As I spend more time in this remote mountainous Kingdom and become increasingly acquainted with its cultural peculiarities, the last vestiges of a parsimonious, uniformly progressive understanding of development are dissipating within me. Though we may shy from the notion, progress is in its essence eluded by the moral clarity and internal coherence that our natural intuitions often crave.
One of my old professors would often proclaim in class that modernization is messy, conflict ridden and highly non-linear; a “package deal” sought by some, repelled by others. Trying to make sense of this observation and my immediate surroundings here in Bhutan, I have begun to question whether the arc of development history could ever bow toward justice. For to bow requires painstaking time to equilibrate the competing forces of progress and conservatism. Its slow shape is defined by the inertia that opposes it. Development is no such unhurried thing. Its vehicle is not history, but something far more explosive. Like a burst of fireworks, development has hurled itself to the far corners of the earth, igniting the dark, sometimes violent serenity with change in a tumultuous flicker of time. Development is brilliant. It is vulgar. It is chaos.
I have previously commented that the Bhutanese development agenda seeks to temper this disorder by focusing on “balance” – fusing its ancient, particularistic, Buddhist rituals with the new, universalist suppositions of neo-liberal political economy. In many regards, it has worked. Citizens now enjoy substantial political freedoms enshrined in the recently enacted Constitution; people are quickly becoming richer and enjoy impressive public health and education given its limited resources. And though the country’s religious and cultural traditions must now compete for relevance with the attraction of discothèques and fancy cars, they have nonetheless retained their respect and importance.
One aspect of development that is struggling to live up to the promises of balanced progress however, is the empowerment of women.
A few months ago, back in Harvard at a WAPPP coffee morning, I was informed that Bhutan is considered to be one of the few matriarchal societies in the world, something that, to my embarrassment, I was unaware of. And while I would be hesitant to describe Bhutan as a matriarchy, now that I’ve spent some time here - it has after all been ruled by a male King for the past century and female “Dashos” (a prestigious social title) appear extremely rare – many traditional aspects of Bhutanese society are nonetheless a great deal fairer than those of its neighbors in the South Asian region when it comes to issues of gender.
Karma Pem Wangdi, a Bhutanese journalist, notes, for example, that women in Bhutan “never really had to fight for basic rights as other women did. Female genital mutilation, forced marriages, honour killings, social ostracism after divorce are all still very alien” to Bhutanese women. Interestingly, Wangdi suggests that “unlike in many communities in China and India, having a daughter in Bhutan is looked upon more favourably than having a son … because daughters have been known to be better caretakers of the home and the elderly parents”. Indeed, in the world of traditional Bhutan, men move in with their wives and married women do not take their husbands’ names. In many regions, inheritance has even historically favored daughters, an extreme rarity in almost all cultures.
But in recent years, a host of newfound strains on women have developed that, bizarrely, appear distinctly modern. In the contemporary economy, women face particularly stringent unemployment challenges. Those who do find work, frequently struggle to access affordable and trustworthy childcare. In an expanding education system, girls underperform to a striking degree compared to boys, especially at higher levels. And in the political realm, the pinnacle of Bhutan’s recent modernization, the challenges are most pronounced. The country’s first parliamentary elections have left a national assembly overrun by men, with only 10 women from 72 members. As the opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay has noted, “all its leaders – Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the National Council, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, leader of the ruling party, and leader of the opposition party – are men. The secretaries general of both the houses are men.” These facts, quite simply, are incompatible with a just society, never mind the pursuit of a matriarchy.
If Bhutan could boast that its traditional norms gave more power and respect to women than other countries’ have done in the past, then it has failed to adapt these values in its embrace of social and political modernity.
So how to make sense of the challenges facing women empowerment in Bhutan? In Development as Freedom, an influential doctrine of development, the philosopher economist Amartya Sen puts forward the claim (reasonably self explanatory, given the title of the book) that development is best thought of as the process of expanding freedoms. Sen distinguishes between two kinds of freedoms that individuals enjoy in society; procedural and substantive. Procedural freedoms reflect the “processes that allow freedom of actions and decisions,” such as the freedom to vote, access to courts and other civil and political rights. Substantive freedoms on the other hand manifest themselves in the “actual opportunities that people have, given their personal and social circumstances.”
In the case of Bhutan, unlike in many other developing countries, procedural freedoms have more or less always existed in a relatively similar fashion for men and women. Moreover, in many dimensions of social life, the substantive freedoms women have enjoyed mirror those of men. But in those areas mentioned above, these substantive freedoms are not being realized.
For those who embrace a libertarian understanding of justice, as expounded by philosophers like Robert Nozick in Anarchy, The State and Utopia, procedural justice ought be sufficient and the policy conversation need not go any further. There are obvious reasons, however, to care deeply that women in Bhutan lack these substantive freedoms. For one thing, they have intrinsic worth. The ability to participate comprehensively in one’s political society, to live productively with the assurance that one’s family is safe, are valuable in of themselves. Procedural rules are always necessary but often insufficient in their pursuit. Moreover, these freedoms allows people to achieve other valuable ends like earn a decent living and enjoy the benefits of education.
Less obvious however, is the potentially more insidious intergenerational impact of these initial, male dominated, stages of transformation. Social roles like public representative, Prime Minister, Chief Executive Officer, and professor will quickly become connoted with maleness if the gender structure of leadership positions in society is not swiftly redressed. As Sen says, “greater freedom enhances the ability people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are central to the process of development.” Bhutan needs women in important positions in order to influence the political agenda, and needs women to be seen in important to prevent the attachment of the male gender to powerful roles.
So what is to be done? With most problems of this kind, the first productive step is often to create awareness by accumulating and disseminating important information. Working in the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) has highlighted for me the importance of small procedures that I had always taken for granted in policy (like disaggregating gender statistics, for example, a relatively recent phenomenon here). Most people I meet in Bhutan (admittedly, these are reasonably high level government officials) are aware of the challenge. Extensive studies have been conducted to develop strategies for improvement. Sometimes, the men I speak to will dismiss the problem, (I am unsure if this is the innocent “Bhutanese banter” that I have highlighted before or if they are genuinely opposed to gender focused reforms), but my sense is that women empowerment is not a fringe issue amongst the country’s political elite.
As part of my work at the GNHC, I will be reviewing the strategies developed four years ago in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections and examining the empirical evidence from previous international efforts to empower women. Though I will be focusing my attention on the political sphere, this is only the (admittedly, pretty hefty) tip of the iceberg. In particular, the scars accumulated from disparities in educational attainment will last for years to come. Swift, ambitious and proactive measures will be required throughout Bhutan’s civil society to ensure that its women live in as fair a society its reputation boasts.
Like an explosion of fireworks, development hurled itself into this serene civil society. It is not surprising that transformation’s inherent unpredictability, the tumult and messiness of the change that Bhutan has faced over the last few decades brought with it unintended consequences. But just as development is so often wrought with incoherence, it also has a capacity to get things right. It can and does often make things better. I hope that, with the sufficient attention and aided by (Kennedy School supported) evidence based policy, Bhutan’s development can adapt to empower rather than isolate women.