FEATURES|COLUMNS|Women in Buddhism
Toward a Thai Feminist Movement: Ouyporn Khuankaew
“We badly need feminist Buddhist scholars and meditation teachers that empower women and many marginalized people,” says Ouyporn Khuankaew.
As the founder and lead trainer for the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP), based in Chiang Dao, Thailand, Ouyporn has thought a lot about feminism and its relationship to Buddhism and Thai culture. As a domestic violence survivor herself, she focuses her teaching on trauma, gender, and sexuality, topics that are often taboo in Thai society. Formerly a director of Women and Gender programs for the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Khuankaew now leads anti-oppression workshops and retreats for activists suffering from burnout. For her, the work of transforming Thai society and empowering women means braiding spiritual practice with activist work.
Buddhistdoor Global: How do you see feminism in relationship to Buddhism, especially in Thailand?
Ouyporn Khuankaew: Feminist views and practices are most needed in transforming Thai Buddhism because, as a result of male domination in Thai Theravadha Buddhism, the Buddha's teachings have been altered or replaced by the teachings of patriarchy. When I first conducted a workshop with the Buddhist women from this region many years ago, what we found was that most teachings we have socialized from the Buddhist monks were anti-women. For example, we have all learned that, as women, we cannot gain enlightenment. Thus, patriarchal Buddhist institutions and teachings have become one of the main root causes of oppression, particularly against women, transgendered people, the disabled, and other marginalized groups. We badly need feminist Buddhist scholars and meditation teachers who empower women and marginalized people.
BDG: Violence is the background for a lot of the people who you might work with, whether domestic violence survivors or refugees. What is important to know about working with trauma survivors?
OK: Trauma knowledge is most lacking in our society. I did not have this awareness until I started doing healing for myself and my mother many years ago. When I began to teach trauma healing to Thai nurses and psychologists seven years ago, I realized that they had learned very little about trauma and the trauma knowledge they had learned was mainly of the trauma caused by natural disasters or accidents. So when trauma is caused by sexual violence and other forms of oppression, such as women living with HIV, transgendered people, or those suffering from domestic abuse, the health officers had no knowledge or skills to support these patients.
In addition, since most hospitals are led by male doctors who never learn about this kind of trauma, they either are against or are not supportive of feminist counseling knowledge for nurses and psychologists. The emphasis is to give these patients pills. Our organization, IWP, is the only one in Thailand that has been giving seven-day mindfulness-based feminist counseling for survivors of gender-based and other forms of oppression.
BDG: You wrote in a paper that sometimes people “simply only need a witness to their own existence.” Can you explain this a bit more?
OK: Deep listening is an amazing practice to offer to people who have experienced violence of any form. There are many social stigmas and labels placed on women, children, transgendered people, and people living with HIV who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse. Often these groups of trauma survivors are told that it is their fault (or karma from their previous), so guilt, shame, suppression, and isolation make their suffering worse. When they have a chance to tell their truth with a witness that is present and compassionate, they are breaking their silence, which is the beginning of healing.
BDG: Tell me a little bit about founding IWP—how did the organization come about, and how did you get started?
OK: I left the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in 1998 but continued to do grassroots work with women in Asia. Working with INEB and living at the Wongsanit Ashram [a Buddhist activist community in central Thailand] for six months made me realize that I needed spiritual practice to deal with my anger and burnout from activism.
I also realized that it was impossible for me to work or live in a male-dominated organization/community. It also made see that an organization can influence change only if it embodies power-sharing, spirituality, and a recognition that all forms of oppression are intersectional.
In those days I had not heard of any Thai feminist organizations that included spirituality in their work and practice. So I came home and in 2001 I met Ginger Norwood, who seeks similar values and vision, and we founded IWP in 2002. For the first two years we mainly served different ethnic women from Burma, because of their severe suffering at that time. We later expanded to cover women from India (including Tibetan women in exile), Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand.
For the first two years before building our own center, we rented a retreat center from Catholic nuns in the mountains of Chiang Mai. After the Catholic nuns found out that we worked with undocumented women from Burma we were told that we could no longer use their space, so we began training in a small house inside my family compound. Then a year later, one of my sisters donated land nearby so we could build a kitchen and simple accommodation.
BDG: IWP focuses on deconstructing structural oppression. What are some of the ways in which working on social issues out in the world intersects with cultivating peace in oneself?
OK: As peace activists, we cannot work for peace with anger, fear, and hopelessness within ourselves. Well-being, self-care, and self-love bring me joy, inner peace, hope, and happiness daily. This, I think, is the core of sustainability for activists and activism and is a foundation for transforming difficulties in work and in personal life and especially our own ego.
BDG: Some of your work focuses on sexuality and gender, especially within the LGBTQ communities. Why is embracing sexuality an important thing for the women you serve? Do you find that there is support within the Thai community and the Buddhist community for this kind of work?
OK: When we look at sexuality, we look at heteronormative sexism that oppresses heterosexual women and LGBT people, although in different ways and levels. I think heterosexism helps particularly heterosexual women activists see patriarchal systems as bigger, that it not only affects them. This helps with building allies among women’s and LGBTQ groups. I used to work with women living with HIV and heterosexuality is the main cause for women to have HIV. Gender culture does not allow Thai women (or those of many other nationalities) to learn about safe sex, nor does it give them the power to say no to unsafe sex. Meanwhile, it promotes men having sex with anyone freely but without responsibility.
I have been working with the community of female monks that is led by Ven. Dhammananda [Thailand’s first fully ordained Buddhist nun], who shares common values with IWP. In November this year, IWP will began teaching a five-day Buddhist feminist anti-oppression workshop for Thai Buddhist female monks, white robed nuns [celibate renunciants known in Thai as maechi], and lay women. I hope this project will help us create and expand Buddhist allies for social justice in Thailand.
BDG: What are your hopes for the next generation of Thai women?
OK: I see that some young Thai women who are exposed to the progressive Western feminist movement on LGBT and women’s issues are being active. But this is a very small group of young middle-class women, mostly based in Bangkok. I have to admit that I don’t have much hope in general as long as the curriculum in high schools and universities does not integrate gender and feminism. The feminist groups in Thailand including IWP—which are very small in number—do not work enough at organizing grassroots women. In comparison to the feminist movement in Myanmar, we have much still to learn. We do not have a feminist movement in Thailand; we only have feminist groups, whereas in Myanmar there has been a strong feminist movement.
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Buddhism as Service: Ayya Yeshe
Fearsome and Impeccably Coiffed: Centering Women in Yasodhara
The First in 1,000 Years: An Interview with Venerable Kusuma
One Face of Liberation: Buddhist Feminism in Japan