“IF a female Dalai Lama comes, then she should be more attractive” because if she were not attractive then “people prefer not to see her”. This was what the soon-to-be 84-year-old spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, had to say when he was asked about whether a woman could be his successor. It was not the first time that the Dalai Lama had this to say, though he has since apologised. Four years ago, in 2015, it was not well received either, with women and other rights activists shocked at the Dalai Lama’s sexism.
Obviously, it did not change his mind. The BBC journalist who went to interview him in Dharamsala, where he has lived for the past 60 years, wanted to make sure he really meant to say what he said. It seems now that he did; in clarifying comments, he added that in Buddhist teaching inner and outer beauty are important and both must be cultivated. The clarifying statements are surprising in their own way as they go against the inner-beauty and inner-peace dimensions of Buddhism that have been magnified as aspects of Buddhist practice, such as yoga.
The biggest shock of all is that a man renowned for his wisdom and equanimity, his concern for humanity as a whole, would subscribe to a view that clearly substantiates the premise that women are to be judged by their looks and that this is what makes up the bulk of what they have to offer to the world. The Dalai Lama, of course, has made no such statement in the context of a male successor or even himself. After all, while he is a spiritual leader, he is neither young nor handsome, and yet thousands line up to get a glimpse of his face all the time. Why would a female Dalai Lama not be able to earn the same favour, or perform the same function?
The controversy is an illustrative one both in its content and its context. Women, after all, are terribly used to ‘good’ men saying sexist things and having these ascribed to dated views. Undoubtedly, the initial reaction is to consider the fact that the Dalai Lama is over 80 years old and less versed in the unacceptability of his statements. That may be all very well, but it sounds terribly like the excuses we always make for men when they say stupid and sexist things that belittle women.
The biggest shock is that a man renowned for his wisdom would subscribe to a sexist view.
This was the Dalai Lama’s second chance and his intentions were made adequately clear. The insinuation within the statement is less clear: that if a woman were his successor she would have been a figurehead, and that figureheads need to be attractive and pleasing. They also lack the depth and authenticity that comes with occupying important positions. The Dalai Lama’s current sexism notwithstanding, he has been held by millions to be the opposite of all of this, a representative of a David-versus-Goliath struggle that pits the long-occupied Tibet against the far stronger and more powerful China.
Over the years, he has doled out a ton of inspirational quotes that adorn websites and calendars, hosted celebrities and world leaders, and been a leader in many more senses than just in terms of Tibetan Buddhism. Some say that he is like an annoying old uncle who constantly makes inappropriate comments about the women of the family.
The Dalai Lama is not some old uncle; in fact, not even an old uncle is an old uncle. Everyone who makes sexist comments does so with the knowledge of the fact that they are hurtful and derisive not just to the women in front of them but to all women and girls who hear or read it.
The culture of making excuses for sexism, excuses that range from saying the statement was a mistake, to arguing that men don’t know any better, to (most often) blaming the women for taking offence in the first place, is as bad as saying sexist things itself. Not only does it condone the idea that it is not always wrong to treat women like pretty objects, or insist that their beauty should form the basis of judgement; it ensures that men continue to decide what goes and doesn’t go, what sort of statements can be made and which ones cannot.
Many men in Pakistan behave just like the Dalai Lama. They make statements and then pretend to be ignorant as to their impact. They refuse to understand that the words and statements that make up human discourse are directly connected to the respect that we allot to women and are just as connected to the crimes committed against them.
There are also, however, men in Pakistan who wonder what can be done about the deplorable situation of women in the country, and believe that women cannot be safe unless they have male protection. The Dalai Lama’s story should be an instructive one for these men. If men began to police themselves and other men, call out instances of sexism such that those who make them are shamed, then they will be using their male privilege to do something that makes life better for women in this country.
The only good thing that can be taken from the Dalai Lama’s sexist statement is if it can be a message to all men that a good man who is sexist can’t be termed a good man. Words matter, degradation is built upon them; a society that treats women as if they were objects, unable to contribute intellectually or socially or constructively, is a morally depraved society, a sexist and unjust society. So for all the men who want to ‘do something’, here is a simple recipe: pay attention to the things you say, the words you use; it is not everything, but it is an important, crucial and very urgent beginning.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2019