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Discrimination against Ladakhi Women

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Anzara Anjum Khan wrote a piece for an Indian daily newspaper last week in which she emphasized that the situation for women in Ladakh is worse than she had thought. Ladakhi women are widely discriminated against, she found: they are often not given a share of their father’s or their husband’s properties. Furthermore, they are frequently left with nothing if their husbands, even after many years of marriage, decide to divorce them, leaving them with no resources with which to raise their children.

Thinlas Chorol on the right on a trek in Ladakh

Thinlas Chorol on the right on a trek in Ladakh (Photo by Mrladakh in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Ms. Khan opened her article by interviewing Thinlas Chorol, the well-known founder of a trekking guides company in Ladakh, who expressed strong reservations about the place of women in Ladakhi society. Ms. Chorol, who may have read articles such as one in this website two years ago about her accomplishments and the tradition of gender equality fostered by the Ladakhi, was dismissive of such analyses. “Is it justified to say that women in Ladakh are enjoying liberty and equality only because we are not burnt for dowry or killed in the [womb],” she complained to the author.

The journalist piled on the facts to build her case. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, the governing body in the region, has 30 seats, of which only two are held by women. Rinchen Lamo, one of the women councilors, pointed out that the LAHDC has succeeded in addressing numerous important issues but the concerns of women are not among them. Even basic gender amenities such as separate public toilets for women, or separate cells for women in prisons, are not available in Ladakh. In her position on the Council, she is trying to advance the cause of women but is still waiting for results from male authorities.

A Ladakhi woman vendor selling food in a market

A Ladakhi woman vendor selling food in a market (Photo by Steve Evans on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Ms. Lamo described her efforts on behalf of women. She has encouraged them to get involved in politics, to become part of the decision-making process, and to help change the situation. She also is working within the LAHDC to improve the security of Ladakhi women. “I need women of different walks to come on to one platform and work together for the empowerment of women,” she said.

Deachen Angmo, a 35-year old councilor in a local village council, complained that women work as hard, or harder, than men do. They take care of their families 24 hours of the day, do all the housework, take charge of community activities, serve on village governing councils as she does, and participate in the discussions—but they are frequently not allowed to make the decisions. Her words reflected her bitterness: “The work load is always on women whether it is in the family or in the village,” she said vehemently.

The SOS-Children’s Village in Choglamsar, a suburb of Leh, Ladakh

The SOS-Children’s Village in Choglamsar, a suburb of Leh, Ladakh (Photo by Daniela Hartmann for SOS-Children’s Village on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Another woman, Tsering Dolma, 62, from the village of Choglamsar, said basically the same things. The women organize the meetings of all the adults in the village and do all the work of the village council, but they are not part of the decision-making. She wondered why.

The journalist interviewed both the president and the vice-president of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, located in the town of Leh, the capital of the district. Murup Dolma, the president, said that Ladakhi women have tried to compete in elections but so far they have been unsuccessful. The reason is that the voters are reluctant to elect women to decision-making and policy-making positions. She feels a complete lack of support about that issue in the community.

A Ladakhi woman wearing a traditional hat

A Ladakhi woman wearing a traditional hat (Photo by Christopher Michel in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Yangchan Dolma, the vice-president of the organization, was even more outspoken about conditions for women in Leh. “Things are changing in this small town—not for the better, but for the worse,” she said. She went on to say that the organization focuses on skill-building for village women in workshops that try to foster useful productive interactions and that seek to develop entrepreneurship skills.

Ms. Khan, the journalist, also interviewed a man, Oztsal Wangdus, the president of the local bar association, who blamed the situation, at least in part, on the women themselves. He cited the fact that three different women’s groups celebrated International Women’s Day with three different events in three different locations. “These groups should come together on one platform; after all, they are all working for the same cause,” he said. Furthermore, he blamed the women for not aggressively fighting to be elected.

But the article concluded with an observation made by Thinlas Chorol that Ladakhi women “need to think what they are going to leave behind for the coming generations.”

 

Harmful Ghosts in Modern Thailand

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A village in the rural Isaan region of Northeast Thailand has been haunted by malevolent ghosts, the villagers believe, but fortunately they’ve been able to get help in exorcising the harmful spirits. An article last week in the South China Morning Post explained how the Rural Thai villagers came to believe their community was haunted—and what they did about it.

A young woman in Kalasin, Thailand

A young woman in Kalasin, Thailand (Photo by Larry Oien on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The residents in the 370 households in Ban Na Bong, a village in Nong Kung Si District, Kalasin Province of Isaan, hired a ghost catcher after a series of unexplained deaths alarmed the people that ghosts were causing the evil. The head of the district government, Wirat Tatcharee, on Monday last week got involved, asking health and livestock officials in the province to do health checks on all the humans and animals living in the afflicted community.

Mr. Wirat said that he wanted to boost the morale of the villagers, who were stressed by the perception that malevolent spirits, which they call phi pob, had invaded. The journalist explained that a phi pob is a form of ghost in Thailand that eats raw meat, particularly the internal organs of people and animals that it has invaded, thus killing them.

In the last few weeks, since the end of October, the people of Ban Na Bong have seen two men as well as several animals—buffaloes, dogs, and cats—die mysteriously. The deaths could only have been caused by phi pob. The people paid 124 baht (U.S. $3.74) per household to hire prominent ghost catchers to come into the village and catch the evil spirits.

A monk wards off ghosts

A monk wards off ghosts (Photo by hewy on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The rite the ghost catchers, plus a monk and 20 aides, performed at the village at the beginning of last week took over two hours to perform. The ghost catchers felt they had caught 30 phi pob and forced them to move into bamboo tubes, which they had then burned. The villagers all felt better after the work of the ghost catchers had been completed. They surrounded their houses with strands of holy threads to scare away any remaining ghosts. District officials and police attended the ritual to make sure it went smoothly. The district chief said afterwards, “Everything went fine. I saw smiles on their faces.”

However, the following day, another man died suddenly in the village. But the district police said that there was no indication on his body of any assault and the district hospital confirmed that analysis. He had died of heart failure. His mother also said that her son had not died of an attack by a phi pob.

A ghost decoy in Thailand, meant to distract a husband from stealing female ghosts

A ghost decoy in Thailand, meant to distract a husband from stealing female ghosts (Photo by Dan Weber on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Many scholarly works on rural Thailand discuss the popular Thai beliefs in spirits and ghosts, indicating that the folklore has been important in Rural Thai culture for a long time. John E. DeYoung (1955) wrote in his book Village Life in Modern Thailand that the spirits, which he called pi, were an essential part of the lives of the peasants and were frequently propitiated. Those spirits existed in many different forms, such as the spirits of the dead, the spirits of trees, the spirits of houses, and the spirits of a wide range of natural objects.

If the spirits were not effectively propitiated, he indicated, they could become evil. “Even the spirit of a dead parent can become a thing of evil,” he wrote (p.143). The author said that what he called “spirit doctors,” or spirit practitioners, were found in most rural villages. The villagers, particularly the ones in remote areas, went to them to have evil spirits exorcised out of people who had become ill. DeYoung described in some detail the practices of the spirit doctors in driving the evil pi out of sick people.

But Cornwel-Smith (2005), in his engaging and colorful book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, provided one of the best explanations of the place of superstition in Thailand’s society today. He explained that a gap has developed between the frazzled modern Thai people and the dwindling number of Buddhist monks. Contemporary Rural Thai, when faced with serious issues, frequently turn to the spirit world in the belief that that works better than the accepted virtues of Buddhism. The Thai will substitute the proven, practical value of the spirits for the wisdom of the holy monks in the temples.

An amazing 80 percent of the Thai people take the supernatural seriously and accept the stories of those who have experienced visitations. When dogs howl at night, they are seeing ghosts. Even sophisticated Thais, while they may discount superstitions, will still assuage the spirits “just in case.”

Ghosts at a festival in Loei Province, Isaan region of Thailand

Ghosts at a festival in Loei Province, Isaan region of Thailand (Photo by Nachomaans in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

There are over 40 different types of Thai ghosts, with variations in different regions of the country, and each incorporates a moral message. The evil spirits that possess living beings, which Cornwel-Smith called phii porb rather than phi pob, are the souls of the greedy; they are represented typically by ugly old crones, or witches. They tear apart livestock during the night.

Modern exorcisms are normally nonviolent affairs that are held to compassionately re-balance the energy in a community, to correct wrongs and to begin things again. They are conducted by lay spirit doctors or unorthodox monks. Cornwel-Smith noted that one held in 2003 in a village near Udon Thani, a city in Isaan, attracted 2,000 people. The monk and the teams of ghost catchers absorbed much of the budget of the village but after three hours they had caught 39 ghosts blamed for the premature deaths. The monk told the author, “Nine of them are strong willed phii porb [while] the rest are other ghosts and stray spirits (p.180).”

The Phi Ta Khon, the ghost mask parade in Loei Province of Thailand

The Phi Ta Khon, the ghost mask parade in Loei Province of Thailand (Photo by Larry Oien on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

As Thailand has modernized, the Rural Thai people have increasingly sought answers from occult authority figures rather than from members of the social hierarchy. Belief in the phii suggests that social messages are welcome. Ghost stories impart the worth of living a healthy social life, the value in avoiding greed, the benefits of good hygiene—and the importance of not staying outside after dark. Ghosts are still present today in Rural Thailand and their messages have been integrated into the popular Thai culture of movies, television soap operas, and comics.

 




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