen by the elected Prime Minister for a Cabinet role. To deny that is both undemocratic and ageist.

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The Difference Between ‘Cultural’ and ‘Philosophical’ Buddhism

Yesterday, I got a Tweet out of the blue from a Tibetan woman, informing me she had a problem with my ‘identifying’ as a Tibetan Buddhist and suggesting I qualify it with the words ‘British’. At first, it struck me as bit odd that a complete stranger felt the need to inform me of this. However, the message itself was a good example of a self-righteous and narrow-minded ideology and mindset that appears to be gaining ground in those associated with the ‘post-colonial’ Left.

As a Buddhist Studies scholar and student for the last ten years, any suggestion that the fundamental tenets of Buddhism are somehow connected to one’s race, gender, age or culture are not only tragically ironic but also factually incorrect. Shakyamuni Buddha was a man who preached the exact opposite of ‘identity’ politics. His central message was that we need to let go of (spang, abandon) two sets of mental ‘obscurations’ ( sgrib-gnyisfrom our mental continuums in order to attain liberation and/or enlightenment. They obscure the ‘mind’’s deepest nature and thus obscure the ‘mind’’s automatically arising deep awareness (ye-shes lhan-skyes, innate wisdom). These are:

1) The emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) – disturbing emotions and attitudes, which prevent liberation and are often connected with clinging to identities developed by cultural and social conditioning ( such as religion, race and gender).  This includes letting go of the idea of an inherently existing Self (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of persons).

2) The cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) – obscurations regarding all knowable phenomena and which prevent omniscience, such as letting go of the idea that phenomena inherently exist from their own side (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena).

While the latter is much more difficult and ingrained, the former is within the ‘intellectual’ grasp of most people. It does not take genius to work out that such ‘identities’ are ‘man-made’ and have no inherent existence from their own side. And yet, some people who ‘identify’ themselves as Tibetan Buddhists apparently are not aware of (or wilfully ignore) this central tenet of Buddhist Philosophy and cling to the idea that Buddhism (as practised by Tibetans) is somehow ‘Tibetan’ or owned by ethnic Tibetans, merely by virtue of their parents’ racial and cultural heritage. This is even more ironic when one considers that Buddhism, which originated in India was ‘culturally appropriated’ and adopted by Tibetans (something that post-colonialists normally take issue with).

Of course, this is not unique to Buddhism. Groups such as Ex-Muslims and Indian Atheists also resist the ideology that one’s religion is equivalent to (or owned by) a particular ethnic group or culture. And yet this way of thinking appears to be popular among those on the ‘Regressive’ or ‘post-colonial’ Left as I have written about here and here and here.

Sadly this type of ideology also extends into the intellectual sphere where scholars and writers, including myself, have been ‘informed’ (often by non-Scholars) that they should not be speaking about a specific culture, race or religion because they are not the correct ethnicity. A recent example of this can be seen with the Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, Sheldon Pollock, and the attacks by Hindu nationalists in India, on his academic position and worthiness, based on his ethnicity and nationality.

The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage is also having a profound impact on museums, as Tiffany Jenkins explains in Does One Ethnic Group Own Its Cultural Artefacts?:

We need to ask who speaks for the relevant indigenous community, and on what basis. Even who qualifies as indigenous is a vexed question, as is the fact that ‘the indigenous’ rarely speak with one voice. Ethnocentric policies therefore tend to vest authority in anointed chiefs and elders (local equivalents of the privileged white male), without asking how many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative. What about those who disagree? And what about those who want to change it, or challenge it from within?……

But handing over the right to narrate history to those with the approved ethnicity is not the way that knowledge works. The pursuit of truth and the understanding of history must be open to everybody, regardless of class, ethnicity or gender. There must be universal access. That is how questions can be explored, and old forms of authority challenged.

Such issues demonstrate the need to make a crucial distinction between ‘religion as culture’ and ‘religion as philosophy’. The vast majority of self-identifying Tibetan Buddhists are still ethnic Tibetans who (since birth) have been brought up and identified as Buddhist by their parents and society. Similarly, the majority of Muslims and Hindus have adopted it (or been brainwashed into it) by birth. This ‘religion by birth’ is often (although not always) accompanied by a lack of genuine knowledge or interest in the actual philosophical practises and teachings contained within the doctrinal texts.

For example, many ethnic Tibetan Buddhists (living outside of high altitude Tibet) happily eat and consume meat without any consideration or recognition that such behaviour goes against one of the central tenets of Buddha’s teachings: see the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra Chapter 8 and Kyabje Chatral Rinpoche. Similarly, many Muslims drink alcohol, believe in gender equality and do not espouse violent jihad against non-believers. As Sam Harris and ex-Muslim Aryan Hirsi Ali have pointed out this makes such people Muslim by name but not by religious doctrine.

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Prof. Robert Thurman with the 14th Dalai Lama

And here lies the crux of the matter. There is a vast difference between a person who identifies as a Buddhist (be that Zen, Hinayana, Mahayana, Tibetan etc.) for cultural or social reasons and someone who is following and studying Buddhism (or any religion) for spiritual or philosophical reasons (such as Prof. Robert Thurman pictured above).

The 14th Dalai Lama himself has stated on many occasions that ‘western’ followers of Tibetan Buddhism are often ‘better’ and more ‘diligent’ students than ethnic Tibetans, the majority of whom do not really understand the philosophical texts or teachings. A Tibetan friend of mine told me several years ago that the majority of Tibetans understand about 20 per cent of the Dalai Lama’s teachings in terms of the philosophical terms and meanings.

Of course, such distinctions are not mutually exclusive. For example, some ethnic Tibetans (who are ‘Buddhists by birth’) manage to be both spiritual and cultural practitioners, such as the 14th Dalai lama, the 17th Karmapa and other monastics or yogis. And of course, there are ‘Buddhists by choice’ who all too readily adopt the cultural and material aspects of the religion without really entering into the Philosophy in a deep or genuinely meaningful way. The great Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa pinpointed this kind of follower in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and here the 17th Karmapa describes it:

Sometimes when we practice dharma we think that we need to show some sort of external or physical sign of it. We pay a lot of attention to the rituals and these actions of our body and speech. This is practicing dharma when we’re focusing outside. But instead what we need to do is turn our attention inwards. We need to see whether what we’re doing is functioning as an antidote to the afflictions or not. We need to see whether we are taming our mind or not. We need to see whether our mind is improving, getting kinder, or not. If we don’t look at it in this way then there’s no benefit to doing these actions – we think that we are trying to do the dharma, but actually we are just making a show with our body and speech. We are putting on appearances, and that’s all we really take an interest in. And the moment that happens, this becomes spiritual materialism.

Shakyamuni Buddha always emphasised the importance of study and practice and focusing more on what unites us as human beings (our desire to be happy and not to suffer), not on ‘secondary differences’. As the Dalai Lama stated recently at a talk given this year to Tibetans in Minnesota:

Children…….have no prejudices or preconceptions. They aren’t bothered by the secondary differences of colour, faith, nationality, wealth or education that seem to pre-occupy adults. We would be better to be like them and one remedy is to remember that we are all the same as human beings.

If someone wants to identify as Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and so on, one would hope they are free to do so without the ‘culture police’ telling them if it is appropriate or not. However, let’s be clear about what we mean if we do. Are you a cultural or a philosophical Buddhist or both? Because if you think that your ethnicity is important to your Buddhism then then you are clearly the former.

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Group of Buddhist nuns with Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron

Those on the Regressive Left, like my Tibetan Tweeter, would no doubt seek to pressure people to ‘identify’ themselves with lengthy, awkward monikers such as ‘British, hetero, white, woman, following a form of Buddhism culturally appropriated from Indian Buddhism by Tibetans……’. Perhaps a more accurate ”label’ than ‘Tibetan Buddhist’ would be ‘Vajrayana Buddhist’ (as this includes both Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist teachings).

However, if I am going to ‘identify’ as anything I will identify as a Philosophical Buddhist (or Buddhist by Choice and Learning) not a Cultural one (Buddhist by Birth and Socialised Habit). A far more meaningful identification in terms of what the Shakyamuni Buddha actually intended, which does not divide people on grounds of race, ethnicity and culture but on one’s personal knowledge, attitude and conduct.

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Why ‘Identity Feminism’ Divides Rather Than Conquers

Women’s rights and feminism have come a long way in the past 100 years. Many women worldwide now have the right to vote, to travel freely without a male companion, to get an education, to work, to marry and divorce out of choice, to take control of reproduction, sex and family planning and get a decent wage for their work. There is still much work to be done though, with some countries still suffering from unacceptably low levels of gender equality and human rights for females.

For some on the bourgeois ‘Liberal­-Left’, or what feminists like Aayan Hirsi Ali accurately call the Regressive Left, the reason why women of colour still lag behind on human rights and freedom in the vast majority of countries is partly due to European colonialism and ‘white feminists’ ignoring the plight of their sisters. Although there is no doubt some truth in this assertion, to simplify it in such a manner also glosses over and diminishes the patriarchy and misogyny present in these cultures present long before any ‘white colonialism’ arrived. In addition, the global internet, media and greater levels of education, travel and literacy have only recently given ‘white women’ access to information about the situation of women of colour in distant lands.

The claim that women of colour have been ignored by white feminists (and are even being undermined by them) so often dominates debate and narratives, particularly in the US, to such an extent that any discussion of misogyny or inequality in people of colour cultures or religions is immediately derailed by accusations of racism and white supremacy. My essay ‘The Hoodie and the Hijab are Not Equals’ and the controversy it created with over 80 North American academics issuing a letter to condemn it, is an example of how this works. This reactionary ideology has also driven an increase in ‘Identity Feminism’, (‘Intersectional Feminism’ suggests these groups recognise the intersectionality of all racial groups which they often don’t); feminist groups associated with a particular race, religion or nationality.

For example, I spent a few years living and working with the Tibetan community in exile in India and Nepal, countries which have some of the lowest levels of gender equality in the world and have written about issues related to gender and patriarchy in these communities. Last year, a small group of ethnic Tibetan women (based predominantly in the USA) founded a group called the ‘Tibetan Feminist Collective’(TFC), inspired, in a back­-handed way, by criticism of the Tibetan patriarchal culture by non­Tibetan women. Their first essay complained about my critique of Tibetan exile patriarchs as unfair because (according to their logic) I am white and any critique of Tibetan patriarchy or culture should come from an ethnic Tibetan.

While the creation of such a group is to be welcomed if it helps empower Tibetan women, ironically, despite the fact that the majority of Tibetan women live in Tibet, India and Nepal, the majority of TFC’s social media posts have been US-­centric and dominated by a brand of feminism that grew out of the black civil rights movement in the USA. In addition, they rarely support or encourage solidarity with Indian or Nepali feminist groups or writers, which are the natural allies to look to in terms of dealing directly with issues that affect the majority of Tibetan women in exile. Issues such as the continuing male dominance of Tibetan Buddhism are still left largely unchallenged outside of western, academic circles.

This ideology and tendency is not unique to a small group of Tibetan­-American women though. In fact, one could say that ‘Identity Feminism’, which claims to offer a ‘unique’ perspective for that particular race, nationality or religion, is often nothing other than thinly-­disguised ethnic or cultural nationalism or religious propaganda or denial. It is no accident that many men (and women) on the Religious Right in deeply patriarchal cultures often cite and use ‘Identity Feminism’ (and its continual attacks, stereotyping and degradation of ‘white women’ and ‘the West’) to prop up and support misogynist culture and practice.

Although there is no doubt that race is a factor that cannot be ignored in feminist discourse, to blame that on some kind of inherent racism or supremacy in white feminism is simplistic and also, at times, serving the patriarchal status quo. As Nushin Arbabzadah who was raised in Afghanistan and fled to Europe as a refugee says in her article In My Life, Headscarves Have Been Symbols of Oppression, Not Solidarity in relation to American women showing ‘solidarity’ with Muslim women by donning headscarves:

Women may want to express “solidarity” with Muslim women by covering up. But Muslim women don’t need to cover up. This act of solidarity perpetuates a version of Islam that says it’s O.K. to poison little girls who dare to feel the sunlight on their heads.

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Photo from #mystealthyfreedom

Ex­Muslim feminists and activists like Maryam Namazie continually protest the convenient Regressive Left Myth that homogenises women who have grown up in Muslim­-majority countries as supporting the hijab or even see it as an expression of Muslim identity:

Nonetheless, many post-­modernist and culturally relativist Leftists, liberals, and feminists remain firmly on the side of the Islamists. Any opposition to Sharia law, (which is based on the Koran, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence), the veil, and Islamic misogyny are met with charges of racism and Islamophobia, cultural imperialism and more. Those who say so though have bought into the culturally­-relativist notion that societies in the Middle East and North Africa (and even the “Muslim community” in the west) are homogeneous, “Islamic” and “conservative”. But there is no one homogeneous culture anywhere. Since it is those in power that determine the dominant culture, this point of view sees Islamist values and sensibilities as that of “authentic Muslims’…..Those who assert that a demand for secularism and opposition to the veil and Sharia law are “foreign” and “culturally inappropriate” are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist.

This ‘Liberal’ attitude towards Islamists or misogyny also reared its ugly head on New Year’s Eve in Germany, Finland and Switzerland, where over one hundred women were robbed and sexually assaulted by a group of men of ‘Arab and North African’ origin (any of whom have been identified as asylum seekers), in what appear to be co­-ordinated attacks. Such crimes are unprecedented in these countries but yet again in social media, there was denial and dismissal of the hundreds of eyewitness reports by women and police with suggestions that such reports were racist or promoted racism and that the ethnicity or culture of the men should be ignored as irrelevant.

The question to ask any ‘Identity Feminist’ group is how does being X really make a difference to your ultimate goals of human rights and equality for women? Of course, race, gender, class, sexuality and economic power need to be considered when dealing with inequality but how does being a certain race or nationality make the goal or ideology different? The question here is about whether human rights are culturally relative or universal. I, and many other women (including those from Muslim­-majority countries) assert that such rights are universal and any attempt to make them culturally or racially relative sadly serves patriarchs more than women.

In fact, such attempts are symptoms of ‘the racism of lower expectations’ which ‘expects less’ from the ‘Other’ because ‘that’s their culture or religion’. Ironically, by pandering to the idea of ‘difference’ it divides women and puts them on the side of the patriarchs and misogynists. As the 14th Dalai Lama has often emphasised when talking about ways to solve conflict, inequality and division:

What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.

The common unity to be found in feminism is how ALL females are oppressed and suffer through gender inequality, patriarchy and misogyny, and by prejudicial gross stereotypes that reduce a whole race or nation to a ‘single story’. As we all know, the best strategy for achieving control in any situation is to ‘divide and conquer’ and that is why the patriarchs are still in control.

– First published at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2016/why-identity-feminism-divides-rather-than-conquers/#sthash.nsDvpfSB.dpuf

 

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An attack on Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman in the name of Tibet?

The Tibetan exile social media world is a small one, and at times has a tendency to be self-congratulatory in terms of its overall impact and product. A recent blog post by an anonymous Tibetan blogger is a good example of this and of a growing trend among US-born or resident Tibetan-Americans who make a habit of blaming ‘white people’ for ‘Tibetan problems’.

This would be funny if it weren’t actually true. In ‘Tibetan Fundamentalism’ the blogger describes a having a conversation with her Tibetan uncle:

…..about a controversy that was brewing inside the Rubin Museum, a Himalayan art museum in NYC. My uncle works there. One young Tibetan employee was complaining about how removed the museum was from the political reality of Tibet and how underrepresented Tibetans were within the museum despite it extensively displaying Tibetan art. I told my uncle that I felt that she was justified in her critique and my uncle responded by saying that I, along with that person, were part of a generation that did nothing yet felt entitled to complain about everything. He said my ideas and my reasonings were eurocentric and that he was speaking from a Buddhist perspective. He claimed that he spoke as a Tibetan person while I spoke as an American. I said I did not recognize the profoundness of Buddhist philosophy in his dismissal of me as an under-accomplished person. He said I speak the way I do because I don’t know Buddhism. Inherent in his argument was an accusation that I was less Tibetan than him, and that my critique of the Rubin museum was the result of hubris granted to me by my Western education.

The author wants to make a serious point that Tibetan identity should not be homogenised as being solely Tibetan Buddhist. However, bizarrely, and tenuously, tries to make this point by targetting renowned Buddhist scholar/practitioner (and long-time friend of Tibet and HH the 14th Dalai Lama) Robert Thurman, glibly dismissing him as an ‘asshole’ (based on a second-hand anecdote) and as ‘White, privileged and with rudimentary knowledge of Tibetan experience’.

Such remarks coming from a Tibetan who has done ‘nothing’ other than ‘be ethnically Tibetan’  are not only rude and immature but also not even relevant to the topic at hand.

In addition, the way the author singles out Thurman as a ‘White person’, (with a capital letter W for White!!) is suggestive of a left-wing political or ideological agenda. There are many Tibetan Buddhist scholars (alive and dead) such as Gedun Chophel and Thubten Jinpa who are also held up as bastions of Tibetan cultural identity by Tibetans and non-Tibetans. So the author seems to have more of an issue with White people being considered scholars of, or experts, in Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan culture, than providing people with constructive ideas of what could constitute Tibetan identity (one that is not merely based on Buddhism or ethnicity).

For example, if the Tibetan who wrote this grew up in North America, how would they be ‘more Tibetan’ (if there could be such a thing) than a White person who grew up going to TCV school, fluent in Tibetan, surrounded by Tibetans in exile and very few westerners?  The author seems to suggest in the article that ‘Tibetanness’ would be (and is) one predominantly based around ethnicity or parentage, which is something to be strongly resisted of course, as I have argued here.

The author wanted to show the world that their Tibetan Uncle was wrong and that they were not  ‘part of a generation that did nothing yet felt entitled to complain about everything’. Sadly, however, the piece was counter-productive and proved the Uncle right. Robert Thurman​’s global contribution to raising awareness and knowledge about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism is far more than the author could ever hope or claim to have done.

And, let’s not forget that the Uncle (who is also ethnically Tibetan) might take umbrage at having his voice taken away from him too.

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The Gender and Racial Dimensions of Tibetan Exile Reproductive Policy

‘Any state or civil or moral interference in a women’s reproductive decision is a violation of her rights—be it China’s birth control policies in Tibet or exile government’s guidelines or any form of moral and social pressure on women to increase population in exile.’

– taken from Reproductive Governance in the Tibetan Community in Exile – Discrepancies and Digressions

It is good to see a Tibetan exile woman, Dhardon Sharling, taking up the subject of the gender dimension of Tibetan exile political policy and ideology on reproduction. I was the first to publicly write about this issue in March 2013, in Tibetan exile online publication Phayul. I prefer to take it as a compliment that its influence is such that Sharling is unwilling to credit my work, rather than conclude her research was not very thorough (or even worse, partly plagiarised). “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, as we say though (see UPDATE below).

Sharling is one of the few Tibetan exile women (along with Kunsang Dolma and Sang Mota) publicly writing and speaking about issues that challenge or criticise Tibetan exile policy and culture when it comes to gender. The vast majority of internationally recognised, first-class English-language scholarship on gender and women in Tibetan culture, history and Buddhism is still being produced by non-Tibetan women (such as Janet Gyatso, Sarah Jacoby, Rita Gross and others).

Unfortunately, Sharling’s article bypasses/glosses over the equally disturbing issue of nationalism via ideas of ‘racial purity’. Here is my original article on the subject (from Tibetan exile online publication, Phayul.com): Is Breeding More Tibetan Children Really the Answer to Tibetan ‘Identity Challenge’? The Dangers of Ethnic Nationalism in which the possibility of ‘ethnic nationalism’ is not ruled out:

Lobsang Sangay appears to be straddling both a form of cultural nationalism (bound by ethnicity and culture) and political nationalism (shared political goals and citizenship). The continuing practice of arranged marriages organised by Tibetan families in exile, particularly with the pressure placed on young Tibetan women to participate, is a sign that ethnic nationalism is alive and kicking. However, given the current situation in exile and in Tibet, wouldn’t it beneficial to err on the side of shared political goals as opposed to shared ethnicity though, with the inevitable racism and intolerance it can breed? Or focus more on preserving the Tibetan identity by continuing to set up and support institutions that help keep it alive in other ways like TIPA, TCV schools and various monastic learning centres?

And as Sharling points out:

The exile Tibetan reproductive discourse infuses ethical and moral dimensions to the issue as women refusing to marry and failing to produce more children are seen as being un-nationalistic, and uncaring about Tibetan demographics. The social dictum for a women to reproduce now sounds moralizing and has become a condescending organizing principle in everyday exile discourse at all levels: individual, social and institutional.

Another surprising omission from Sharling’s article (which I mentioned in my Phayul article) are not only issues of global overpopulation but the excessively high levels of mother and child mortality in India, Nepal and Tibet.

A programme called “One H.E.A.R.T.” (Health Education and Research in Tibet) teaches caregivers and expectant mothers in Tibet proper prenatal care, as well as how to deliver babies safely.

According to Executive Director Arlene Samen :

The numbers are shocking: One in every 33 Tibetan women dies in childbirth. One in every 10 babies dies within the first month. But One H.E.A.R.T. says its program already is changing that.

As Gabriel Lafitte points out:

Why did it take a woman from Utah to organise Tibetan women to help each other? Now that she can no longer enter Tibet, is anyone replicating and building on her work? Organising work in Tibet has to be low key, almost invisible, since Chinese fears and suspicions of organised Tibetans are so strong, even if the sole purpose is to reduce death in childbirth. But this is at most only a partial explanation. Women in Tibet have long been told they are lesser births and must wait passively for the state, in its benevolence, to provide modern hospitals. Almost no-one has been encouraging women to believe in their own strengths. Emily Yeh, a Colorado anthropologist, has shown how much Tibetan men and women have come to believe China’s message that Tibetans are lazy. Yet it did not take much to turn this belief around, just basic community development skills, time and dedication.

Although it has been well-documented that the Chinese communist government denies women reproductive freedom in Tibet. It is also clear that adequate healthcare and education for mothers and children in Tibetan exile is still well below acceptable standards. In the Tibetan exile Planning Commission’s Official Report and Census (2010) on the exile community it stated that:

The infant mortality rate of the Tibetan population in exile was recorded as 15.44 per 1000 child-births and it has gone down to 60.3 percent in comparison to 1998. Household economic improvement and better health coverage of the population with essential child health services such as mother and child care programs have ensured continued declines in level of infant mortality.

While this is positive news (if true) it shows there is still more work to be done. The average across the 27 EU member states in 2010 was 4.2 deaths per 1 000 live births. Infant mortality rates tend to be higher than the EU average in central European countries, with the exceptions of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, both of which have had consistently lower rates. And where are the figures for mother mortality please?!

So, before men in suits (or chubas) dictate reproductive policy  and encourage women (in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘cultural purity’) to have even more children, shouldn’t they first focus on making sure pregnant women and their babies are able to survive (and do that without the need for ‘outside’ charitable assistance)?

UPDATE: Sharling claims she did not read my piece and was not aware of it. Which, considering that her article took NINE MONTHS to research is hard to believe. (My article, for the record, took only a couple of days to research and write). Anyone with a Google search and a few relevant keywords would have found the article easily. In addition, it was published in one of the leading Tibetan exile online publications, Phayul, and was one of the few dealing with an issue directly related to women in the Tibetan exile community. Either Sharling is lying; her research and knowledge in this area is not particularly thorough; or she has deliberately ignored it. Reality can often be stranger than fiction, folks.

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Difficult to Stomach: Religious Leaders on Meat-Eating and the Environment

Last week, 15 Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, the 17th Karmapa, and the King of Bhutan issued a Buddhist Climate Change Statement, calling on world leaders to completely phase out fossil fuels. The statement is the latest effort by the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, which was formed in September 2015 to facilitate a Buddhist contribution to COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change, happening in Paris from November 30 to December 11. The Buddhist leaders called on the global Buddhist community to:

….recognize both our dependence on one another as well as on the natural world. Together, humanity must act on the root causes of this environmental crisis, which is driven by our use of fossil fuels, unsustainable consumption patterns, lack of awareness, and lack of concern about the consequences of our actions.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the 14th Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa

In September, Pope Francis also called for global action on climate change. In remarks to the largest gathering of world leaders in UN history — close to 200 prime ministers, presidents, and potentates — the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics blamed environmental degradation on “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity” that causes untold suffering for the poor who “are cast off by society.”

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Faith-based and environmental activists in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, in the wake of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

However, for many animal rights activists, environmentalists, vegetarians and vegans, the statements by religious leaders, albeit welcome, come not only ‘too little too late’ but also reek of moral hypocrisy and double standards.

In 2014, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) approached Thich Nhat Hanh, to request a brief statement about climate change. Hanh responded:

We need to consume in such a way that keeps our compassion alive. And yet many of us consume in a way that is very violent. Forests are cut down to raise cattle for beef, or to grow grain for liquor, while millions in the world are dying of starvation. Reducing the amount of meat we eat and alcohol we consume by 50% is a true act of love for ourselves, for the Earth and for one another. Eating with compassion can already help transform the situation our planet is facing, and restore balance to ourselves and the Earth.

These comments still provoked outrage from some on social media, with comments such as:

One wouldn’t suggest reducing racism by 50%, so why is it OK to suggest it for specieism and murder?

Despite the professed emphasis on love and compassion, the majority of the world’s major religions in theory (as well as in practice – with the exception of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism) all appear to advocate (or at least not forbid) the unnecessary killing and torturing animals for food. Also, the growing number of vegetarians refrain from eating meat more for reasons pertaining to improved health, a cleaner environment and a better world economy than for religious concerns. Even those whose vegetarianism is inspired by compassion are often driven more by a sense of conscience than by theological principle.

This lack of consistency in belief and action revealed itself personally to me when I spent several years in India (a country which is predominantly vegetarian for both religious and social reasons) and discovered a significant number of Tibetans (and some non-Tibetans) who called themselves Buddhists consuming meat daily. I once challenged a Tibetan Buddhist Geshe on the apparent contradiction of Tibetans taking great efforts not to kill an insect yet not taking the same attitude towards sentient beings in relation to their diet. His answer was unsatisfactory to say the least.

This was surprisingly the case even though several contemporary Tibetan Buddhist leaders such as the 17th Karmapa and Shabkar have taken a strong stance on eating animals and their produce, as not only being contrary to Buddhist doctrine but also damaging to the environment. The 14th Dalai Lama, who eats meat (on his doctor’s orders) has nonetheless also advocated that people should stop eating meat and if they cannot then they should at least reduce their consumption of it:

The best thing is to give up meat entirely. Sometimes one’s lifestyle and circumstances provide no alternative but to eat meat, and in these cases one should eat as little meat as possible. Tibetan monasteries and nunneries in south India became entirely vegetarian 15 years ago. Festivals and ceremonies in all Tibetan monasteries and nunneries should be completely vegetarian. When I was in Tibet, aged 13 or 14, my government officially banned meat from religious festivals and ceremonies.

It is interesting that even the Buddha himself prophesised in the Lankavatara Sutra, Chapter 8 that

There may be in time to come people who make foolish remarks about meat-eating, saying, “Meat is proper to eat, unobjectionable, and permitted by the Buddha.

In a recent BBC interview, four leading thinkers were asked whether or not one can justify killing animals for food. All four agreed it was morally questionable and inconsistent with beliefs about love and compassion for animals. Prof Jeff MacMahan (White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford) said:

You don’t have to think about humans in exactly the same way that you think about cows. But you’ve got to explain why you think it’s permissible to do to an animal what you think it would be impermissible to do to a human being. In the case of people their suffering matters, but their happiness also matters. The same should be true in the case of animals.

Despite the facts on the serious impact of animal agriculture on climate change, not only are many religious leaders and followers still in denial but so are the majority of the planet. A report published a few years ago stated that nearly half of all parents raising their children on a meat-free diet have experienced “hostility” over the decision from doctors, health visitors, teachers or relatives. Something I can personally attest to. The majority of food sold in restaurants contains meat and dairy. Vegan options in supermarkets are often more expensive or harder to find than non-vegan options. Some cultures might even regard refusing meat as a sign of madness.

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We will only see a positive change on animal rights, climate change and environmental destruction when religious leaders, schools, universities, health authorities, religious and political institutions ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and set the example on meat-eating both personally and collectively. Actions speak louder than words after all.

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Can Identity be Chosen or is it In-Born? The ‘Dangerous Deep Waters’ of Identity Politics

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.- Ludwig Borne

I hope that people will finally come to realize that there is only one ‘race’ – the human race – and that we are all members of it. – Margaret Atwood

The question as to whether a person’s identity is ‘Nurture’ or ‘Nature’ is an interesting one, and considered afresh by Katharine Quarmby in ‘Impostors’ published by Aeon. Quarmby asks how or when a person can authentically claim an ‘identity’ in terms of ‘gender’ and ‘race’ (and other more extreme examples of identity transition).

Quarmby herself not only has ‘mixed race’ parents (Iranian father and English mother) but was also subsequently adopted by parents from different cultural and racial backgrounds:

I was born in the 1960s, after a brief liaison between an Iranian naval officer and an English girl on the South Coast. He offered to marry my mother and take us to Iran. She wanted to go to university, so refused to leave the UK, and instead put me up for adoption. At that time, dual‑heritage babies were ‘hard to place’, in the parlance of today. My adoptive parents were unfazed: my mother is half‑Bosnian Serb, partly Spanish and English; my father is a Yorkshireman. Neither of them minded about the colour of my skin, although the adoption society kept me with a foster family throughout the summer, to see how dark I would become and whether I would develop, as the adoption officer feared, ‘the large Persian nose’.

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Caitlin Jenner

Referring to the recent debate over Caitlin Jenner’s very public ‘transition’ from male to female, as well as the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white American woman, who publicly declared herself black, despite evidence to the contrary, Quarmby says:

….the underlying question, as different ‘trans’ identities vie for authenticity, is why we allow some parts of our identity to be chosen, but not others? Though I suspect that part of the growing acceptance of transgender people reflects the fact that there’s no going back.

Her conclusions regarding there being a valid difference between transgender and transracial are not altogether satisfactory though.

First, Quarmby appears to claim that race is fixed by DNA, whereas gender isn’t:

You cannot cross the DNA floor – it’s fixed, unlike gender. Dolezal had a perfect right to immerse herself in black culture and to parent her son by birth and her brother/son. But authenticity matters, even if DNA is on your side.

However, the majority of scientists agree now that ‘race’ is not biological either but a ‘social construct’ like gender. As Nicolas Wade says in What Science Says about Race and Genetics:

Racism and discrimination are wrong as a matter of principle, not of science. That said, it is hard to see anything in the new understanding of race that gives ammunition to racists. The reverse is the case….. The difference between races seems to rest on the subtle matter of relative allele frequencies. The overwhelming verdict of the genome is to declare the basic unity of humankind.

In ‘The Social Construction of Race’ Brian Jones argues that it is ‘imposed’ on people in the USA:

So when I say it’s all made up, I mean it. It’s made up. But that’s not to say it’s not real. It’s very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up…….

Black is something imposed on you in this country. It’s not a self-definition. Look at all those court cases of people trying to define themselves and being told, “No, you’re not that.” Native American tribes have gone before United States courts for generations, explaining that they define tribal membership socially (that is, as people who live on tribal sites and perform tribal practices), not genealogically. But time and time again, the court insists that bloodline is what matters.

This point is backed up by Luca in Race as a Social Construct:

First, race is a social construct contingent on collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. Second, race has always been defined by the dominant group in society. Third, race indicates differences in status. The status indicated by which race you are, either includes or excludes one from broader social constructs, and disables or enables certain powers.

Second, Quarmby concedes herself that claiming or having an ‘identity’ imposed on oneself that a person has not ‘lived’ is ‘dangerous’ and potentially fraudulent. She shares her own experience of this:

I visited my Iranian birth father in Tehran in 2007. While there, I had to wear the hejab, or headscarf, and a mantoux, a knee-length tunic or coat, just like any other woman. I was often stopped on the street and asked for directions because people thought I was Iranian – on the sleeper train to the historic city of Isfahan, I was pointed to the queue for Iranians, rather than for foreigners. Tempting as it was to ‘pass’, I decided not to. I might look Iranian – half my DNA is Iranian – but I never felt more English than I did in Iran, because that is what I am. Even if I am fully accepted by my birth family, I remain culturally English (and half‑English in ethnic terms). I did not live through the Iranian Revolution, as my half-sisters did, nor through the trauma of our shared father having been tortured and imprisoned. You cannot make this stuff up.

My reality is to live between two worlds as a transracial adoptee. As those Aboriginal elders say, kinship comes down to descent, identification and acceptance. I tick some of those boxes, but not all. I didn’t want to run the risk of being accused of being something I couldn’t, truly, say I was. Just as Borrow exoticised Romani life, wilfully refusing to see slavery before his eyes, anyone claiming blackness or any other ethnic identity who has not lived it is playing a very dangerous game.

Although I agree with her conclusion here, surely that also applies to transgender people though? Anyone ‘transitioning’ their ‘biological identity’ from male to female (or vice versa), who has not lived being female (as in being recognised as female by other biological females and males) is also playing a ‘dangerous game’? Germaine Greer, and others, have argued that transgender women are not women and that saying they are plays into the hands of sexist gender stereotypes.

 

From my own ‘lived experience’ as a woman and mother, who has lived in several different countries, of a mixed race child (Tibetan and English), to claim a fixed, singular cultural and/or racial identity, even when a person does not necessarily speak or read the majority language fluently, or who grew up in a completely different culture and country (regardless of whether or not one has the ‘racial heritage’) seems particularly hard to accept. In addition, the idea that one’s culture or identity can solely be traced to the ethnicity or culture of one’s parents alone is a pervasive one and yet, the basis and reality of such claims are tenuous and open to question. Quarmby’s article is a welcome step in the direction of looking at such issues from her own ‘lived perspective’ and being honest about how she doesn’t necessarily accept the homogenous identity that is foisted upon her by others’ fixed ideas of ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’.

Quarmby’s final paragraph on the inherent dangers of identity politics is

If identity is the currency that allows us to speak and be heard, and if white people, in particular, feel that they are automatically dismissed because no part of their identity is valorised, what next? After all, many white people have fought and even died in the universal struggle for human rights – in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. That should never be forgotten. In a brilliant essay for the New Left Review in 1996, the historian Eric Hobsbawm cautioned against the ‘deep waters of identity politics’. The essay is as fresh now as it was then. We must look beyond our self-interest in minority silos to wider, universal interests, he wrote, and I agree.

As Hobsbawm states:

‘Never was the word “community” used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense become hard to find in real life’. Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain. And they find it in an identity group. Hence the strange paradox, which the brilliant, and incidentally, Caribbean Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has identified: people choose to belong to an identity group, but ‘it is a choice predicated on the strongly held, intensely conceived belief that the individual has absolutely no choice but to belong to that specific group.’ That it is a choice can sometimes be demonstrated. The number of Americans reporting themselves as ‘American Indian’ or ‘Native American’ almost quadrupled between 1960 and 1990, from about half a million to about two millions, which is far more than could be explained by normal demography; and incidentally, since 70 per cent of ‘Native Americans’ marry outside their race, exactly who is a ‘Native American’ ethnically, is far from clear. So what do we understand by this collective ‘identity’, this sentiment of belonging to a primary group, which is its basis?

Precisely. The answer to that question leaves one swimming dangerously in deep waters with no real land in sight.

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