Are women of Leh really empowered?

By Dawa Dolma & Rigzin Wangmo Leh, May 20, 2019
Leh :

Women’s empowerment in recent times has become a surfacing topic in most regions of India. Currently, it is crucial to look at the status of such a movement in Leh. Sure enough, some examples are well known in the area due to media coverage like Ladakhi women team representing the country on the international level of Ice Hockey League, having women associations and women working as government officials to name a few. But does that really mean or signify that overall women in Leh have reached a status quo of sheer empowerment? Maybe not. In this news article, we will dwell into the subject of women empowerment in Leh by looking back to history, development of women status in the region and women de-empowerment.  

It is widely believed that women of Leh are empowered to a great extent that they are enjoying far better opportunities by receiving equal educational opportunities and studying outside of Ladakh as compared to women elsewhere in the country. The need for such comparisons shouldn’t have arisen in the first place, as women deserve equality and fair opportunities everywhere. 

Women empowerment in Leh is highly ambiguous. Girls are receiving education from schools to colleges and yet not having equal representation in decision-making bodies, be it the Hill Council, the Assembly or Parliament. Jigmet Sangyas, Assistant professor, J&K Department of Higher Education, believes that the increasing participation of women in the local body political institutions like Panchayati Raj is a good sign but it will still be like a mere appeasement if it remains confined to the local bodies. 

In contrast, people in power assert that women are themselves responsible for not coming up into politics, and not coming forward at the authority level. But the reality is that women are often questioned when they try to assert for a bigger picture. Therefore, women coming in power should not be restricted only to women. A viable change is possible if the male members are ready to accept or acknowledge women’s struggle for equality. After all, women are also members of the same society and they should have equal rights. 

The stigmas attached to women back in the ‘90s still exist, and many of us presume that women are empowered by working in offices, driving cars, wearing western clothes, and attending colleges. The social perception of appropriating or confining women’s capability to the local arena is highly prominent. Moreover, the household chores hold women back to come forward in playing a larger role at the societal level. 

Going back to history, Ladakh used to be a gender-balanced society where women played a significant role not only in the households but also in the political arena, says Lhundup Gyalpo, a columnist at Stawa. During the reign of Singay Namgyal, every member of society played an equally important role in shaping Ladakh as an egalitarian society. 

The change in women discourse emerges from post-colonial Indianization in Ladakh. Empowering women is an idea brought from Northern India that is applicable according to the rituals and practices of Hinduism, which is highly problematic. Taking an example, “Women are seen as a commodity to be exchanged during a marriage where the worth of a woman is equivalent to a government job”, says N. Angmo, an independent researcher on women’s issues. 

Jigmet Sangyas adds that factors behind preferring only a government job can be because of perceptions like government jobs are less hectic and have more concessions, and that she will get proper time to perform domestic tasks. And women in private sectors are more vulnerable towards risks of losing a job. Such perceptions reflect an underestimation of women’s capability and confining their capacity to their home circles.

Tsering Nordon, associated with “Stand with Nomoly” movement in Jammu, defines women empowerment as a movement in which women needs to play the central role in changing mindsets about the so-called patriarchy. The blatant reality of women being a subordinate class needs to be challenged by talking on labeled “taboos” such as menstruation, mental health, sexual identity, and many other such things.

She further mentions that people in Leh barely raise the issue of domestic violence because of the notion that “what remains in the house remains in the house”, as it does not come within the domain of public sphere. Had it been a private matter, we wouldn’t have the domestic violence Act in Indian Constitution. 

Likewise, the so-called “Nangdik” (deliberation within the family) shuts the door for proper justice for the victim, and also discourages her from taking a strong stand against the culprit/s. Women aren’t afforded the same protection at home.

On the other hand, there are women in Leh who misuse women’s rights by claiming unsubstantiated domestic harassment and penalising their spouses in the name of alimony. In other words, such women ‘de-empower’ women’s empowerment!

The power relations of both men and women should be equal at every level of society and women need to participate more on developmental process such as building self-confidence, making independent decisions, taking a risk and other such issues, says Angmo. 

Though we have a few women organisations working for the so-called women’s welfare, they lag behind to actually address women’s issues in Leh with their outdated thoughts and approaches. Gyalpo mentions that young minds and faces should be promoted in such organisations. Establishing alternative women alliances like ‘Phumo Tsogpa’ (Girl Alliance) too might bring a wind of change. 

In conclusion, we must broaden women's political, economic, social and cultural opportunities and independence. It is crucial to support the empowerment of women at the grassroots level and through affirmation action. For this, everybody will have to stand together in designing a gender-balanced society.

Photo courtesy: Sunga Park