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When Girls Get Strong: The Kung Fu Nuns Who Teach Self-Defense

Nuns from the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism are known for their strength, athletic ability and humanitarian relief work. By example, they are teaching conservative villages that girls should be nurtured and supported.

Written by William Davies, Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

NEW YORK – When Jigme Rigzin was 19 years old, she asked her parents if she could become a nun. They said no. “For the nuns in the monasteries [they know of], there’s only kitchen work and washing dishes and clothes,” she said on a recent trip to New York.

“So they didn’t allow me. But I forced them. And later, when His Holiness came to ask my parents if I could be a nun, my mom allowed it.”

Rigzin is now one of 700 Drukpa-lineage nuns studying under the Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism and a leader who has radically changed the position of women in his order.

“The traditional life of nuns is both positive and negative,” he told News Deeply.

“Doing meditation, recitations, chanting, praying, that is the positive lifestyle they have,” he said.

“And the negative is to wash the clothes and the dishes and serve the monks. The monks are always superior. I don’t like this idea of having them stuck with that lifestyle.”

Breaking with a centuries-old ban on exercise, he encouraged the nuns to see the world, train athletically and become humanitarian leaders, traveling from village to village on bicycle to speak out for women’s empowerment and environmental protection.

In August, the nuns hosted a first-of-its-kind self-defense workshop for Himalayan women and girls, in Ladakh, which sits in Jammu and Kashmir, a border region where women are disproportionately affected by violence, rape and trafficking. During the workshop the nuns shared their own experiences of overcoming fear and taught practical skills for self-protection.

Women & Girls sat down Jigme Rinzin, now 30, and Tenzin Lhamo, 41, to understand their experiences of working with girls in a highly conservative region.

Women & Girls: You work on several different issues, from education to environmental protection, to the empowerment of women. Which is closest to your heart?

Jigme Rigzin: I want to do everything. [Recently] we cleaned up [a basin] in Kathmandu that has not been cleaned in years. People throw food away in plastic, so it sits there for years. It smells, people get sick, cows and dogs eat the plastic and die. So we began a mission three months ago to clean the area.

Tenzin Lhamo: I care most about saving girls. In Bihar, for example, there are many girls who do not work outside. [When we visited], we would say, “Come out, talk to us,” but they would just look at us from the door. We would go shopping for vegetables, and be so surprised that in such a big country, you don’t even see one girl. They cannot talk. They cannot show their face. Even in Ladakh it was like that because of the culture.

Jigme Rigzin: The biggest problem is that girls are not allowed to come out of the house and talk to people.

Women & Girls: How do you hope to be able to change this reality?

Jigme Rigzin: By seeing our example, girls will get strength. We try to do what boys can do, like cycle. We cycle 500 women at a time. If there is a traffic problem, we don’t ask for help. We handle it ourselves.

Tenzin Lhamo: We do all labor ourselves. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. Then, people see us and say, “Even boys don’t do this work, and [these women] can do it.” So to them we can say, “We are doing all of this, so why can’t your daughter do it, too? Because you never gave her a chance. Our guru gave us a chance. If you give her a chance, she’ll be able to do even more than your son.” Ninety percent of the time, parents agree with us. They say, “We never thought that way before.”

Women & Girls: Have you seen any changes take place?

Tenzin Lhamo: Yes, a lot. In Ladakh, officers promised us that because we are cycling so much, they will start as well. Once a week, they promised to bike or walk, and they have done it for the last two months. Also, in Ladakh, there was a marathon and girls won. They even play ice hockey. It won’t happen all at once, but little by little.

Women & Girls: Have you witnessed trafficking along your journey? What can be done to combat this?

Tenzin Lhamo: We’ve seen it on the border when biking. Because a mother doesn’t have money, we hear of girls being sold for 25,000 rupees ($385). In my opinion, if we [continue to] show by example that we can do something, many people will understand that girls can do difficult work.

Otherwise they think, “This girl can’t do anything and when she gets older she will go to someone else’s house, so she’s useless.” If we show by example that we can do something, everyone will love their daughters and support them. The hardest thing is that girls are afraid of boys.

Jigme Rigzin: That’s why we learn kung fu. It’s self-defense. So we teach kung fu to girls.

These interviews have been translated from Hindi and edited for length and clarity. Film by Wendy J.N. Lee.

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