A woman has to be born nine times before her reincarnation as a man",
goes a common Bhutanese saying. To the uninitiated, this comes as a rather disturbing awakening. Average Bhutanese men and women will tell you that equality between the sexes is the order of the day here. And as I cuddled down into my thick anorak in a circle of hand holding Bhutanese of both sexes, swaying to and fro in a trance-like motion around the bonfire, chanting a mesmerizing tune, I witnessed the freedom of the Bhutanese women to avail themselves of the simple joys of life just like their menfolk.
The village of Rukubji lies snugly in the Himalayan foothills. Young boys and girls cheered as our car pulled up. Women were involved in preparing and serving buttered tea, a local speciality. ("Think of it as soup", warned my friend Jean NoŽl.) On the bank at the far end of the stream, men were spreading freshly cut pine needles to make a "carpet" fit for royalty. The air was filled with a special pine aroma. As I sat sipping the tea-soup, looking up at the majestic range before me, I said to myself, "Paradise, here I am".
On the other side stood a small pagoda-like structure. Young boys and girls ran up and down the planks leaning against the walls, shrieking in delight. It was a brilliant; cold and crisp spring day.
As I cuddled up in the comfort of the warm sleeping bag next to Karma, my Bhutanese colleague, I wondered if the burden and the joy of life could be shared equally as it is here. What, then, is the issue? Why do development, education and technology have to disturb this heavenly peace?
The next day, under the cloudless sky of Phubjika Village, men and women sat next to one another on the floor outside a school building. They answered our questions and raised issues about their work; their life, their children. Coarse wooden cloth was brought out to show what takes up the womenís evenings. "We weave for the whole family", said Amma Karma Dorji, "We donít like any job we do. Itís all painful". But what they detest the most, joined in Amma Choden, is refining wool before making it into thread. It gave shoulder pains which lasted throughout life. Then there was the traditional loom where women sit with legs straight out for hours on end. This loom, also in use in Laos and southern China, is known for causing difficult childbirth. From the corner of my eyes, I noticed my young companion, Tenzin, asking them details about weaving. Three months later, inspired by this encounter, Tenzin transformed his knowledge into a learning programme for women introducing a new type of weaving loom.
Slowly, paradise was disappearing before my eyes. Life is hard, very hard in fact. For these mountainous people, living is downright rough for both men and women. Mere subsistence is the order of the day. And for women, it is even harder. Hundreds of miles from a doctor, a large percentage of women die in childbirth. Simple pre- and post-natal care is yet to come to these idyllic spots.
Down in the valley, women walked in single-file, bent and laden down with huge baskets of fresh manure strapped to their back. It seems unfair. Men can work in the field but they donít touch manure. It brings them bad luck!
This traditional view of the division of work between women and men inspired Suman Pradhan of the Bhutanese Womenís Association to write an easy-to-read booklet - The Enlightened Man. It tells of a crop that went bad because a woman alone couldnít cope with fetching enough manure. Out of sheer frustration, the husband started working with the manure. Fortune followed. Once breaking traditional practices had proved useful, other men started working with women too.
Sumanís book is now read by women in literacy centres in Phubjika and Rukubji. For the first time, women and men talked about this openly. Rinzin, a young teacher who also farms, said he now carried manure too. "The burden is not too much on me. And workís easier for my wife".
When evening fell and our daily training was finished, we walked down from the Olathang cottage on the hill above Paro to the village in the valley. The only sound to be heard was my young companionís giggling and chattering along the lonesome hillside track. Down below, a solitary figure sat crossed-legged in the midst of a rice paddy. At her side, stood a small pile of weeds she had pulled out of the earth. There was an air of stillness surrounding her which we broke. She had been there since eight in the morning. I glanced at my watch: it was six p.m. "And your husband, Amma? Up at the house? Drinking?, probed Tenzin. The old Amma smiled - not only in acceptance of Tenzinís sarcasm but of this aspect of the reality of life.
Yes, life is painfully tough there - for all. But for women, itís even tougher. And things are not so utterly clear-cut, either. Young girls, for example, are pampered because everyone knows that sooner or later they will face the wretched demand of life as adult women. Almost because of this attitude, only half as many girls as boys (with a dismal enrolment rate of 20 per cent) are enrolled in school. And thatís only 20 per cent of all boys of primary school age. To further complicate matters, educational materials had been in English, not the national language, Dzongka. That explained the flock of girls trailing us, shouting "You is beauty. You is good".
Looking at their bright eyes, shining with curiosity and the desire to learn, just like the boys, I could not help wondering what happened between girlhood and womanhood that reduced women to such downtrodden conditions. Education? The majority of these children never attend school. Now that His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuk has laid down a clear policy to promote education for all, will things change?
Looking around the region, experts appear pessimistic because, at the most obvious level, what is taught is often harmful to young girlsí minds. It reinforces the stereotyped roles of women as a secondary sex and strips them of any chance to develop self-esteem. But booklets like Sumanís and Tenzinís do give hope as confirmed by Her Royal Highness the Princess Ashi Sonam who insisted that educational programmes for women must aim at raising their self-reliance, self-respect and, ultimately, their status in society. Her Royal Highnessí position was reflected in KŁnzel, the Kingdomís only newspaper and it is in English. It publishes stories of womenís advancement and shows photos like that of a woman driving a tractor, reflecting a changed view of womenís tasks and potential in Bhutanese society. It also reported a young women graduate who; at the diploma granting ceremony, stood up and questioned His Majesty the King on the countryís commitment to giving women a fair chance in education.
Yet Bhutan seems weary of indiscriminate "modernization" which already poses a threat to national integrity. Its development policy has been more than cautious. Now, the country is facing a challenge of a new world where every citizenís contribution counts. The question is whether it can be progressive enough to improve its peoplesí lives and to achieve equality between the sexes, yet cautious enough to preserve their paradise.
By Namtip Aksornkool