Gongfu sisters: Nuns teaching women in India to defend against rapists

Buddhist nuns packing a punch (left) and helping participants stretch their muscles (below) during a gongfu workshop.
Buddhist nuns packing a punch (above) and helping participants stretch their muscles during a gongfu workshop.PHOTO: REUTERS
Buddhist nuns packing a punch (left) and helping participants stretch their muscles (below) during a gongfu workshop.
Buddhist nuns packing a punch and helping participants stretch their muscles (above) during a gongfu workshop.PHOTO: REUTERS

Nuns in the Ladakh mountains are teaching women in India to defend themselves against rapists

LADAKH, India • As dawn breaks, the sun edges over the expansive jagged mountains of Ladakh - a remote Buddhist ex-kingdom in the Indian Himalayas bordering Tibet - to reveal a world where time appears to have stood still.

Until, that is, you hear the yells of scores of young women in sweatpants and trainers. They stretch, lunge, jump, kick and punch on the orders of nuns.

Meet the gongfu nuns - women from an age-old Buddhist sect who are using their martial arts expertise to challenge gender roles and teach women self-defence, as reports of rapes rise in India.

Unlike other nuns, their chants and prayers are followed by jabs and kicks. Between meditation sessions, they attend gender equality lessons. Even their maroon robes are periodically swopped for martial arts attire, with black belts.

"Most people think nuns just sit and pray but we do more," said Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, 19, one of the trainers.

"If we act, people will think: If nuns can act, why can't we? Gongfu will make them stronger and more confident," she added, noting that they decided to teach self-defence after hearing of sexual assault cases.

Not even earthquakes, avalanches, monsoons and cloudbursts can stand in their way.

MS CARRIE LEE, president of charity Live To Love International, which works with the nuns

She is one of about 700 nuns globally who belong to the Drukpa lineage, the only female order in the patriarchal Buddhist monastic system where nuns have equal status to monks.

Traditionally, nuns are expected to cook and clean and are not permitted to exercise. But this changed almost a decade ago when the leader of the 1,000-year-old sect, His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa, encouraged them to learn gongfu.

He also gave the nuns leadership roles and helped them study beyond Buddhist teachings to become electricians and plumbers.

The nuns are active in the communities where they live, mainly in Nepal and India. They trek and cycle thousands of kilometres through Himalayan mountain passes to raise awareness on issues from pollution to human trafficking.

Following a massive earthquake in 2015 in Nepal, they trekked to villages to clear pathways and distribute food to survivors.

Ms Carrie Lee, president of Live To Love International, a charity which works with the nuns, said they are exceptional role models.

She added: "Not even earthquakes, avalanches, monsoons and cloudbursts can stand in their way."

The nuns are now taking on one of the biggest threats facing women in India today - rape.

The National Crime Records Bureau said 34,651 rapes were reported in 2015 - or four every hour - a rise of 43 per cent from 2011.

There were 82,422 sexual assaults, a 67 per cent increase over the same period.

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg as many victims are afraid to report cases, for fear of being blamed and shamed by their family and community.

A wave of public protests after the fatal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012 jolted many in the world's second most populous country out of apathy.

Since then, a spike in government campaigns and civil society programmes has boosted awareness of women's rights.

But with reports of rape continuing, the nuns saw an opportunity to help in their own way.

"We thought we must share what we know with others," said Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, 28, at a five-day workshop at Naro Photang, a majestic Buddhist palace-like building belonging to the centuries-old Hemis monastery.

About 100 women aged between 13 and 28 followed a rigorous 6am to 9pm schedule during the course this month.

It included techniques on handling being attacked from behind and discussions about how to react in possible sexual assault scenarios.

"It's been tough and my whole body is aching, but the nuns were very inspiring," said participant Tsering Yangchen, a 23-year-old student.

"I am often uncomfortable going to the market as there are boys standing around looking, whistling and cat-calling.

"I was always hesitant to say anything, but now I feel much more confident to speak out and even protect myself if I have to."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Gongfu sisters'. Print Edition | Subscribe