Towards More Women Political Leaders in Bhutan

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Bhutan often goes missing from conversations around the Subcontinent, and its world-famous happiness index tends to obscure the politics at work in the country. Yangchen C. Rinzin shares with us her perspective on the emergence of a generation of women political leaders.

Nine people stand on a snowy day, each of them similarly dressed in a bright long-sleeve shirt and long striped skirt.
A group of Bhutanese female researchers in traditional attire on top of Dochu La, a 3,100-meter-high mountain pass in West Bhutan. / Photo by Yangchen C. Rinzin (February 2022).

Historically, Bhutan is considered a matriarchal society. Why?

Women in Bhutan have generally been considered decision-makers and traditionally, the head of the family in a household. Most women are not compelled to take their husbands’ names after marriage, nor do daughters have to take their fathers’ names, achieving a matrilineal society in the country. The highlight of such a society is the age-old tradition of passing down an inheritance to women members of the family, especially in the northern, western, and eastern parts of Bhutan. 

As much as it is believed that men should be the breadwinner, women are also equally found working outside in the field, along with men, in rural areas or offices in urban spaces. However, when it comes to the empowerment of women outside society, especially in terms of access to political power or leadership, Bhutan still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality. When it concerned decision-making at the highest level, women either did not receive support to take part in the electoral system or were considered not competent enough. 

Several attempts were also made to create a quota system for women’s participation in the electoral process, however, this did not come through, partially because many women believed quotas would underestimate women’s role further. 

Although famed for being a matriarchal society for ages, it was only in the year 2012 that Bhutan saw its first woman dzongdag (district governor) and first elected woman minister in the year 2013. Bhutan also saw the first woman gup (local leader) of a gewog (village block) only in 2016, even though the gup system existed for ages in Bhutan. The country counts 205 gewogs.

However, lately, these have been encouraging changes against the backdrop of how culturally women were always considered “Nangi-Aum” (the lady of the house). In the Bhutanese context, Nangi-Aum is an important responsibility, but only confined within the limits of home. In Bhutanese tradition, it is said that if Nangi-Aum cannot manage as a homemaker, she would not be capable of managing a country.