A Historical Understanding of Gender in the Tibetan Community

This following post is excerpted and adapted from the AIF Clinton Fellowship Endpoint presentation that my co-fellow Ayushi Parashar and I presented titled: “Reimagining the Justice System at the Local Level” on June 23rd, 2020. The last blog post concluded with imagining the possibility of transporting the Nari Adalat system into the Tibetan community. And this blog post seeks to contextualize gender and community-driven initiatives within the broader Tibetan political life in India.

In discussing gender and community-level initiatives as it pertains to the Tibetan community, I think it is important to contextualize it within a broader Tibetan history. And to do that, that requires us to go back to 1959, when the first wave of Tibetan refugees fled Tibet post the Chinese-Communist occupation and started settling in refugee camps in India.

Tibetan refugee transit camp in Missamari, Assam

When Tibetans refugees first settled in India, as newly arrived refugees, their main priorities were surviving materially and securing independence- to return to the homeland. And given the political turmoil in Tibet and the dire material conditions of refugees in India, achieving gender equity was far from everyone’s priorities.

Sixty years later, Tibetans have settled in settlements across India, established Tibetan schools, built monasteries, and instituted governing structures like the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). And although it seems deceptively stable, Tibetan existence in India is still built on this tenuous, liminal condition that is statelessness- our gaze always slightly turned towards the land on the other side of the Himalayas.

Dalai Lama, watching women clear up trees during his visit to one of the settlements in the South.

So how does understanding this refugee context inform gender-related issues as it pertains to the Tibetan community? 

Perhaps, one can posit that as refugees living inside these precarious systems, under less-than-ideal conditions, violence may then be a reaction to these social, political, and economic inequities. When you can’t exert control on larger external conditions, the home is then perhaps your closest locus of control- a place you can exercise some degree of control-however false that sense of control may actually be.

So now that we’ve established the unique refugee context that Tibetans are situated in- the next set of questions that then arises is what are the challenges of addressing gender-violence in this context?

For one, the Tibetan community is an insular one. Most Tibetans live in settlements governed by the CTA, they attend Tibetan schools, and they rarely intermingle in meaningful ways with the broader Indian community. In this way, Tibetans are “in India, but not of it” (Lau, 82). And when incidences of domestic violence do occur, Tibetans view it as a private issue- and so why involve outsiders?

Another layer to this issue is that Tibetans’ identities as refugees- as outsiders- cause them to view the Indian legal system as something that is not for them. So when cases of gender violence do occur, what’s the chance that they take legal recourse? Probably not very likely- which is why alternative, community models of justice like the Nari Adalat system are all the more important.

Another unique situation that Tibetans are in is that the Tibetan political struggle- of a hope for return- supersedes by and large every other issue. Thanks to the goodwill of the Dalai Lama, Tibetans have generated and crafted quite a positive image in the world- as peaceful, non-violent Buddhists with a just cause. And any controversies that hurt our image, including incidences of gender violence, is sometimes perceived as a threat to the broader political struggle.

But I’m hopeful:

Things are changing. Tibetans are certainly in a more stable situation now- at least materially. It’s no longer just about survival. And initiatives to tackle gender-issues from CTA and other Tibetan-led NGOs are being enacted on multiple fronts-from the community and for the community.

During my time as a fellow, I helped launch a helpline initiative that would connect aggrieved Tibetan women with social, legal, and psychological resources to deal with these acts of violence. Most importantly, it is serviced by Tibetans and for Tibetans- which I think is important.

Tibetan Women’s Helpline Card

Given how tiny the community is, where everyone seems to know everyone’s business, it’s vital that Tibetan women have a space where their anonymity is protected- of simply have an ear to share their grievances to. 

And while Tibetans don’t have a Nari Adalat system like the one implemented by Jagori, I hope it is a model that the Tibetan community eventually replicates in the future. 

There is certainly still a long road ahead, but I’m hopeful and optimistic about the path forward.


  1. M10Memorial. Image History of the Uprising: Tibetan Refugees Arrive in India. http://m10memorial.org/the-uprising-in-images/tibetan-refugees-arrive-in-india/
  2. Dalai Lama. Travels. https://www.dalailama.com/the-dalai-lama/events-and-awards/travels
  3. Lau, Timm. Tibetan Fears and Indian Foes: Fears of Cultural Extinction and Antagonism as Discursive Strategy in Explorations in Anthropology, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp 81-90.

Tenzin is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is conducting gender sensitivity training in schools and settlements to further women’s empowerment within the Tibetan refugee community. Tenzin was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but raised most of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Tenzin’s Tibetan heritage has largely informed her interest in themes of exile, displacement, statelessness, how these elements converge both on the socio-political and the personal, existential level. She is interested in questions of how place constructs our identities, sometimes both grounding us and alienating us, especially in the context of diaspora and exile. In addition to having studied in India for two years during elementary school, this will be Tenzin’s third visit to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Her first visit to Dharamsala was in summer of 2013 when she interned for Tibetan Women’s Association and then after graduating from Bowdoin College in 2016, she enrolled in Sarah College for Tibetan Higher Studies for two years where she studied Tibetan language and Buddhist Philosophy. She is eager to make a third return to Dharamsala as an AIF Clinton Fellow and assist the CTA in addressing gender equity and gender violence in the Tibetan community.

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