Thailand's rebel female Buddhist monks defy tradition

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Boodsabann Chanthawong recently joined a growing number of women defying generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at an unrecognized 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.

"I'm going to overcome this obstacle and become ordained like I've always wanted," the 49-year-old businesswoman said before the ceremony on Dec. 5, where she would have her head shaved. She stayed for nine days at the temple.

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Thailand's rebel female Buddhist monks defy tradition
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Thailand's rebel female Buddhist monks defy tradition

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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery.

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery.

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination women. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. "I'm going to overcome this obstacle and become ordained like I've always wanted," Boodsabann said. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Novice monks pray after receiving food offerings from people in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female Songdhammakalyani monastery. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Novice monks gather during a group photo session at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Novice monks pray during a morning routine at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. Dhammananda flew to Sri Lanka to be ordained in 2001 as Thailand's first female monk. "It's been 90 years and the social context has changed, but they still don't accept us," she said. "It's a shame that women aren't allowed to make decisions for their own lives. You have to rebel against injustice because this is not right." 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Female Buddha statues are displayed at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 14, 2018. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female Songdhammakalyani monastery. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Novice monks walk in line before receiving food offerings at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 7, 2018. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

A painting of a female Buddhist monk is displayed at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. Dhammananda flew to Sri Lanka to be ordained in 2001 as Thailand's first female monk. "It's been 90 years and the social context has changed, but they still don't accept us," she said. "It's a shame that women aren't allowed to make decisions for their own lives. You have to rebel against injustice because this is not right." 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination women. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female Songdhammakalyani monastery. "I'm going to overcome this obstacle and become ordained like I've always wanted," Boodsabann said. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Thai women devotees attend an icebreaking session ahead of their ordination to be novice monks at the Songdhammakalyani monastery, Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, December 3, 2018. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female Songdhammakalyani monastery. "I'm going to overcome this obstacle and become ordained like I've always wanted," Boodsabann said. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(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. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that, since 1928, has forbidden the ordination of women. A growing number of women defy generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as novice monks at the unrecognized all-female monastery. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

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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 recognize female 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.

Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the 74-year-old abbess of the Songdhammakalyani monastery, flew to Sri Lanka to be ordained in 2001 as Thailand's first female monk.

Since then, she has helped women like Boodsabann join the Buddhist order as novices at the monastery's ordination ceremonies every April and December.

"It's been 90 years and the social context has changed, but they still don't accept us," Dhammananda told Reuters in an interview at the temple's library, where an entire shelf is dedicated to books about women's rights and role in religion.

"It's a shame that women aren't allowed to make decisions for their own lives. You have to rebel against injustice because this is not right," she added.

While Dhammananda's monastery ordains female novices, it cannot do the same for those seeking to become female monks. Such a ceremony would require not only 10 female monks but also 10 male monks, who are forbidden under Thailand's 1928 order to participate in it.

There are about 270 female monks across Thailand and they were all ordained abroad, Dhammananda 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.

"Women can't be ordained here, but no one stops them from doing that overseas. They just can't be ordained by Thai monks, that's all," said Narong Songarom, spokesman of the National Office of Buddhism.

(Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Kay Johnson)

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