Does the cup of happiness overflow in Bhutan? Ask the women. They will agree - more or less. Women in Bhutan, the land that gave the Gross National Happiness Index to the world, have a far better status than do women in the neighboring South Asian countries.
“There is really very little discrimination, at least in urban areas,” says Pema, a young 20-something woman, who works in one of the many hotels in Thimphu. She looks at her colleague, Leela, an accountant with the hotel. “Are any rules different for women and for men? Not really!”
Leela looks up from the computer and clarifies, “Citizenship. If a Bhutanese boy marries a non-Bhutanese, their children will be Bhutanese. But if I marry a non-Bhutanese, my children cannot claim citizenship of Bhutan,” she says. This reminds me of Kunzang Choden, the first woman author from Bhutan who married a Swiss. The reason she turned to writing, she says, was to share with her children the folk culture of Bhutan.
“Women do have a lot of freedom,” says Mink, a Thai married to a Bhutanese man. “For instance, both polygamy and polyandry co-exist here without either attracting any social stigma. And, if my husband was to take another wife, he would first need my consent.”
More women than men own land and property, including retail business, in this largely matrilineal society. Women have equal rights over marital property in case of a divorce. Bhutan is the only South Asian country to have ratified the UN CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) Convention without any reservations. Overall, parents do not have a preference for sons and give as much care to girls as they do to boys. Women often head households, taking major household decisions together with husbands and sharing productive work. Instances of female infanticide, dowry deaths, bride burning, vicious acid attacks and organized trafficking in women are absent. Marriages based upon mutual consent and affection is the preferred norm and, unlike in most developing countries, married girls usually stay in their parental homes and their husbands come to live with them. The country even has a paternity law.
Yet, on my first evening in Thimphu, Mink, who runs a travel business, told me, “Please wear ankle-length skirt when you go to Punakha valley. It will be hotter in the valley but in Bhutan women are not allowed to show their legs.” As the days progressed, it struck me that in Bhutan there is almost a dramatic co-existence of traditional norms and progressive practices. In the Thimphu market, a woman shop-owner, clad in her traditional fully-covered kira, advised my male colleague on Bhutanese music while feeding her child, her breast fully exposed to the customer – and to her teenage son helping her. At the Punakha hotel, women employees clad in their traditional dress were carrying as many chairs if not more on their backs as their male counterparts. More women were definitely economically productive and mobile. But with this ‘freedom’, how much of the traditional shackles have women been able to shake off? It seems there is a quiet acceptance and even condoning of some traditional gender biases that continue to persist.
Traditionally, boys were given religious education in monasteries,” says Tashi Dorji, a school teacher. “Modern education with girls going to school started only in the fifties. The female literacy rate, at around 38 per cent, is low and lags behind the male literacy rate which is around 65 per cent. Lack of education is a constraint in achieving fuller gender equality.”
Thinley Namgyel, a senior official in the National Environment Commission, points out that education has grown slowly among girls because “our grandmothers wanted every hand on the farm.” Though women comprise 20 per cent of the civil service sector, Namgyel says there are very few women in senior government positions. "We did not have a generation of educated women,” he says. “The first educated generation is emerging now. We are a product of our situation.”
Bhutan opened its doors to the outside world as late as the 1960s, ending its self-imposed isolation and adopting proactive development strategies. Over a third of its population still lives below the poverty line and maternal mortality rate remains high. Housework is still a woman’s job and in urban areas, where extended family help is missing, there is an increasing double burden on working women. Despite equal opportunities, differences between men and women persist vis-a-vis legal entitlements and status. This is particularly so in education, enterprise development and governance. Yet, it is creditable that in this short span of three to four decades, Bhutanese women are increasingly choosing to become doctors, mechanics, engineers and entrepreneurs.
Perhaps this is because the predominant religious and social values emphasize the principles of tolerance and mutual respect within Bhutanese society. In modern times, the Royal Government of Bhutan has promoted the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index as a measure of human development, and holds it as important as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the conventional index of economic growth. “GNH for us is not just an index, it is our goal,” says Namgyel.
This pursuit of happiness will, hopefully, help dispel the remaining subdued and indirect forms of gender bias that remain in the largely egalitarian Bhutanese society.