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Thailand's rebel female Buddhist monks defy tradition

Updated : 2019-01-04 15:05:07

Boodsabann Chanthawong recently joined a growing number of women defying generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at an unrecognised 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.

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 recognisefemale 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.

There are about 270 female monks across Thailand and they were all ordained abroad, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the 74-year-old abbess of the Songdhammakalyani monastery 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.

A devotee has her hair cut by a female buddhist monk during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A devotee has her hair cut by a female buddhist monk during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees in white robes walk in line during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees in white robes walk in line during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees attend a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees attend a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees have their hair cut by Dhammananda Bhikkhun and a female buddhist monk during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees have their hair cut by Dhammananda Bhikkhun and a female buddhist monk during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees attend an ice-breaking session ahead of their ordination to be novice monks at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees attend an ice-breaking session ahead of their ordination to be novice monks at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees carry their saffron robes during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees carry their saffron robes during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees in white robes pray during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees in white robes pray during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Boodsabann Chanthawong, 49, a businesswoman, works on her mobile phone as she rides on a train, weeks ahead of her ordination to be a novice monk in Bangkok, Thailand, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Boodsabann Chanthawong, 49, a businesswoman, works on her mobile phone as she rides on a train, weeks ahead of her ordination to be a novice monk in Bangkok, Thailand, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Boodsabann Chanthawong, 49, a businesswoman, works at her office, weeks ahead of her ordination to be a novice monk in Bangkok, Thailand, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Boodsabann Chanthawong, 49, a businesswoman, works at her office, weeks ahead of her ordination to be a novice monk in Bangkok, Thailand, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks walk in line to receive food offerings from people at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks walk in line to receive food offerings from people at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees practice during a first orientation to become Buddhist novice monks at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees practice during a first orientation to become Buddhist novice monks at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 74, abbess of the Songdhammakalyani monastery, plays with her dog at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 74, abbess of the Songdhammakalyani monastery, plays with her dog at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
The face of a novice monk is reflected in a bowl as she receives food offerings from people in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
The face of a novice monk is reflected in a bowl as she receives food offerings from people in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks walk in line before receiving food offerings at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks walk in line before receiving food offerings at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Female Buddha statues are displayed at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Female Buddha statues are displayed at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks pray after receiving food offerings from people in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks pray after receiving food offerings from people in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks pray during a morning routine at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks pray during a morning routine at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A Thai woman devotee who ended her novice monkhood has her head cleaned by Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (R), 74, abbess at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A Thai woman devotee who ended her novice monkhood has her head cleaned by Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (R), 74, abbess at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A painting of a female Buddhist monk is displayed at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A painting of a female Buddhist monk is displayed at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks gather during a group photo session at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks gather during a group photo session at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees wearing white robes return saffron robes after ending their novice monkhood at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees wearing white robes return saffron robes after ending their novice monkhood at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Boodsabann Chanthawong works with her husband at her stall near her house, days after she ended her novice monkhood, at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, in Bangkok, Thailand, December 16, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Boodsabann Chanthawong works with her husband at her stall near her house, days after she ended her novice monkhood, at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, in Bangkok, Thailand, December 16, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees and Buddhist female monks or Bhikkhuni fold their saffron robes during a practice session ahead of their ordination to be novice monks at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Thai women devotees and Buddhist female monks or Bhikkhuni fold their saffron robes during a practice session ahead of their ordination to be novice monks at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Saffron robes are seen before a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Saffron robes are seen before a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks walk in line during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Novice monks walk in line during a mass female Buddhist novice monk ordination ceremony at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
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