In Bhutan, a History of Matriarchy and the Question of True Equality

Much like the diverse landscape of Bhutan, women’s representation and access in the country features impressive peaks as well as low-lying valleys.

Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the upper Paro valley. Arian Zwegers. CC BY 2.0

Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the upper Paro valley. Arian Zwegers. CC BY 2.0

The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is known for its ornate fortresses, or dzongs; the breathtaking Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, temple complex, which clings to a steep cliffside; and its matriarchal traditions—but while Bhutan has much to be proud of in terms of gender parity, it still has a long way to go in creating true equality and professional mobility for its women.

Traditional society in Bhutan, which lies in the Eastern Himalayas between China and India, is matriarchal, and Bhutanese women do not have to contend with any institutionalized forms of discrimination. Participation in decision-making in the local and national spheres is accessible to all genders, with female involvement reaching as high as 70 percent at the grassroots level. Women account for nearly half of land owners, a figure that increases to 60 percent in rural regions. Summing up her own experience as a Bhutanese woman before moving to the Netherlands, journalist Karma Pem Wangdi writes, “My life has been created and shaped by the fact that our society has generally allowed us women the same freedoms and equality of opportunity as men.”

Nevertheless, entrenched inequalities lurk beneath the surface. Lily Wangchuk, the first and only woman president of a Bhutanese political party, referred in 2013 to “huge gender gaps” in societal attitudes, which have inspired her to continue pursuing her political ambitions. Wangchuk, whose Druk Chirwang Tshogpa party was eliminated in the first round of elections that year after garnering only 6 percent of the vote, told the Indian business news publication Mint: “During my campaign, my male opponents said, ‘[How] can a woman assume such an enormous responsibility?’ If I quit now I will be proving them right.”

Writing the previous year, Wangdi pointed specifically to gaps in economic and governmental participation, with far fewer women than men in the civil service workforce, and women making up just 8.5 percent of the National Assembly and 24 percent of the National Council. On the personal level, female reproductive rights lag in certain aspects: while women in the public and private sectors receive three months’ maternity leave with 100 percent of wages, abortion is illegal except in certain specific cases, leading many women to cross into India and seek abortions in unsafe conditions.

Thimphu Dzong, which has been the seat of the Bhutanese government since 1952. Robert GLOD. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Thimphu Dzong, which has been the seat of the Bhutanese government since 1952. Robert GLOD. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Attitudes toward abortion may be traced to the tenets of the Buddhist religion, which has otherwise played a key role in many facets of gender parity, given that its tradition and values view men and women as equal. In terms of participation in the public sphere, two factors are broadly to blame, the first being a historical lack of education for women. In the 1950s and ’60s, when Bhutan began to prioritize national development and education, more boys than girls were sent to India for formal learning—a disparity that stemmed not from gender discrimination but rather from fears about girls’ safety during the long journey to school.


Also of concern is the burden on women as caretakers and unpaid workers in the home, which may hinder or entirely preclude professional development. In the case of divorce, Bhutanese law grants custody of children under nine years old to the mother, a statute that may further ingrain the stereotype of women as primary caregivers. A 2001 study found that, in rural areas, women were responsible for cooking, washing clothes, and preserving food for over 80 percent of households; urban regions presented an even starker figure, with more than 90 percent of households leaving cooking, cleaning, washing, and food purchasing to women. These time-consuming tasks undeniably present a barrier to engaging in activities outside the home: A 2012 study revealed that nearly 62 percent of women felt their household responsibilities prevented them from taking a more active role in public life.

Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. Andrea Williams. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. Andrea Williams. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fortunately, Bhutan has recently made strides toward closing gender gaps in various arenas, and thus envisioning an end to the self-perpetuating cycle in which women—missing role models in positions of power—lack the structural support needed to pursue such positions themselves. In 2016, more girls were attending school than boys, with 98 percent vs. 97 percent enrolled at the primary level, respectively. Bhutan’s first woman Dzongda (District Governor) was elected to office in 2012, and its first woman minister in 2013, ushering in a wave of successful woman candidates in 2016: that year witnessed a 68 percent increase in female representation compared to the previous election in 2011.
With evolving attitudes toward gender representation, however, come increased pressures brought on by a globalized and digital media: in 2013, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, executive director at the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, told Mint that the changing media landscape has created “a pressure to conform that is eroding the natural confidence of Bhutanese women.” Just last month, in March 2019, Bhutan gained an advocate for media representations of women in the form of Namgay Zam, who was appointed as the executive director of the Journalists Association of Bhutan. Speaking with the International Federation of Journalists, she addressed the lack of managerial role models for women, and pointed to the fact that a preponderance of male media magnates leads to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

Zam, looking toward a future in which Bhutanese women take their rightful place at the helm of Bhutan’s civil society as well as its media sector—thus fully realizing the matriarchal ideals on which the country was built—commented: “I think top-level management need to rethink gender representation at the workplace. Women also need to believe in themselves more. Hopefully, things will change for the better sooner than later.”




TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

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