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Thailand's rebel female Buddhist monks defy tradition

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand (Reuters) - Boodsabann Chanthawong recently joined a growing number of women defying generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at an unrecognized all-female monastery outside Bangkok.


Leading a procession of 21 other women - from teenagers to senior citizens - to a chapel in the Songdhammakalyani monastery in Nakhon Pathom province, Boodsabann teared up as she prepared to exchange her white garments for the distinctive saffron robes otherwise seen almost exclusively on male monks.

“I’m going to overcome this obstacle and become ordained like I’ve always wanted,” the 49-year-old businesswoman said before the ceremony on Dec. 5, where she would have her head shaved. She stayed for nine days at the temple.


Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that since 1928 has forbidden the ordination of women. The country does not recognize female monks or novices. One option for devout Thai women is to become white-clad Buddhist nuns, who follow a less-strict religious regimen than monks and are often relegated to housekeeping tasks in temples.


In recent years, more Thai Buddhist women seeking to become full-fledged “bhikkunis”, or female monks, have been defying the tradition by pursuing the other option: getting ordained overseas, usually in Sri Lanka or India. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the 74-year-old abbess of the Songdhammakalyani monastery, flew to Sri Lanka to be ordained in 2001 as Thailand’s first female monk.


Since then, she has helped women like Boodsabann join the Buddhist order as novices at the monastery’s ordination ceremonies every April and December.

“It’s been 90 years and the social context has changed, but they still don’t accept us,” Dhammananda told Reuters in an interview at the temple’s library, where an entire shelf is dedicated to books about women’s rights and role in religion.


“It’s a shame that women aren’t allowed to make decisions for their own lives. You have to rebel against injustice because this is not right,” she added.

While Dhammananda’s monastery ordains female novices, it cannot do the same for those seeking to become female monks. Such a ceremony would require not only 10 female monks but also 10 male monks, who are forbidden under Thailand’s 1928 order to participate in it.


There are about 270 female monks across Thailand and they were all ordained abroad, Dhammananda said, adding that her monastery houses seven of them. In contrast, Thailand has more than 250,000 male monks. Efforts in the past by advocates to undo the 1928 order have been futile. It has been officially upheld during meetings of the Sangha Supreme Council, the council of top monks, in 2002 and most recently in 2014.


The government says this is not gender discrimination but a matter of long-held tradition, and women are free to travel abroad to be ordained, just not in their own country. “Women can’t be ordained here, but no one stops them from doing that overseas. They just can’t be ordained by Thai monks, that’s all,” said Narong Songarom, spokesman of the National Office of Buddhism.


Report by Patpicha Tanakasempipat, Pictures by REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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