Tibetan Feminist Kunsang Dolma Challenging the Myth of Shangri-La

From my own experience of living in the Tibetan community in exile, it is clear Dolma is fighting somewhat of an uphill battle. Yet her grace, courage and resilience appear undiminished. Let's hope Tibetans learn from some of their past mistakes and listen with open hearts to women like Dolma.

''Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." - George Bernard Shaw

In the 1933 British novel Lost Horizon, a fictional account of excursions among lamaseries in the Himalayas, the protagonist encounters a people who are forever happy, mystically content, slow to age, and isolated from most ills that trouble the human race. Author James Hilton depicts "Shangri-la," a monastery nestled in a misty mountain valley; its name has since become synonymous with an earthly paradise, Tibet.

Kunsang Dolma represents an authentic, brave, new voice not only in writing about Tibetan women's lives but also in challenging the myth of Tibet as an earthly paradise. Her memoir: 'A Hundred Thousand White Stones: The story of an Ordinary Tibetan's Extraordinary Life' (published this year) speaks of sexual abuse, violence and alcoholism within the Tibetan community in both Tibet and India. She represents many things the ultra-conservative, religious-right Tibetans in exile have come to fear and loathe. A Tibetan woman breaking all the social taboos of silence, shame, denial, class, elitism, inter-cultural marriage and gender stereotypes.

Last month, Dolma also wrote a courageous article on the '7 Worst Excuses for Ignoring Women's Rights' , which was followed up with her response to the sexist and misogynist comments she received to that article. Last month, we met on a sunny day, in a cafe in Dharamsala, with her beautiful children and charming American husband. I asked her the following questions:

What has been the general response to writing?

Many Tibetans are reluctant to speak up about controversial issues so most people want to wait and see how things play out before saying anything. A small number of people upset by the Phayul article have made negative comments but I don't think they necessarily represent the majority view.

Although my book isn't the first to share the experience of Tibetan refugees, it is unusual because I tell my story completely honestly without holding anything back. Some of the truths in my book were shocking for other Tibetans to hear, not because it's surprising that they happened, but because it's surprising I was willing to address them openly. Sections about rape and sexual abuse I experienced as well as about my father's alcoholism particularly caught people's attention. Tibetans aren't supposed to talk about anything like that. Even somebody I consider a good friend asked me why I wasn't embarrassed about having those experiences in my book.

What has been the reaction from Tibetans to your testimony about rape and gender violence?

The fact that the book is in English has been an issue. Talking about sexual abuse with other Tibetans is one thing, exposing the reality of gender violence in the Tibetan community to the English speaking world is another. There are people who feel that I've hurt the community by revealing secrets that damage our image, but to me, getting serious about resolving our problems is more important than protecting a myth.

I think sexual assault and rape are not reported more often by Tibetan women because they are still seen as shameful to the woman and to her family. Women worry about the gossip that will come out if they report sexual crimes so they keep quiet. It's easy for people to judge women who have been abused, which adds to the problem. When a woman has already been through a terrible experience, hearing people make up their own stories or say she's a liar only makes her feel worse. I still hear people say I'm lying about abuse that happened to me or that somehow I'm the problem.

What is your own experience of being in an inter-cultural relationship?

Having a relationship with a person from a totally different culture has often been difficult. At first we had different expectations from each other, different ways of communicating, and different ideas about what is important in our lives. One thing that has made our relationship worth those difficulties is that my husband has always treated me with respect. I appreciate that he's always supported me and allowed me to be myself without being judged.

Other Tibetans tend to assume that our relationship is bound to fail. Many relationships between Tibetans and Westerners do fail, and they expect us to be like that too. It's common for Tibetans to think the problem is that Western culture is too strange for us to live with, so Tibetans can't stay married to an outsider for long. A few Tibetan men have let me know that I should contact them when I break up with my husband.

You mention in your article that you realised the conduct of Tibetan men was unacceptable when you saw women being treated differently? Please expand on that.

During my childhood, my mother always used to say "poor girl" the first time she held any new girl babies born into my family. In Tibet, being born a girl was a misfortune. Since I came to America I've seen how much more freedom American woman enjoy and the opportunities they have. I couldn't believe American woman were able to live alone without fear of men taking advantage of them. It didn't take me long to figure out that Tibetan women deserve the same freedom and opportunities.

What is your view of Tibetan arranged marriages?

From what I've seen in Tibet, arranged marriages can work out well and couples in arranged marriages can be in love. It's not as bad as Western people think. It doesn't work out well for everybody though. The problem is that people get stuck in unhappy arranged marriages without the option to leave. When a woman, or a man, wants to leave an arranged marriage first the whole family from both sides has to get involved. Sometimes the families might help work out problems, but they might also insist that a woman reconciles with an abusive husband. In unhappy or abusive marriages, divorce would actually be better than being stuck in a negative situation.

What do you think are the most pressing issues for women right now in the Tibetan community?

Attitudes tolerating abuse or any kind of taking advantage of women are the biggest problem. It's the mentality that needs to change. The solution will come from open and courageous communication within the community. I'd like more woman to speak up about the problems they see and their hopes for positive changes, and I'd like more men to speak up in the presence of comments or actions that they know aren't right. Every one of us can be to part of building a better future.

From my own experience of living in the Tibetan community in exile, it is clear Dolma is fighting somewhat of an uphill battle. Yet her grace, courage and resilience appear undiminished. Let's hope Tibetans learn from some of their past mistakes and listen with open hearts to women like Dolma.