by Prof. Dr. Karma Lekshe Tsomo
In the past fifty years, efforts to bring women into the mainstream of human society have accelerated and great advances have been made in many areas, due to the courage and conscientious efforts of women and men around the world. Unfortunately, however, the idea of equal rights remains a dream for women in most societies. Outdated attitudes about women’s nature, potential, and capabilities continue to keep women at a disadvantage politically, economically, educationally, and in the religious and domestic spheres. Gender equality is a key element of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and U.N. Resolution 1325, yet gender discrimination continues in all societies, resulting in huge losses for human society.
The religious traditions that shape societal attitudes toward women and also women’s attitudes toward themselves often send mixed messages. Most of the world’s major world religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and so on – assert that women and men have equal potential for liberation or are equal in the sight of God, but social realities reveal a stark contradiction between rhetoric and reality. Most women continue to lack equal representation in social, political, and religious institutions. For many, the failure of the world’s religions to live up to their professed ideals is not only hypocritical; it also exposes religious institutions’ lack of social responsiveness to the needs of human society.
The human rights debate raises two important questions. The first question is political: Is the language of human rights applicable to all human beings across cultures or does it grow out of a socio-historical background that cannot cross cultures? For example, the People’s Republic of China maintains that the concept of human rights was framed in a European context and is a Western imposition on non-European cultures. Others feel that human rights are universal. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, believes that human rights follow naturally from concepts of compassion and interrelatedness.
The second question raised in the human rights debate is philosophical: What is the nature of human rights and to whom do they apply? In a system of thought that proposes the concept of an eternal soul, inalienable rights may be viewed as concomitant with the human person. In a system such as Buddhism that does not speak in terms of an eternal soul, however, to what do such rights adhere? Further, in systems of thought in which sentient beings are believed to take rebirth in different states of existence, do rights apply differently to human beings and other life forms or differently to women and men? This paper will explore these questions from a Buddhist feminist perspective.