Introduction – Women and Gender in Tibetan Medicine

Theresia Hofer, Heidi E. Fjeld

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Abstract

This introductory essay reviews gendered productions, transmissions and practices of Tibetan medicine; it both discusses the representation of women in medical literature and illustrations, and addresses Tibetan medicine’s relations with reproductive healthcare. So far, in the history of Tibetan medicine, called Sowa Rigpa (the 'science of healing', gso ba rig pa), most of its practitioners and authors have been men. Both the learning and practice of Sowa Rigpa and its associated texts have been closely connected to monastic institutions. This however, is only part of the (his)story. Sowa Rigpa was also learnt outside monasteries, within medical lineages, where knowledge and practice was often transmitted from father to son, uncle to nephew, and, as we shall see, from father to daughter, uncle to niece, and mother to daughter and son. Here we suggest the concept of the 'house' that derives from anthropological kinship theory as a useful and encompassing tool for analysing the transmission and practice of Tibetan medicine outside lay and monastic institutions, for it draws out the relations between what in Tibetan are termed medical lineages (sman gyi rgyud) and medical houses (sman grong). Further, we discuss whether, as has been suggested in earlier work by Gyatso and Havnevik (2005), Tibetan medicine has posed a relatively open field for women and, if so, how women’s status in medicine compares to their positions in other domains of Tibetan socio-cultural life and religious institutions.
This introductory essay reviews gendered productions, transmissions and practices of Tibetan medicine; it both discusses the representation of women in medical literature and illustrations, and addresses Tibetan medicine’s relations with reproductive healthcare. So far, in the history of Tibetan medicine, called Sowa Rigpa (the 'science of healing', gso ba rig pa), most of its practitioners and authors have been men. Both the learning and practice of Sowa Rigpa and its associated texts have been closely connected to monastic institutions. This however, is only part of the (his)story. Sowa Rigpa was also learnt outside monasteries, within medical lineages, where knowledge and practice was often transmitted from father to son, uncle to nephew, and, as we shall see, from father to daughter, uncle to niece, and mother to daughter and son. Here we suggest the concept of the 'house' that derives from anthropological kinship theory as a useful and encompassing tool for analysing the transmission and practice of Tibetan medicine outside lay and monastic institutions, for it draws out the relations between what in Tibetan are termed medical lineages (sman gyi rgyud) and medical houses (sman grong). Further, we discuss whether, as has been suggested in earlier work by Gyatso and Havnevik (2005), Tibetan medicine has posed a relatively open field for women and, if so, how women’s status in medicine compares to their positions in other domains of Tibetan socio-cultural life and religious institutions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-216
JournalAsian Medicine
Volume6
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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