Dhammananda Bhikkhuni grips a wobbly stack of feminine hygiene products and sorts them on a long table. Her followers watch before mimicking her quick movements.
“We will bring these donations to women who are in the local prison,” explained Ms. Dhammananda. “If we don’t, then who?”
Bhikkhunis (Pee-KOO-nees), ordained female monks, in Thailand consider their gender to be an essential bridge to the women they help through charity work and spiritual guidance, since women are forbidden to be alone with male monks, known as Bhikkhu (Pee-KOO).
But Thai Bhikkhunis have their own limitations, not just because they number only 25 compared with the approximate 200,000 male monks here. They lack legal recognition – a denial that accompanies various withholdings of public benefits, and it highlights a persistent issue of discrimination for women across the country.
A revived campaign to grant Bhikkhunis legal recognition launched quietly at the end of July, with advocates hoping that minimal fanfare would help them evade the conservative religious opposition that has prevented the movement from strengthening for more than 80 years.
“This is a basic human rights issue,” says prominent former senator and lawyer Paiboon Nititawan, an organizer of the Bhikkhunis’ rights movement.
The new approach to take a cautious tact to achieve legal recognition for Bhikkhunis won’t grant them entirely equal status with the male monks. But Bhikkhunis and their supporters are eager to accept whatever gains they can secure in the still largely conservative country.
The trick? “We have to stay low key,” says Dhammananda, the eldest and longest-standing Bhikkhuni in Thailand. “We won’t go out and march through the streets.”
Dhammananda presides over a monastery that is home to nine Bhikkhunis in Nakhon Pathom province, one-hour northwest of Bangkok.
The residing Bhikkhunis, all ordained in Sri Lanka, which practices their observed chapter of Buddhism, Theravada, strictly follow the eight guiding principles of Buddhism.
Like their male counterparts, the women pray several times a day and discuss Buddhist teachings. But only Bhikkhuni can physically touch the other women who travel long distances for prayer.
“I love that it is easy to touch and talk with Dhammananda,” said Khun Tip, a layperson who visits the monastery daily. “Women who have problems with their husbands or families cannot talk to male monks about these things.”
Hurdles for women monks
Everyday barriers male monks don’t have to consider stunt Bhikkhunis’ work with women, the female monks say.
Male monks receive free public transportation and reserved bus seats, government identification cards, and public funds to support their monasteries. Bhikkhunis, meanwhile, have to rely on help from laypeople and private donations.
“If we go on the bus there is no place for us to sit,” explains Dhammananda. “To many people, this here would not be considered a temple, because with a temple you must have a monk, and we are not considered that.”
Bhikkhunis’ rights campaign reveals the subtle, yet entrenched brand of gender discrimination in Thailand, which has achieved gender parity in classrooms and the workforce. However, women still earn only 94 percent of what male colleagues make and hold the minority of executive, high-level positions in business and politics.
Dhammananda acknowledges the “injustice” of Bhikkhunis’ lack of recognition, but says if their campaign is to be successful it must appeal to Buddhist morals and honor the Buddha’s word – not necessarily women’s empowerment.