When ancient customs come in between
Women candidates contesting Local Government (LG) elections especially in some gewogs in Thimphu and Punakha have to fight a different battle altogether – one posed by prevailing stereotype and traditional beliefs that only men can take up the post.
Gups from the three gewogs of Thimphu (Chang, Kawang and Mewang) and five gewogs of Punakha (Toebisa, Barp, Shengana, Kabjisa and Toedwang) have been so far performing the role of Pazap during the annual Punakha Dromchoe.
The role of Pazap is mostly
performed by a man; wearing a red pazap gho, khamar kabney, iron helmet, tshoglam and patang.
And this traditional role of the male gup has been conveniently used to discourage women from taking part in LG elections.
Women candidates who have tried to challenge this status quo have faced tremendous challenges. Let alone garnering support, they were even discouraged to contest the election in the first place.
During the 2016 LG elections, two women contested for the post of gup for Chang Gewog in Thimphu, competing with two other male contestants. The female candidates received the least votes.
Karma Zangmo, 43, who contested for the post of Chang Gup, said though there are capable women, they are not freely allowed to contest.
“The Pazap role can be replaced with male members and it is not compulsory for the women gup elect to perform it,” she said. “The society believes that it is only the male who should perform the role of Pazap during the Dromchoe.”
Despite such stereotypical beliefs, Karma Zangmo is determined to contest in the next LG elections.
Another women contestant, Choki, 49, from Mewang Gewog, said she couldn’t get elected for the post of Gup because people felt that a woman couldn’t compete with a man. “My father was also a Gup and he was replaced by someone to perform the Pazap since he couldn’t ride a horse,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Mangmi of Chang gewog, Sonam Lhamo, said that she had asked her husband to perform the role of Pazap as she was an officiating Gup.
“Women can perform the role of the Pazap but the thing is that a woman can’t enter into the Gyenkhang during the Dromchoe,” she added.
The Executive Director of Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), Phuntshok Chhoden, said that they make efforts to change and transform this mindset and attitude and sociocultural practices in the society through various means such as advocacy and awareness through the media.
She said they also get progressive views and opinions from local opinion makers or religious leaders or people who are respected and listened to in the community.
“That’s what we did in 2016, close to the 2nd Local Government Elections, when the issue was flagged by our women especially in few Gewogs of Thimphu and Punakha - those Gups must participate in the Puna Domchoe,” the Executive Director said.
She said when it comes to breaking social and gender stereotypes that are deeply entrenched and widely accepted and prevalent as the norms in society, BNEW cannot break them overnight. “However, we are hopeful that with time sooner than later, education and awareness, our efforts will have an impact and change them slowly and steadily towawrds more gender equality since Bhutan is well known as a highly gender egalitarian society where women and girls are valued and enjoy good status,” she said.
According to her, cultural practices such as these contradict and insult the very positive image of Bhutan as a GNH nation too.