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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Book Review: Women in Tibet in their own words, sans politics

October 31, 2008

By Cristina Bonnet-Acosta
Tibetan Review

Heavy Earth, Golden Sky
Tibetan Women Speak About Their Lives
By Michelle Kleisath (Ed)
Shem's Women's Group USA
Printed by and available at, 2007
Pp. 128, Price: $19.98

This book comprises of ten short auto-biographies by young Tibetan
women from the Kham and Amdo regions which are now located in the
Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. In 2003,
American Michelle Kleisath went to Xining in order to teach sociology
at The English Training Program (ETP) at Qinghai Normal University.
She also developed several extra-curricular gender studies courses
from which this book slowly arose.

The stories cover several aspects of the lives of rural Tibetan women
in these areas. We learn about the rigorous routines that female
farmers must undertake day after day to keep their families thriving.
We also learn about the value that education holds for improving the
lives of entire families and about the qualities that women are
expected to develop in their culture. In several of the stories we
read of the unimaginable efforts that these families went through in
order to send their daughters to school. Most of all, these stories
show ten women who had to strive beyond belief to obtain an education
which would then allow them to give back to their communities in
effective ways.

Heavy Earth, Golden Sky deserves praise on several grounds. First of
all it is the Tibetan women who are writing directly in English for
an English-speaking audience. Until now the information we have
gotten about Tibet, and especially Tibetan women, has been through
one of two lenses: either that of foreigner researchers, scholars or
tourists who have reported what they had seen or through the
translation of Tibetan texts concerning women. The reports by
foreigners, albeit helpful, have undoubtedly left out a considerable
amount of information which this books attempts to retrieve. We learn
not only about the status, conditions and resistances of women's life
– the most common foreigners' focuses – in rural Tibet, but also
about their aspirations, their perceptions and their chosen paths for
improvement, which are not always what foreigners would prescribe. On
the other hand, the translations that have been done from Tibetan to
English speak of highly educated or at least highly realized women
who tell successful stories about spiritual journeys. Although these
stories have served to be inspirational to Western practitioners as
well as Tibetan women, they have failed to describe the daily
struggles of typical Tibetan women. This book offers deep insights
about the more "mundane" journeys of receiving an education, keeping
harmony in the family, and surviving agonizing poverty. These stories
are at least as inspiring as the spiritual warrior journeys.

This book offers an alternative view to the romantic image about
Tibet as an idyllic Shangri-La, where life goes on harmoniously and
spiritually elated. Even though fervor on Tibetan Buddhism is present
in most of the stories, it does not prevent for suffering and
shortcomings to arise in the lives of these women. There is pervasive
domestic violence, discrimination against women, and untamed women
emotions which often damage family life. As Vincanne Adams, points
out in the introduction: "it is a text that simply shows how hard it
is for normal Tibetans, or anyone, to embody and live the ideals of
their religion". (4)

Another fascinating aspect of these stories is the young women's
encounter with gender theories in their gender-studies workshop.
Several of them commented that before considering issues of gender
they had just thought that "this was just the way things were for men
and women" and that "I didn't think I could change it". (88, 100)
However, after sharing their experiences with other Tibetan women,
many of them started to look for ways of improving the lives of women
from their village. As readers, we are initially suspicious of a
paternalist (or should I say maternalist?) imposing of women's
Western values on such a drastically different context as rural
Tibet. However, we are relieved to learn that these women have been
encouraged to locate the issues they want to address and to find
solutions aligned with their culture, which do not remotely follow a
Western feminist approach. From their gender-workshop also arose the
Shem Women's Group with the mission to "empower Tibetan women and
their communities through grassroots development". (2) Through this
group, these Tibetan women have designed and implemented projects to
improve the conditions in their village and particularly to alleviate
the burden that women carry. This has been done in various ways such
as making water accessible so that the women do not have to walk four
hours a day to fetch it; or improving the conditions for the
education of girls; or even providing barley threshing machines so
that women in the village would not have to go through the arduous
task of manually threshing the barley. We can see that rather than
encouraging an American model of action for women, as often happens
with NGO's in the so-called "Third World", the workshop encouraged
the participants "to consider the conditions of the women in my
village, and what needed to be done to help them." (111)

This book catches the readers, not only because of its moving
stories, but also because of how beautifully written these vignettes
are. We are transported at times to beautiful settings in the
countryside, savoring tsampa or instant noodles, or to beautiful
shrines where Tibetans strive to follow the Buddhist path. We are
deeply impressed that, in such a short time, these women have managed
to develop their English skills sufficiently to master these
delicious literary pieces. Even with all the editing that might have
taken place after the stories were written, it could not have been
done if it was not with already catching and wonderfully written
pieces. We can only hope that we will hear more from them!

Even though we learn, through the stories, about the difficulties of
rural life in Tibet, there is no mention, even once, of the political
issue of Tibet. This is not surprising, considering the troubles that
they would get into if they were to criticize the Chinese regime. In
this sense, we are left intensely wondering about the political views
of these girls. Are they not involved in politics and therefore
challenge the view of Tibetans in exile that perceive most Tibetans
in Tibet as greatly dissatisfied with the conditions of the Chinese
government? Are they well aware that some of the difficulties they
experience are due to the Chinese policies but they have chosen not
to speak about this in order to continue to work effectively in their
communities? Probably the answer lies somewhere in-between these two
extremes. However, possible self-censorship is worth keeping in mind
while reading this book which, although necessary, erases important
aspects of the Tibetan situation to the reading public.

It is saddening that there are parts of these women's lives which we
cannot have access to due to tight Chinese pressure on what gets said
by whom. And, even if these women's lives do not surround politics,
as we sometimes imagine most Tibetans' lives do, it is disconcerting
that we cannot be sure, as we know that they could not have said
anything to even slightly criticize the Chinese government. But apart
from this inevitable shortcoming, this book is read with immense joy,
sadness, pleasant melancholy and deep inspiration and admiration for
the work that these women have done.

* CRISTINA BONNET is a graduate student at Stanford University,
currently doing one-year fieldwork in Dharamsala. Her main focus is
on gender and women in the Tibetan community in exile.

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