A growing number of women, just outside Bangkok, are defying the age-old Thai Buddhist tradition of becoming ordained as monks at an unrecognised all-female monastery, reported The Independent. Likewise, Boodsabaan Chanthawong – leading a procession of 21 other women of all ages – is tearing up as she gets ready to exchange her white garments for saffron robes, which is otherwise sported by male monks. Before the start of the ceremony, the 49-year-old business woman will be getting her head shaved and staying at the temple for nine days. Speaking of how she’s feelings, Chanthawong said, “I’m going to overcome this obstacle and become ordained like I’ve always wanted.”
Under a Buddhist order since 1928, only men can officially become monks while the women are forbidden from the ordination. An option for Thai women is to become white-clad Buddhist nuns – who follow a less-strict set of rules than the monks and are often restricted to housekeeping tasks at temples. However, in recent times, many such women are defying all odds to become female monks by getting ordained in Sri Lanka or India.
In 2001, 74-year-old Dhammananda Bhikkhuni flew to Sri Lanka to become the first female monk of Thailand. Ever since, she has helped women join the Buddhist order as novices during the ordination ceremonies held in every April and December. Seated in a temple’s library that is home to numerous books on women’s rights and their role in religion, Bhikkhuni revealed, “It’s been 90 years and the social context has changed, but they still don’t accept us. It’s a shame that women aren’t allowed to make decisions for their own lives. You have to rebel against injustice because this is not right.”
Bhikkhuni’s monastery ordains female novices, however, it cannot ordain female monks as such a ceremony would require not only 10 female monks but also 10 male monks – who are forbidden to participate under Thailand’s 1928 act. Currently, there are over 270 female monks across the country – all of which were ordained abroad. Bhikkhuni added that her monastery houses seven of them. Comparatively, Thailand has more than 250,000 male monks.
In the past, all efforts by advocates to undo the 1928 have gone in vain. The government has said that it’s not a matter of gender discrimination but more about upholding the tradition. Spokesman of the National Office of Buddhism, Narong Songarom has said, “Women can’t be ordained here, but no one stops them from doing that overseas. They just can’t be ordained by Thai monks, that’s all.”