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Thailand's female monks (cautiously) lobby for legal recognition

A quiet campaign to grant female monks legal recognition began this summer. Advocates hope that the minimal fanfare will help the 'Bhikkhunis' evade conservative religious opposition.

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Novice monk Dhammarakhita (C), dressed in a brick-colored robe after her ordination by Sri Lankan Bhikkuni, an order of female monks, gestures at Songdharmakalyani Temple in Nakhon Pathom, in this 2002 file photo. Formally known as Varangghana Vanavichayen, Dhammarakhita, a mother of two who divorced her husband to dedicate her life to Buddhism, became the first woman to be ordained as a monk in Thailand.

AFP/Newscom File

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Dhammananda Bhikkhuni grips a wobbly stack of feminine hygiene products and sorts them on a long table. Her followers watch before mimicking her quick movements.

“We will bring these donations to women who are in the local prison,” explained Ms. Dhammananda. “If we don’t, then who?”

Bhikkhunis (Pee-KOO-nees), ordained female monks, in Thailand consider their gender to be an essential bridge to the women they help through charity work and spiritual guidance, since women are forbidden to be alone with male monks, known as Bhikkhu (Pee-KOO).

But Thai Bhikkhunis have their own limitations, not just because they number only 25 compared with the approximate 200,000 male monks here. They lack legal recognition – a denial that accompanies various withholdings of public benefits, and it highlights a persistent issue of discrimination for women across the country.

A revived campaign to grant Bhikkhunis legal recognition launched quietly at the end of July, with advocates hoping that minimal fanfare would help them evade the conservative religious opposition that has prevented the movement from strengthening for more than 80 years.

“This is a basic human rights issue,” says prominent former senator and lawyer Paiboon Nititawan, an organizer of the Bhikkhunis’ rights movement.

The new approach to take a cautious tact to achieve legal recognition for Bhikkhunis won’t grant them entirely equal status with the male monks. But Bhikkhunis and their supporters are eager to accept whatever gains they can secure in the still largely conservative country.

The trick? “We have to stay low key,” says Dhammananda, the eldest and longest-standing Bhikkhuni in Thailand. “We won’t go out and march through the streets.”

Dhammananda presides over a monastery that is home to nine Bhikkhunis in Nakhon Pathom province, one-hour northwest of Bangkok.

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