Impact of Proverbial Theories in Women’s Electability

By Kinley Wangchuk 

From the first until the fourth parliamentary elections, Bhutan has seen a declining trend of women’s representation in Parliament. The first democratically elected Parliament (2008-13) had eight women. Combined with two appointed by the King in the National Council, the women’s representation stood at 13.88%. During the second Parliament, the count of elected women plummeted by half, with only four representatives. However, in the third parliamentary elections, this number rebounded to eight. Despite this noteworthy improvement, the optimism was short-lived, as the count experienced a sharp decline of almost 38% in the fourth parliamentary elections. Only three women emerged victorious, one in the National Council and two in the National Assembly.

In this context, “sociocultural norms and proverbial theories” is explored as one of the underlying factors, to examine their impact on women’s electability. While some undermentioned norms and proverbs may sound new to urban dwellers, they are part of rural folks’ conversations, especially in the western regions. Since, majority voters reside in rural pockets, this subject certainly merits attention.  

While Bhutan’s socio-cultural norms are argued to be gender neutral, some hinders women from holding key leadership positions. One such norm stems from kè-rub-gu differentiation that “to be born a man, a woman must take nine life times.” During the period of elections, such as these beliefs are insinuated by traditionalists, amplified by politically motivated individuals, and believed by ignorant electorates. The kè-rub-gu belief particularly aggravates when women stand as party presidents and potential prime ministerial candidates. Until now, three women had led three different political parties but to no success. 

A befitting counter argument to kè-rub-gu differentiation is bhümè sherub gi rangzhin. It states that “women are endowed with innate intellectual prowess.” Motivated by the said maxim, women candidates often argue that “in the modern era, it takes intellect not masculinity to become leaders.”

At the socio-political level, women are often portrayed as indecisive and unreliable. These beliefs are encapsulated in the proverb aumtsu gi sem dhi pāri gāngra én, which translates to “a woman’s mind can only fill a palm.” This characterization serves to denigrate women as “narrow-minded and reactive.” Similarly, women’s mental state is compared to bja dro lungi badho zum, meaning “women’s mind and a floating feather are the same,” implying that women are easily swayed and inconsistent in their thoughts. 

Especially, in the context of Dzongkha-speaking natives, a commonly cited proverb, phozomn dhotrōm, mozomn yū trōm, frequently serves to denigrate women as disunited, particularly when they collaborate in teams. The proverb’s implication is clear: when women assemble, they are likened to damaging precious jewels (specifically turquoise), whereas when men convene, they are likened to engaging in constructive endeavours akin to shaping stones. When such gendered disinformation is perpetuated, it tarnishes women’s reputation and hinders their prospects in politics.

Also, there exist beliefs that, while apparently supportive of women, ultimately endorse men’s leadership roles. One such cultural norm is reflected in the Bhutanese saying, pho jowdra mo dhöb dra, which translates to “men are suitable to travel and women suitable to stay.” This adage originates from a feudal context where individuals were required to undertake strenuous journeys across rugged terrains, treacherous mountains, and perilous rivers for barter-trading or paying taxes to higher authorities, often in the form of essential goods. Due to the perceived physical resilience and ability of men to endure harsh conditions and uncertainties, the term pho jowdra or “men are suitable to travel ‘’ gained prominence.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge that women also faced significant challenges, particularly pregnant women, lactating mothers, and those responsible for child-rearing. In the absence of their husbands, they had to manage households and raise children single-handedly. Consequently, the notion of mo dhöb dra or “women are suitable to stay” emerged, addressing the practicalities of caregiving and household management that predominantly fell on women, children, and, perhaps, men’s interests in historical contexts.

Although the said adage has become obsolete with modern transportation amenities, the underlying notion of “women belong at home” persists, particularly concerning household responsibilities such as childcare and domestic chores. Bhutanese women have increasingly voiced their dissatisfaction, citing family obligations as a major hindrance in democratic participation. In one of the gender forums, a woman vented, “women would have to be Chagtong Chentong to take up leadership roles on par with men,” highlighting the immense challenges faced by women, involving multitasking, let alone engaging in electoral processes. Chagtong Chentong is a manifestation of Chenrigzig (lord of compassion) with eleven heads, a thousand hands and eyes.  

Another local phrase, seemingly supportive of women but subtly endorsing men’s leadership, is Ani Thuji Chenm yön, Ling Gesar gagi-yang chok. In the renowned epic of Ling Gesar, the King’s aunt, Thuji Chenm, plays a pivotal role as the lead kingmaker. She appears at critical junctures to guide Gesar until he overcomes all challenges. This phrase can be equated to the English proverb, “Behind every successful man is a woman.” However, it is essential to note that women in such contexts are often depicted in relation to men’s achievements, overshadowing their own triumphs. Consequently, these phrases, despite their apparent support for women, reflect patriarchal norms and predominantly promote men’s leadership. 

Furthermore, in a popular folk-song titled dhöndrel tachi métang, the second stanza of the lyrics portrays men and women’s traditional roles distinctively as follows: 

A mother’s wish to guide her son should lead him to resplendent Dzong;

for he must emerge a formidable leader.

A mother’s wish to guide her daughter should lead her to a charming village;

for she must return adorned with garlands of turquoise and corals. 

 The lyric evokes a feudal-era scenario where leadership opportunities were primarily reserved for men. Sons leaving their homes to serve as tozey (apprentice) at the courts of temporal rulers like Debs, Pönlops, and Dzongpöns were considered pivotal steps toward becoming leaders. In contrast, the final lines of the verse romanticize women’s roles intertwined with folklife, beauty, and jewellery. 

Comparably, women’s rights and roles are further exerted in the folk song Zambulinglu Gangya Yö, where the line Dhemi Ami Chaglu Yö or the key to gold treasure lies in the hands of the house lady rhymingly emphasizes stewardship exercised by women in managing valuables and assets.

In Bhutanese culture, a matriarchal norm is symbolized by adult women as nangi aum or the “lady of the house.” This norm challenges patriarchal authority, albeit within the confines of household management and land inheritance matters. This concept finds resonance in this saying nangi aum mi zatak. This metaphorically underlines the symbolic power of the housewife, whose ladle (zatak) signifies not only a cooking utensil but also a potential tool for asserting authority within the household. Traditionally, the threat of being hit with the ladle conveyed the lady of the house’s ability to enforce discipline, particularly concerning table manners during meals.

Furthermore, in Bhutanese proverb bhang ap cheyru, tshig aum chey, the acknowledgment of husband’s physical strength is accompanied by an emphasis on the paramount authority exercised by wives through their social rights and verbal influence. This expression also highlights the significance of women’s voices in shaping decision-making processes and family dynamics. In contrast, another Bhutanese phrase, aye gi om thung thung mi phogay, juxtaposes men’s strength with women’s breastfeeding. This phrase, employed by men to assert their strength, highlights the belief in the foundational role of mothers in fostering strength and fortitude through breastfeeding. 

Similarly, a local adage, ché-tak, nang-bjili, emphasizes that men should display ferocity akin to a tiger in hostile environments while being gentle like a cat at home with family. Deviating from these prescribed roles for men can lead to societal condemnation and, in extreme cases, legal actions when violence is involved.

In conclusion, it is recommended that government and non-governmental agencies engaged in women’s empowerment undertake a thorough examination of deeply ingrained societal norms and proverbial theories that both support and hinder women’s participation and electablity in elections. Additionally, there is a critical need to evaluate the political correctness of such expressions and develop alternative narratives to enhance women’s leadership opportunities.

Kinley Wangchuk is a former member of parliament. 

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