Sometimes we are so inured to the limitations imposed on our gender that we accept the status quo, however unfair, absurd or even cruel.
This was pointed out to me recently when a visitor came home from a day’s temple tour outraged at the number of signs she saw around the city telling her that she wasn’t allowed to enter various areas of a temple because of her gender. When she asked her guide why, she was told that it was because as a woman, her impurities may desecrate the holy grounds.
“It’s 2017 for *something’s* sake!”
And I agree. There have been attempts by the sensible to encourage temples to at least give some explanations as to why this tradition is still maintained, in spite having absolutely nothing to do with what the Buddha preached, but the pushback from the arbiters of culture, such as the Chiang Mai Cultural Council, has been swift and unapologetic. This is our culture, they say, and you must respect that.
Is culture not something that is shaped by its people? Well, I fancy me a bit of moulding.
Every major religion in the world is drenched in the condescension of patriarchy. The wholesale devaluation of women in organised religion has been so long ingrained that it has become a glaring irony that women ourselves are not only complicit in, but a major part of, the ongoing problem.
Thai girls are taught at a young age to avoid touching monks, an edict we take for granted to such an extent you will often see women contorting themselves into pretzlesque positions to avoid a passing flapping robe, as a monk wanders blithely by, unconcerned about the wake of consternation that trails behind. We are told that we are not allowed to enter special areas on holy grounds, lest our presence (sometimes inexplicably explicitly specified as our menstruation), dilute the sacredness of whatever man-made pagoda, temple or shrine we may happen upon. When we go to temples with our families, it is our fathers and brothers who sit in front with the monks, while we quietly prepare the food in the background.
I have never liked any of this. Even as a girl I would be a constant irritant to my devout mother as I pestered her with questions as to why I had to wai a passing monk I didn’t know (it’s the robe, dear), tried to get her to understand my resentment at having to step off the pavement into oncoming traffic to avoid an abomination* of monks (it’s just a samlor, dear), sulked as I refused to spend hours listening to prayers in a language I didn’t understand while my male cousins got to go and hang out with young novice monks (boys will be boys, dear). And most frustrating of all (I dare say, for both of us), was why I couldn’t ask these questions (it’s how things are, dear).
Well…well…well…what a difference a few decades make! This past year we women have had our voices heard. And loudly. And what we have long known and suffered – not always in silence — has become patently clear to the rest of the population that in many matters, from sexual assault down to discrimination, many of us have been treated pretty shabbily. The sad reality is that many of us felt that it wasn’t our place, or that there was no safe place, to speak up until now.
It has become clear that this new wave of feminism is about solidarity; about us sticking up and looking out for one another, and about women and our many male allies, all speaking up and pointing out injustices, working together to level the playing field.
There is much to celebrate these days as women gain traction in all sorts of areas we have been fighting for. Yet, there are still many obstacles to surmount.
In this spirit of solidarity I intend to do my bit, and my bit is what I do in these pages. So, this month I take a look at the role of Thai women in Buddhism, frankly a rather depressing state of affairs, and one which I think it is high time we started to challenge. Over the coming months my team and I hope to bring you more stories showcasing strong and powerful women, and the many issues which we still face.
I no longer accept my ‘place’ because of tradition or custom, but am happy to work together to carve a happy place whereby we are all respected for our virtues and values. Fair ‘nuff?
Let’s have a magnificent 2018 together.
*I too was pretty taken aback by this collective noun, which I assume was in reference to the shenanigans of Christian monks of yore, not today’s relatively more benign Thai monks.