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Making monks of women

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 27 December 2013

If one takes a close look at Thai society today, it could be argued that it is primarily the women who run daily affairs. In a country where females outnumber males, the gender dynamics of the nation have dramatically shifted over the last few decades to where women fulfill many of the major roles in society. The majority of university enrollments are women, the breadwinners in many families are women, many corporate executives and civil servants are women, the majority of new entrepreneurial start-ups are undertaken by women, and even many farmers are women.

Dr. Siriwan Ratanakarn from Bangkok University in a paper on the women's role in Thai society discusses the important contributions made by such women as Nang Suang, Sikhara Maha-Devi, Nang Nopamas, Queen Suriyothai, Queen Saovabhaphongsri, and Queen Sirikit. She states that these women have helped to shape Thai culture, customs, and traditions either as regents themselves or as direct advisors to their kings. She also points out how, during the Sukhothai period, women were portrayed as equal partners to men. Through literature, we can note that women's status became much lower through the Ayutthaya period, where they were portrayed as obedient wives and daughters. Siriwan believes that women in Thailand have come a long way since then.

However, even with general acceptance about the emerging importance of the matriarchal role of women in society today, there is still one last bastion forbidden to women. This is the domain of the Buddhist monkhood, something that has been strictly taboo for women in Thailand for the last seven centuries.


Although women were given the right to vote back in 1932, they were never given the right to be ordained as a monk. There is nothing in the Thai constitution forbidding women becoming monks. However the Sangha council which governs the monkhood continues to maintain that only men can enter the monkhood. This is based upon the Sangha Act 1928, which to all intents and purposes is still upheld as being valid.

The Theravada Bhikkhuni order was never "officially" established in Thailand, although it exists in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The absence of Bhikkhuni in Thailand over the last century has led to the perception among many Thais that women are not meant to play a monastic role in life other than being a lay follower, or becoming a Mae Ji, or nun. Although a Mae Ji is higher than a lay person, this place within the monastic hierarchy tends to be seen as subservient to monks. In addition, monks receive free public transport, reserved seats in public places, and government identity cards, which Mae Ji, just aren't entitled to.

This restricts women in the monastic hierarchy to only participating in activities of obtaining merit through collective rituals, and undertaking the housekeeping activities within a temple. Basically they are there to serve the monks.

A common perception by many within Thai society about nuns, is that while they are robed in white, they are most probably present in the temple because they have no other place to go, suffer from a broken relationship, have a psychotic disorder, or have very little education.

Consequently robed nuns tend to be looked down upon, with the general belief in some quarters that women are of less value than their male counterparts in monastic life.

To some women, the role of Mae Ji or nun makes them feel very restricted, preventing them from doing more. This is according to Dhammakamala Bhikkhuni, the deputy abbess of the Thippayasathandhamma Bhikkhuni Arama Centre, in Kohyor, Songkhla.


To many women who became a Bhikkuni, the feeling of materialism, relationships, and career, began to lose the importance it once had for them. They develop a feeling of emptiness in life, which needs to be quenched through some form of change. However being only a Mae Ji or nun is not enough. They want to do more through the personal freedom a Bhikkhuni potentially has to contribute to the community and dhamma, in their own way, different from their male counterparts.

A small number of women who have become Mae ji, aspire for full ordination in Thailand, even though 'officially' they would become a social outcast, in risk of civil prosecution of impersonating a monk.

The pioneer who led the way for women to be ordained as monks was the professor, controversial author, and TV host Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. She is now the abbess of Wat Songhammakalyani in Nakkon Pathom, just North of Bangkok. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni slipped away to Sri Lanka back in 2001 to return an ordained monk, being a very controversial move at the time. Since her ordination, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni has built up the monastery, established by her mother Voramai Kabilsingh who was ordained under the Mahayana tradition in Taiwan in 1971, where more than 100 Bhikkuni have passed through the gates and scattered around a number of provinces. There is also a substantial sramaneri or novice nuns who are training for public ordination at the monastery.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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