Women Leadership (or the lack thereof) in the Tibetan Itinerant Trade

One of my tasks as an AIF Clinton Fellow for Women’s Empowerment Desk, the unit of CTA that I worked in, was to conduct a small research on the Tibetan sweater economy, particularly focusing on the lives of the women business owners who make up a significant portion of the market population. I wrote a blog post on it a few months ago, which can be found here. The final product that resulted from this research was a 25-page report that covered a range of issues from safety at the market to the ways in which the division of labor was gendered. 

In this three-part blog series that has been excerpted from my report, I will examine specifically the gaps in representation between men and women in the market association, what that does say and doesn’t say about “women’s empowerment,” and how we can reframe empowerment away from an individual-centered paradigm as is so often touted in development discourse and instead move towards a community-centered model of empowerment that recognizes the interconnectedness and webs of relationships within communities like the Tibetan one in India.

During my first visit to the winter market in Gurgaon, when meeting the market leadership, the first thing I noticed was there weren’t any women on the team. Upon noticing the gendered gap in leadership, I asked the leaders if women had previously served in the market association board. To this question, the leaders answered that there have been two women that they knew of. That a market that was going into its seventeenth year and that the leaders could only recall two women who assumed leadership roles in the association, I found that to be quite an indictment on the gender-disparity. Later visits to the other three markets in Dwarka, Noida, and Lal Quila, would reveal that Gurgaon’s unequal gender representation in leadership was not an anomaly, but rather a pattern. Men, with the exception of a few female leaders, were the ones dominating these spaces of governance.

Me talking to one of the market leaders in Gurgaon.

What made discussions about women’s leadership with market workers especially frustrating and contradictory were that in conversations with both men and women, both men and women would often emphasize how women nowadays are more capable, more jonpo than the men. They would go so far as to say that families often prefer to have girls rather than boys because girls simply work harder- in schools, at homes, and even in these marketplaces. In other words, women were more useful. So if both men and women are universally praising the potential of women and their abilities, even so far as to elevate their potential over that of men’s, that then begs the question of why doesn’t their potential, their jonpo-ness translate into a more equal representation in spaces of leadership. What factors account for the lack of significant progress in this area, especially considering that there are no institutional rules that bar women, both young and old, from presiding over these leadership positions?

Family Obligations:

Based on my conversations with women in Gurgaon, one factor that I concluded that accounted for this disparity in leadership was that the responsibilities of care work disproportionately fell on women. Whereas men could take it for granted that the women in their lives will assume the responsibilities that come with raising a home- cooking, cleaning, looking after kids, etc. and could therefore pursue community-related work, Tibetan women don’t have the privilege to operate under the same assumptions. This especially comes to the foreground when women marry off into their husband’s families and are obliged to follow the norms and responsibilities of a wife as expected from their in-laws. Compounded by the responsibilities of childcare, there simply is no leisure time for women to devote to the public arena, to community work. One woman in Gurgaon mentioned how being a nama and being obligated to the in-laws creates some restrictions for women to pursue outside work. In-laws sometimes make comments such as why bother with outside work when there’s already so much household work. These societal and family pressures likely hinder women from engaging in community work.

Young child and guardian at Noida market

Leisure Time or the Lack Thereof:

Time, or the lack thereof, is especially important because that is what’s needed in being a market leader, which entails a lot of additional work and which necessitates coming to the market site two months prior to the start of the season. During these two months leading up to the opening of the market, market leaders network with local officials, handle all the paperwork, and make sure to secure all necessary permits to operate the market. And this is just the work that needs to be done before the season even starts. During the season, other work includes organizing weekly market meetings, continuing to deal with local authorities, making necessary announcements, dealing with the Tibetan Refugee Traders Association, and organizing special events such as Nobel Prize Day. And often, leaders who are busy with organizational work don’t have the time to tend to their stands, so if a woman is single and doesn’t have any other helpers, she is unlikely to even consider taking a leadership position if she doesn’t have any other helpers. 

So when you consider all the responsibilities that working in these associations entails, and you’re a woman who is the primary caretaker of her children, what is the chance that you will burden yourself more with outside work, on top of the full-time job you already have? Probably not very likely. Simply put, more time put in housework means less leisure time for women, which then means they are less likely to commit to volunteer work that they simply don’t have the time and energy for. 

Based on informal observations and discussions, it seems that of the women who do take up leadership positions in these associations, they tend to be either on the older side with children who are already all grown up or they tend to be younger women who aren’t married and who don’t have all the burdens that come with marrying into other families. It can then possibly be hypothesized that the cultural structures that shape kinship dynamics within the Tibetan community is therefore an attributing factor to the gender-disparity in market leadership. Considering that these larger societal changes are more difficult to change given that they are deeply rooted cultural practices, the question that then arises is how can we increase women’s participation in leadership while accounting for these cultural variables? 

Woman working her stand.

Are Tibetan Women more Rang-che-zin? 

When asked why there weren’t that many women who participate in these market associations, some of Gurgaon’s market leaders asserted that women are simply more rang-che-zin than men. In other words, that women care more about themselves- their homes, their kids, their families- rather than servicing to chi-dhon, to community.

However, an outsider who has a different value and cultural framework may analyze these claims differently. To someone with a different value system, a woman who looks after her family, her husband, her elderly parents, her children- essentially all the responsibilities that support and maintain the structure of the home- may seem anything but rang-che-zin. Instead, the outsider would probably judge these acts to be acts of service in their own right- one not judged and recognized in the public domain, but within the private. 

So how do we square these different understandings of selfishness? To the leaders in Gurgaon, women don’t tend to the community because they are more devoted to the home and therefore more selfish. One way to interpret their understanding of selfishness is that the domain of relationships that a woman is bound in- to her kids, her husband, her parents- these relationalities makes these acts inherently selfish because it involves the self- it affects the self. Whereas, in the case of chi dhon, public service, this labor- because it exists outside of these networks of kin- is considered more selfless work. 

So if we are to accept the leaders’ claim that women are more rang-che-zin, the question why arises. Are they naturally built this way? Or has society conditioned women to assume more of the mental, emotional, and physical toll of care work? Discussions with women from the market and a basic understanding of gender relations certainly suggest it is the latter. The market leaders who ascribed to women the label of rang-che-zin seem to imply that these were natural qualities that belong to women, as though it were a choice. Yet, if society has created a set of culturalized and gendered conditions that determine a distribution of care work that disadvantages women, can we then fault a woman for concerning herself more with family work than community work, when those are the cultural expectations she was raised in and continues to operate within? 

A woman with her daughter in Lal Quila

The question of who gets to participate in service then becomes a material and cultural question. Becoming an active “selfless” member of the public community can be interpreted as an act of privilege because it establishes that one, the individual has leisure time, and two for that individual to have leisure time, it must mean that someone else is filling in the gap of care work that would have to be set aside for the person to commit to public service. And who gets to activate those privileges? Men. Men in these markets can head to their market locations two months prior to the start of the season because they can take it for granted that their wives or their mothers will tend to the domestic matter. They can safely assume that the kids will be taken care of. And they don’t have to worry about their ailing elderly parents if the women in their lives are tending to those matters.

Being a leader, being out in the public is privileged work. It brings dignity. Honor. A sense of purpose. As one woman who previously worked at her local Tibetan Women’s Association suggested, it can expand someone’s exposure and worldview. Essentially, engaging in the public sphere affords a lot of opportunities for growth. And it’s an advantage that men more so than women are reaping. This is to be said without taking anything away from the dignity and value of care work. Unfortunately, care is a form of labor that goes far too unrecognized and unvalued, because simply put, it’s unseen. Public, community work on the other hand, because it is performed for the public, is seen and therefore recognized and elevated over the work that women silently do inside the walls of their homes. If we accept that care work is unselfish labor because it involves caring for other people, women then seem anything but rang-che-zin.

Part two of this three-part blog series will explore the convoluted term that is empowerment and whether participation in leadership is a fair indicator of empowerment. Stay tuned!

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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