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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Tibet
  • Rae Erin Dachille
Women in Tibet. Edited by Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 436 pp.

Empowerment, transcendence, and the performance of identity are common themes in the study of gender and religion across cultures. As these themes are elucidated across cultures and in different historical moments, they are troubled by a persistent refusal of gender as a category of enduring symbolic and real meaning by both historical and contemporary cultural actors. In the cases of Tibetan and Buddhist studies, the approach to womanhood as a category is repeatedly subsumed by concerns with religious or ethnic and political identity. This trend has forced many scholars to appeal to the symbolic realm of the iconic female or the construction of womanhood from sparse individual accounts as representative of an artificial subcultural entity. In response to the impasse created by these methods, the editors of Women in Tibet have chosen an approach that seeks to level the field. In doing so, they have produced a work that combines textual and anthropological projects aimed at recovering the specificities of lived womanhood across a range of historical moments. Allying themselves with a historical versus a feminist agenda, they succeed in laying the groundwork for a new approach to the study of womanhood.

This approach surveys the vast artillery of historically embedded social dynamics available for Tibetan women to emulate, embody, or resist. In the diversity of their selections, Gyatso and Havnevik intentionally leave room for the possibility that women continue to perform as historical actors in spite of as well as because of their association with womanhood and the disempowering social and religious stereotypes attached to it. In leaving this issue open-ended, the editors sustain the tension between approaches that locate "specifically female" elements within traditions and those that posit the category of womanhood to be subservient to other cultural categories and phenomena. Exploring the participation of women in lineages as diverse as the oracular described by Hildegard Diemberger, the medical addressed by Tashi Tsering, and the imperial aristocratic presented by Helga Uebach, the essays in this volume represent an oscillation in the perceived relevance of femaleness. Inconsistency in the priority of the category of womanhood in historical interpretation reflects fluctuating attitudes on the part of Tibetans themselves as well as of European and American scholars as interpreters of the region's religious, social, and political realities.

Asceticism in particular has been a highly charged site for the exploration of these themes in both Buddhist and Christian studies, along with determining the specific nature of female monasticism. As an instance of the deliberate embrace of a social category thriving upon the confluence of the ideal and the marginal, asceticism provides a lens for considering the ways in which women exploited opportunities to survive and excel spiritually and socially, often in spite [End Page 172] of female embodiment. Several of the authors in this volume address the tension between the socially sanctioned spaces for female asceticism within the nunnery or hermitage and the identities that individuals and communities of female ascetics strive to inhabit. Kurtis Schaeffer, for example, presents the tensions operating within acts of ascetic self-clarification in the autobiography of the medieval Tibetan hermitess Orgyan Chokyi. This account provides a rare glimpse of a historical woman defining her marginality and femaleness in relationship to Buddhist notions of suffering. Schaeffer reminds the reader that even from the hermetically sealed space of the cave, social, geographic, and historical elements play a fundamental role in constructing an individual's narrative identity and conditioning the terms of her self-realization.

Charlene Makley's astute observations on the identity of nuns in contemporary Amdo taps into the various power dynamics at play in the social construction of nuns as parasitic, marginal, and dispensable members of the Labrang community. These acts of identification occur in the enduring and influential discursive field of gossip centered upon the "inappropriate otherness" of female monastics and their rumored failure to perfectly embody what Makley, following Charles Keyes, terms the "third gender" of celibate monasticism. Makley uncovers the powerful signifiers of the body of the nun in this geographical and historical context as...


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pp. 172-174
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