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“Kung Fu Nuns” Address the Importance of Self-defense and Empowerment at London Conference

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The nuns demonstrate how to throw a punch during a public workshop in August. From Kung Fu Nuns Facebook

By Shyamal Sinha

The nuns demonstrate how to throw a punch during a public workshop in August. From Kung Fu Nuns Facebook

Chinese Kung Fu (Martial Arts or as popularly referred to as Gongfu or Wushu) is a series of fighting styles which has developed over a long historical period in China.
Although being fighting styles, Kung Fu advocates virtue and peace, not aggression or violence. This has been the common value upheld by martial artists from generation to generation. With a number of movement sets, boxing styles, weapon skills and some fighting stunts, Kung Fu keeps its original function of self-defense. Now its value in body-building and fitness is also highly appreciated.
Two “kung fu nuns” from the Drupka Kagyu monastic community in the Himalayas visited London last week to showcase their skills at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Conference, which focuses on modern day slavery and women’s empowerment. In addition to a Kung Fu demonstration, the nuns discussed the importance of self-defense skills as a means of empowering women amid rising reports of sex crimes in the socially conservative Himalayan region.

The nuns received their famous moniker after His Holiness the Gyalwang Drupka decided to introduce Chinese martial art to the nuns in 2008. According to monastic codes of conduct, nuns are not allowed to engage in any kind of physical activity, let alone martial arts, however the Gyalwang Drupka believes that kung fu could teach the nuns to defend themselves, and at the same time help to improve their concentration, discipline, and self-confidence in a male-oriented society and an all-too-often patriarchal religious tradition. Inspired by his mother, the Gyalwang Drupka is an active advocate of gender equality and has given the nuns leadership roles while encouraging them to study more than just Buddhist teachings. The nuns practice kung fu every day, alongside their normal monastic routine, and some choose to study other professions as well—for instance, some nuns have become electricians and plumbers.

“Some people make comments; they say we should just sit and pray and meditate,” said Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, 19, one of the nuns who visited London to showcase her skills on stage. “But a nun’s duty is more than that. We have to better society and do good for others.” (Thompson Reuters Foundation.

In August, the nuns organized their first public self-defense workshop for women in Ladakh, northern India. Around a 100 women aged 13–28 participated in the week-long workshop, which had a rigorous daily schedule. The participants learned how to defend themselves when attacked, how to react when facing sexual assault, and about other aspects of female empowerement, such as women’s health, career, and social empowerment.

“It’s been tough and my whole body is aching but the nuns were very inspiring. All girls should learn kung fu,” said Tsering Yangchen, a 23-year-old attendee of the August workshop. “I am often uncomfortable going to the market as there are boys standing around looking, whistling, and cat-calling. I was always hesitant to say anything but now I feel much more confident to speak out and even protect myself if I have to.” (Reuters)

Official data from the National Crime Record Bureau of India indicate that 34,651 rapes and 82,422 cases of harassment, assault, and other types of violence against women were reported in 2015. Due to social stigmatization and shame, however, many women do not report such attacks to the police, and activists say that these figures grossly underepresent the true numbers.

“Girls face problems when they go out and, especially in the evening, they don’t want to go out alone,” said Wangchuk. “Kung fu can help them . . . kung fu makes you confident.” (Thompson Reuters Foundation).

Hailing from Buddhist monastic communities in the Himalayas, the majority of the nuns live and train at Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Kathmandu, Nepal, with smaller communities based in Ladakh and New Delhi.

The nuns are known for championing both gender equality and sustainable living. In recent years, they have brought attention to human trafficking in the region and the threat of global warming by cycling thousands of miles on extended two-wheeled pilgrimages. Following the Nepal earthquakes in 2015, the nuns refused to be evacuated and instead set out to help affected villages in the region.

In the aftermath of the earthquake the nuns heard stories of girls and women were being trafficked across the border to India. “It was terrible. People were selling their sisters, daughters, and even mothers just to have money to rebuild their homes,” Wangchuk told delegates at the conference. “Some men just see girls as a bunch of money . . . but we need to change this and help promote equality. His Holiness likes to encourage girls. He says there can be no world peace unless we are all equal.” (Thompson Reuters Foundation)