Tibetan women, from Mosuo empowerment to exile


There are few countries where women have an equal status to men - even in Western countries where men and women share rights, there’s still a struggle for women empowerment. After many decades of fighting for equality, it was only in 1893 that women were allowed to vote for the first time. New Zealand led the way and Australia followed. It was almost 30 years later that the USA and the UK granted women’s suffrage and the fight still goes on - Saudi Arabian women didn’t win the vote until 2011. But it’s not just suffrage, women are still lagging behind when it comes to business leadership, politics, representation in the media, etc.

Now imagine a society where women not only have equal rights but are regarded as the primary decision-maker. Travel to the Yunnan valley in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas and you will find an ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists called Mosuo who live in an extremely modern way. Mosuo women are treated as equal to men, both have as many sexual partners as they like and extended families bring up children and care for the elderly, without the exclusivity of nuclear family structures. Mosuo children are born out of wedlock because men and women in the Yunnan valley practice what is known as “walking marriage”, a free of judgement practice of nocturnal hook-ups with lovers known as “axia”. The only rule is hanging a hat on the door when a couple is busy so no one else comes in. What is most interesting about the “walking marriage” is that some might just be a one-off encounter while others could deepen into exclusive partnerships but no one exchanges rings or signs a marriage contract.

Photo:  "  Mosuo Woman”   by    Rod Waddington      is licensed under    CC BY 2.0

Photo: "Mosuo Woman” by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mosuo women not only have sexual liberty, they also own and inherit property (which is not so common in many countries). While they run the household and sow crops, men plough, build, repair homes and slaughter animals to provide food for the household. As a result, tasks are shared equally among men and women. But, how about when it comes to decision-making? Men help with big decisions but the final say always comes from the Grandmother - she is the key figure of the family who sits at the head of the table.

Tibetan suppression

 But, how long will the Mosuo society live on for? With the invasion of Tibet in 1949 by the Chinese forces, Tibetans lost their freedom of speech, religion and self determination. In many regions of the country, Tibetan religion, culture and identity is slowly decaying as Chinese forces pull down ancient temples and whole cities in an attempt to suppress Tibet.

Since the invasion by China there have been over one million Tibetans killed and 150,000 have been forced to seek exile in countries like India, Nepal or Bhutan. Chinese has been made Tibet’s official language, over 6,000 monasteries and shrines have been destroyed and barely any monks are allowed to practice. Natural resources are being exploited aggressively, destroying the territory and causing serious ecological problems and bringing wildlife close to extinction. On top of this, famine has become an issue.

When China invaded Tibet, they took over the government until then headed by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama and his government were forced to abandon Tibet and fled to the Indian city of Dharamsala, where they were offered asylum and are still settled to date. Although the Dalai Lama, considered the highest spiritual leader, did make it across the Himalayas to India, the 11th Panchen Lama, the spiritual figure who is in charge of recognising the next Dalai Lama, didn’t - he was kidnapped at the young age of six and is still missing. On May 14, 1995 he was recognised by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet and three days later, on May 17, 1995 he along with his family went missing. Since then, their whereabouts remain unknown. This puts at stake the naming of the next Dalai Lama.

Women under invaded Tibet

The invasion of Tibet brought with it much suffering. Women were the victims of a strict Chinese policy called “family planning”. According to the report “Violence and Discrimination Against Tibetan Women”, "family planning" in the context of limiting the Tibetan population defies the reality of an already sparse population in a vast territory. As a result, further limiting the size of the Tibetan population and continuing the purposeful population transfer of ethnic (Han) Chinese citizens into Tibet present the possibility that the Tibetan people and culture will be destroyed within the coming century. To achieve this, Chinese forces carried out control measures against Tibetan women such as forced or coerced abortion, sterilisation and intrusive monitoring of Tibetan women's reproductive cycles, and eugenic laws and regulations.

Few people or organisations seem willing to admit that the Chinese force Tibetan women to be sterilised, or to have abortions, or will entertain the perspective that their policy is one of planned cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, supplemented by an enormous influx of Chinese settlers.
— Paul Ingram

In 1992, Paul Ingram, speaking at the Convention on the Rights of the Child claimed that "Few people or organisations seem willing to admit that the Chinese force Tibetan women to be sterilised, or to have abortions, or will entertain the perspective that their policy is one of planned cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, supplemented by an enormous influx of Chinese settlers. Yet there is a great deal of evidence and detailed testimony, which indicates that this has been Chinese policy in Tibet for many years”.

Leaving Tibet behind

Kunsang, a Tibetan woman who at the age of 13 went against her parents’ wishes and became a Buddhist nun, lived a peaceful life but shortly after she married and had children (in Tibet, nuns are allowed to marry), the Chinese invaded Tibet. Monks were tortured and prison camps were set up. As a result, the life of prayer, spiritual introspection and motherhood that Kunsang had sought was shattered. Kunsang’s monastery was destroyed and she had to leave with her husband and two daughters, trekking across the mountains. They took enough food to last them a few months, clothes and blankets, and a heavy bronze mould for making tsa tsa, sacred Buddhist images, out of clay because they knew that they would have to preserve their culture, which was in danger of disappearing.

Kunsang and her family walked along the Pang Chu river, through narrow, icy mountain paths, avoiding Chinese soldiers. Her two daughters were cold and fatigued, their handmade shoes ended up worn out and Kunsang and her husband had to carry the girls. They walked with no set direction, just knowing that they were leaving their country behind. Cold, hunger, exhaustion and fear of the unknown all came together in that arduous trail to exile.

Like Kunsang and her descendants, many Tibetan women have had to flee their country but they fight in exile to keep their culture alive. It was Kunsang’s granddaughter Yangzom Brauen who authored the book Across Many Mountains which tells her grandmothers story, and she’s an activist fighting for the Tibetan cause. In 2001 she was in Moscow when she was arrested during a protest against the award of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing. In order to preserve the Tibetan language and culture, she began recording and transcribing her family stories. Despite the efforts of many, the Chinese invasion of Tibet is still a reality and like Kunsang and her family, men and women are still forced to leave their country behind.