Emilia Roza Sulek
During my fieldwork in 2014, I lived in a school compound in one of the few towns in my research region. ‘Development’ in this part of China meant that roads got a new surface, party buildings a new lustre of glass panels, and streets new lamps and other ‘accessories’ such as street signs, now available also in English. It also meant that hospitals moved to better-equipped buildings and schools grew in size. They grew not only in terms of the number of classrooms, but also other facilities, including apartments for school personnel. Almost all teachers lived within this ‘gated community’. They did not pay rent and their life was cheaper than on the other side of the ‘bars’. Calling them apartments may be an exaggeration: the one I lived in had one room and a handkerchief sized kitchen. Only cold water ran from the tap. No shower. No heating, despite it being cold enough to freeze the puddles outside at night and well into the day in September, which is not the coldest month at the 4.000 m altitude. Besides, there were power cuts which left even electric heaters useless. The teachers, along with their pupils, migrated every Sunday to a public bath where, for ten yuan, they could use as much hot water as they needed to scrub the whole week’s dirt off their skin. There was something egalitarian in the act of everyone meeting in front of the same mirror struggling with one’s hair and getting entangled in the cables of old hair driers.
I lived in a school compound with a teacher friend. But I worried: would it be O.K. for a foreigner to live there? The school was, in the end, the long arm of the state. Apart from studying, pupils were trained in the ‘state ways’; this, of course, being nothing new for schooling across China and beyond. The pupils, all Tibetan except for one Uighur, were boarded at the school. Their parents, most often nomads, lived even a hundred or more kilometres away. This meant that the pupils could visit their homes only during longer holidays, twice or thrice a year. This lack of family contact was crucial for the process of these young people’s formation or de-formation. Boarding schools such as this one offered education into the Chinese state, but at the same time education out of pastoralism.
Life at school was structured by the rhythm of classes and other activities. The pupils wore uniforms, though on some weekdays they wore not Chinese school uniforms, but were ‘uniformed’ in Tibetan robes. They did morning gymnastics to the accompaniment of Chinese music in the school yard, which, again, on certain days was replaced with Tibetan dances. They had little freedom, as their time was planned from 6 am to 10 pm. If they had a ‘free’ hour scheduled for individual studying, they looked for a quiet corner (not an easy task among nearly two thousand pupils) and ‘froze’ there memorizing their homework. Only on Sunday they were allowed to leave the compound. If they, for example, wanted to do laundry on another day (the school did not offer washing facilities), they either had to escape or find someone to take their clothing to a laundry facility. In fact, they often escaped, be that for a walk, a bit of privacy or shopping (the school shop offered mainly instant noodles and other junk delicacies), but there were controls at the gate and the ‘runaways’ were threatened with negative consequences.
In spite of my worries, I was accepted as a school resident and the pupils attributed me with the only logical role, that of a teacher. ‘Gergen, demo’ or ‘Good morning, teacher’, was what I heard as soon as I left the flat. And, indeed, I took part in English language classes serving, as a guinea pig for all who wanted to practice their language skills. But there was a bigger plan waiting for me and this came from the school headmaster who one day sent me an invitation to visit his office. Scared as I was, I donned my best Tibetan robe and produced the best present I had: a Waterman pen.
The headmaster, a Tibetan, born to nomadic parents, was in his late 40s. He had a round brown face and straight looking eyes. He radiated with charisma: the position he had was a highly respected one, one of the most prominent in the Tibetan education sector in the region. My friend introduced me as a university teacher and a researcher. The headmaster complimented my courage to travel so far and laid his proposition down. He wanted me to give a lecture to his schoolgirls about how to be a self-confident woman. He made a list of topics to discuss. ‘But refrain from other topics please’, he added with a stern look on his face. I left the room dizzy with stress. Am I really going to talk about hygiene and safe sex? Am I going to say that in the West genders live in perfect equality and mutual respect, and all women are self-confident architects of their own fate?
The headmaster argued that Tibetan girls lack self-confidence and initiative. Having assisted in teaching, I knew what he meant. Whenever the pupils were told to practice their English, girls gave way to boys, hid in a corner and blushed with embarrassment. The headmaster wanted to imbue the girls with courage to compete with boys. My job was to encourage them and explain to them that there are parts of the world (Europe, for instance) where gender roles are less strictly divided, where women take part in public life and are not necessarily thought to be inferior to men. My example will convince the girls, the headmaster argued, because I was a ‘brave woman’ who travelled alone in the pursuit of science, something what was a worthy ideal, which local women should share, he said.
Perplexed as to what to do, I requested the schoolgirls to bring their questions before the talk. This would indicate what their interests were. Only a few of them responded to this request, confirming the headmaster’s argument. Those who silently slipped into my hand their pizzini scribbled with a few lines asked about issues ranging from female health to something that could be called a feminist sentiment. It seemed that my talk had to cover a field stretching between the following questions:
- Is it normal that I have aches during my period?
- Why it is always that women are financially dependent on men?
Needless to say, covering such a range of topics within a one-hour talk was not easy.
The school assembly hall where the talk took place was different than any venue that I have presented in before. Crystal chandeliers gave it quite an intimidating look, but dust on the floor betrayed that the hall had not been used for a long time. In front of the door, girls lined up behind their teachers. Some wore Tibetan robes and others army camouflage: this was the first grade involved in military training. Soon extra chairs were needed to fit the several hundred girls aged between 15 and 21 who crowded the room. Lights flashed: in the era of smartphones and social media, all girls were equipped with telephones and made good use of them.
‘I come from a country where we have a president and a prime minister’, I started, ‘and so it happens that our president is a man and prime minister a woman. But, in fact, the role of a prime minister is bigger than that of a president’. Already the first sentences were met with a loud applause. I did not know whether it was a recommended or spontaneous sign of enthusiasm. I talked about my parents and praised my mother’s independent spirit and my father’s cleaning talents. Even a louder applause came. But only when I insisted that they stop did I get the feeling that they began to listen. The room was silent when the talk turned to difficult topics such as domestic violence and a silent agreement to it, women’s right to say no and make decisions without coercion, and, finally, personal hygiene and contraception. Violence of various kinds and degrees accompanied the lives of many women. Decision making was not always left up to them, especially as many lacked information, mobility and access to other resources. Hygiene or its lack was a frequent topic in the female context, and sexual reproduction and health seemed to be shrouded in mystery. When I explained how to calculate the fertile days, the audience giggled. Although the local society is known for its liberal attitude to extramarital relations and casual sex, these are not topics which one talks about without blushing, especially outside ones’ circle of peers. Nonetheless, such explanations were clearly needed: in a school, which regulates even the pupils’ haircut, there was no tolerance for teenage pregnancy and a number of girls had been expelled from the school because of it. The contraception pill was cheap and available without prescription, but none of the girls would dare to buy it. The attempted distribution of condoms by another teacher showed that this form of contraception was unpopular among the boys, as well.
After the talk, the questions started. It was at this moment that I froze with fear. I promised the headmaster that I would stay away from certain topics, but I had no guarantee that the girls would do the same and I felt captive to their inquisitive spirit. Fortunately, the time for a discussion was limited, but the girls who raised their hand and came to a microphone had a lot to say. It started innocently with questions such as why do I dress in a Tibetan style and what do I think about Tibetan culture. My positive words were greeted with a storm of applause, which showed how thirsty for compliments the girls were on the topic of their culture. Other questions touched upon more personal matters. One very agitated girl asked what answer she should give to her male classmates who say that girls are simply born stupid. I advised that instead of proving this statement false, she should demand that the boys prove the opposite, i.e. that they are indeed ‘born to be wise’ as opposed to girls. This advice did not satisfy her: she expected hard facts. Another, quite opinionated girl asked how to deal with her female classmates who disliked her daring nature as not fitting in with the dominant pattern of behaviour. Promoting female self-confidence and initiative was a difficult task from various sides. Boy’s contemptuous treatment of girls was only part of the problem.
The temperature in the room was rising and it felt as if we were about to inflame a feminist revolution in a region that generally enjoys the reputation of being a place where the social position of women is higher than elsewhere in Tibet. Sustaining the girls’ enthusiasm that we generated in the room was a difficult question and different task altogether. When the girls left the hall, the teachers said: this was a good talk, but such talks should be given to boys and not girls. There were only female pupils in the audience. We could try to convince them that they are as good as boys are. But did it really work?
After an attempt to imbue Tibetan schoolgirls with courage and self-confidence, I returned to my flat to receive a lesson myself. When I arrived, my friend scolded me for hanging laundry the wrong way. There was a set of rules which I, partly deliberately, ignored. According to Tibetan custom, garments worn in the upper and lower part of the body should be strictly separated. The same rule applied to other things such as plastic bowls which were used for only one purpose: either to wash one’s face or hair or, finally, feet. They were also stored in hierarchical order. With laundry it was the same: T-shirts could by no means be washed together with trousers or underwear and ‘bottom parts’ could not be hung to dry above one’s head. This arrangement led to paradoxes. Due to the of lack of other suitable places to hang underwear without conflicting with places designated for ‘high’ articles of clothing, these very private garments were left to dry on the rail in the staircase, exposed to dust and everyone’s eye. This arrangement was logical for my friend, but it was an inside-out of my own logic. Gender strengthened these separations because it contained the idea that the lower part of a woman’s body and everything associated with it was particularly polluting. This reminded me of an instance when my male friend became seriously annoyed when, during our visit to a nomad family, a lady of the house sat, just for seconds, on a bit of his pullover which he carelessly dropped onto a sofa. Now, standing with my teacher friend in front of the hanging laundry, we started a serious discussion: how are we supposed to convince the girls that they are not stupid, dirty, impure or simply less worthy members of the society, if such beliefs are grounded in the prevailing structures of thinking shared even by the most progressive women at school? Will it be possible to achieve the headmaster’s goals, without first rearranging the laundry order?