It’s not everyday that you sit down with a local woman in Bhutan.
It’s not because we don’t want to. In its tourism industry, Bhutan is truly unique. Many travelers must visit the country with a guide. This makes it harder to have immersive experiences with locals beyond those who work in tourism.
That’s why, when Anubha had an opportunity to travel to Bhutan with Gray Langur Tours (view disclosure statement here), we couldn’t pass it up. She hiked the Himalayas. She tried local cuisine. She even met the King!
But perhaps most memorable of all was her chance to have a deep and honest exchange with four women who represented four very different aspects of Bhutan. We are forever grateful for an experience that has allowed us to peel back the layers of a rapidly evolving and fascinating kingdom.
In Anubha’s words, she was able to “connect with humans who are, in broad strokes, very much like me: millennial, racialized women who are involved in entrepreneurship, politics, and social work.” Both in how they’re alike, and how they differ.
From a princess to a politician, a designer to an agricultural worker, these conversations give us a snapshot into what life is like for these wanderful women in Bhutan.
Here are their stories, in their words.
Ashi Namzay Kumutha
Occupation: Kidu Program Officer, His Majesty’s Secretariat
“I prefer to be ordinary, more blending with the crowd. That’s what my mother always taught me, to be grounded and to do things, not because of who I am, but out of passion.”
I first met Ashi (Princess) Namzay Kumutha in a decidedly not-princess-like setting, 4200 metres up in the Himalayas at the Royal Highlander Festival, where Namzay was working as a volunteer, serving tea and snacks to attendees.
Namzay has built her career doing NGO work in Bhutan, most recently as part of the organization Kidu, which means giving to the people.
Fun fact: Namzay reached the summit of Laya by running. She was a part of the Snowman Run, a 52-kilometre, two-day, cross-country race from Gasa Tshachhu (2,231 metres) to Laya. She came in 11th place overall.
On the position of women in Bhutan:
We don’t really have a distinction between men and women. From my perspective, actually, I think Bhutan in the olden days until now, it’s grown up in a matriarchal society, so in that way women were already, they already had a role. With modernization, the role started to fit in slowly…[women] did everything that men could do.
It’s equal opportunity. I wouldn’t need to compete for a job in the civil sector or government sector, knowing that I’m a woman. I think everyone has equal opportunity.
On changes in Bhutan since the country’s borders opened:
A lot of our culture has become more shortcut. Even in the clothes that we wear. We wear our traditional clothes, but it’s more the half-kira, which is really easy, just two minutes and go to work. I think our tourism sector and people who are actually in charge of it are doing a great job. Without that our culture would’ve been destroyed, to be honest.
We have these pillars. Conserving environment, tourism, education – these are all of the things that we have to preserve and people have understood that this is what we need. People are very accepting, they’re very welcoming, but to a certain extent, we want to preserve our culture.
It’s so strong, you can see it as soon as you land in Paro. The culture, it’s so strong, in the buildings, the architecture, the people. While walking here for four hours, I was thinking, I live in such a beautiful place.
Occupation: Agricultural worker
“I am happy because tourists are coming and we’re getting chance to do more things. Beautiful views and more tourists are coming because of that. I feel happy.”
I also met Pema at the Royal Highlander Festival, which she was attending for the second time.
The young woman lives in the rural, remote village of Laya, the highest settlement in Bhutan, and makes her living by collecting and selling cordyceps, a mushroom-like plant that grows in the Himalayas at very high elevations.
The cordyceps are used in traditional and modern medicine and collect a high price on the market – up to 41,000 USD per kilo.
Pema is pictured wearing the traditional dress of Layap women, something she sees as important to preserving culture. I was able to speak with Pema with the help of an interpreter, Karma Kartooz Tobden.
On the major issue faced by Layap women today:
The only problem we face is, girls get pregnant and they have to go to hospital. There’s no [good] road condition and we have to walk. To have a baby, they have to go to Punakha. Just for delivering a baby, it takes two weeks to walk there. We go one month early from delivery.
On where she wants to be in five years:
I want to be there at Thimphu, at capital. I live on cordycep collection and cordycep might finish. Future planning is to move to the capital and settle there. My hope is to do a business, a store, like a type of grocery. Everything is convenient to live there. Healthcare, education. That’s why I want to go to Thimphu.
Occupation: Designer at SABAH Bhutan
“Right now I have no paper or no certificate to tell anyone that I’m a designer. I’m just doing it. I see myself with a nice boutique opened, going for shows.”
Sonam Dolma uses her business degree and passion for design to come up with marketable new weaving products for SABAH Bhutan, an organization the supports home-based workers in Bhutan. She wears one of her designs to meet me at a coffee shop in Thimphu, her hometown.
Prior to becoming a designer, Sonam performed regularly as a singer, taking the stage at popular bars like Mojo. She laughs when I tell her that I have been there, confessing that she doesn’t hit up the hot spots like she used to.
Instead, she spends free time and holidays trekking with other Bhutanese office-goers who are looking to escape the country’s big city for its even bigger landscapes.
On a changing Bhutan:
About 15 or 20 years ago, when I was in my primary school, I used to live down the highway.
I saw changes starting from then. It was, like full -, full of paddy fields, and now it’s full of houses. Every time I drive by there, I think of how it used to be before we used to play there, cricket and running. I’m overwhelmed about the changes.
Sometimes I just wish it just stayed the same.
I think it’s important to preserve any culture, right? Be it Bhutanese or any other. Because that’s where our identity really lies.
When I walk down the street, I feel very old to be honest. There’s these young girls, so dressed up, so pretty, the way they carry themselves, all westernized. I usually encourage the young to wear kira.
You need to keep culture intact, otherwise you’re losing it.
On the influence of the west in Bhutan:
I think the western influence, the exposure to all the internet and all, I think it’s proven more beneficial when it comes to women’s rights. Compared to early days and right now, you know women’s rights, empowerment has been given more emphasis.
There are good and the bad of everything, so I think about the social network and everything, the western influence. When it comes to women, it’s good.
Occupation: Member of Parliament, People’s Democratic Party
“I never had assurance of myself until I joined politics. It was there in me, but I didn’t see it. First and foremost it was the Prime Minister [who encouraged me], secondly it was my sole, hard, sheer support from my parents, and then thirdly from husband, and then my siblings. That encouragement and motivation should run first and foremost from home.”
Kinley Om never planned to get into politics.
She was a manager at one of the country’s major financial institutions until 2012, the year she gave birth to her daughter. While she was on leave, she was approached by now-Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, who wanted to nominate her as his candidate in his area.
The rookie politician, who was only 31 years old at the time, not only ran, but won the election for the Bji Kar Tshog Uesu constituency.
Now in her second term, Kinley takes a grassroots approach to advocacy, focusing on human rights issues, representation in government, and legislation reform.
On why she thinks it’s important to have more women in politics:
Democracy in our country started only in 2008. It’s very young. It’s just nine years experience we’re getting. I am very much passionate about women in politics. That’s the hardcore area, I am trying to pierce into.
In our government, out of 60 males, we only have one woman, so nine percent representation in the governance.
Logically, and rationally, what I see is, women, we think from the heart. We need a blend. The law should have a compassionate effect.
We have some acts in our country, like the narcotic act, which has been drafted from my committee, and I was having this reservation to not have so many penal processes, whereby we will be putting a lot of people behind bars. We should see a way for rehabilitation.
On how she thinks equality will be achieved in Bhutan:
The way forward I see is quality education. It’s education you should give…make sure kids, be it boy or girl, should be sent to school. That is a way forward in achieving your goal.
I am balancing family and home both, but I think it’s not about that , it’s about taking responsibility. We politicians are here put forward by public at large and your ideology in serving and your motivation and your manifesto should be getting developmental activities in place for your public.
For better or for worse or for naught, Bhutan is a changing country that is “modernizing” (read: Westernizing) at a rapid pace, and arguably, the people most affected by this social shift are young women who are seeing a change in gender roles within their generation.
I think the answers from the smart, passionate women I had the chance to meet detail this experience beautifully; the act of being in between in some ways, welcoming some reordering while cherishing culture and heritage.
It’s something, I think, socially-conscious humans around the world can identify with.
I am very grateful for these types of interactions when I am abroad. That these busy, ambitious, creative women spent a moment of their time with me – a Western outsider who is, for all intents and purposes, naive to their realities – speaks volumes to the hospitality and welcoming nature of people the world over, and for sure more specifically in Bhutan.
Kadinchela to Namzay, Pema, Sonam, and Kinley for their honesty and all the work they do.[/vc_column_text]