All is Not Well with Thai Buddhist Economics: Feminist Critique of Inequality

The most significant flaw of the Thai Buddhist economic models described in the last few posts is that their ability to empower all members of society to achieve well being may be hampered by structural inequalities that result from the inherent hierarchy of their philosophical underpinnings—Theravada Buddhism—and the context in which they are implemented.

Theravada Buddhism has been particularly discriminatory towards women, even in a modern Buddhist nation such as Thailand where women continue to encounter injustice in all sectors. Though Thai women are not subject to arranged marriages, have more access to family wealth through bilateral inheritance, and enjoy equal access to education unlike women in more patriarchal societies, Thai women are still generally considered subordinate to men.

A popular Thai saying, “Men are the front legs of the elephant and women are the hind legs,” suggests that men are leaders and women are followers. Men do in fact dominate Thailand’s public sphere in politics and religion, as well as in other ways.

Some explanation for Thailand’s gender disparity may be found in Buddhism, to which 95 percent of the Thai population adhere. It is important to remember that while Buddhism adapts to each new context it encounters, doctrinal Buddhism is still culturally embedded—influenced by India’s hierarchical caste system and patriarchal gender relations in which it emerged.

So even though the Buddha taught that all sentient beings can attain enlightenment and trained both monks and nuns including his own step-mother, the fact that women are “religiously self-sufficient” does not mean that they are equal to men.

According to doctrine, men are superior to women because women have five kinds of suffering that men do not have: menstruation, serving their husbands, moving to be with the husband’s family, pregnancy and birth, and raising children. Moreover, an individual’s birth as a woman is considered punishment for committing adultery as a man in the previous life; a woman committing the same sin would be reborn as a dog, a notch lower on the social ladder. These notions of gender inequality were expressed to me (while conducting research for Right Development) by scores of Thai women of various educational and occupational backgrounds.

In the Asoke movement some gender bias exists as well. In contrast to outside Thai society, Asoke women have more lifestyle options with higher status—they can actually become nuns. Nevertheless, monks hold higher status as evidenced by the disparity in the strictness of their practice (nuns uphold 10 precepts while monks abide by the 227 rules of the Vinaya code) and the forced ratio of four monks to one nun, with women being required to spend a longer amount of time than men at each stage approaching ordination.

Despite these examples of gender bias, Asoke women do have prominent leadership roles as nuns, village heads, and the community liaisons to governmental offices. Furthermore, both men and women take an active, vocal part in decision making at community meetings. By intention, the Asoke movement has made at least some structural improvement in the status of women and gender relations, so it is possible that the same could be done to mediate other forms of inequality in applications of the Sufficiency Economy model as well as other Buddhist economic models.

To deal with the potential to reproduce social inequality, Buddhist economic models must be savvy to contextual relations of power and inequality—such as what was partially sketched regarding notions about gender in Thailand and Buddhism. Practical applications must also be accompanied by a suitable theoretical and practical framework for social justice.

The Gender and Development social relations analysis framework is one example. This framework springs from the premise that redistributive strategies are insufficient to overcome the obstacles of structural inequality that perpetuate women’s disadvantaged positions.

To create conditions in which women have more control over their lives, gender analysis must extend to institutions beyond the household and beyond the sphere of production to examine the “range of relations through which needs are met—the rights and obligations, norms and values that sustain social life” in a given context (Razavi and Miller 1995:42).

In acknowledging the fact that economics is embedded in social life, social relations analysis provides a deeper understanding and a better means to address women’s empowerment strategies, social connectedness, and conflict and cooperation within the household and beyond that help or hinder gender equality in well being. Gender is of course not the only axis of inequality, but the emphasis on social relations is important to uncover relevant dimensions of power—both positive and negative.

Once relations of power and inequality are revealed, the question remains as to how to equalize them or put asymmetries to effective use. This becomes a practical issue at the community networking stage of the Sufficiency Economy model in which several entities come together to cooperate for more efficient production and exchange. A pressing concern in participatory community development is that communities are rarely homogeneous, and conflicting ideas are dealt with according to existing power structures, such that what emerges is more representative of the dominant members’ aspirations.

To promote a more inclusive and democratic process of community development, participatory methods informed by feminist and action-oriented sensibilities about agency, difference and power may be of use. For example, geographer Cindi Katz (1996) employed participatory methods on a social forestry project with CARE International and Ethiopian and Etrean refugees in Northern Sudan: she took separate village walks with men, women, and children to elicit different knowledge sets about the natural surroundings and identify gender- and age-based problems and aspirations. This case illustrates how participatory methods can be used to uncover gender, class, and ethnic based experiences and empower participants as central actors and holders of knowledge.

In the end, all the power relations analyses and participatory methods will have little success in increasing all individuals’ control over their lives without a real commitment by those involved in the process of developing a sufficiency economy to an ethic of equity, broadly defined as equal distribution of assets, capabilities, and opportunities.

The good news is that is achievable by enhancing wisdom and integrity, the foundational conditions of Sufficiency Economy. The advantage of Buddhist economic models over other human development approaches is the emphasis on mental development, requiring individuals to continually reflect on the world around them and their relation to it, to gain insight from the knowledge they glean, and to act on that knowledge in an ethical manner.

It is hoped that the result of the reflection begun here is that Buddhist economic theorists and practitioners will acknowledge the necessity of challenging structural inequalities to promote an environment in which all individuals may achieve not just sufficiency in the sense of a merely adequate life, but true well being in the pursuit of a life they value.

*A version of this post was originally part of a conference paper: Essen, Juliana (2007). “Feminist Economic Perspectives on the Royal Thai Sufficiency Economy Model,” presented at the International Association for Feminist Economics Conference, Bangkok, Thailand.

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