Women clad in white robes stand silently in the early morning light, holding out their alms bowls hoping for food or monetary offerings.

While the Buddhist faithful oblige, many of them regard these women as spiritually inferior to monks, females who have turned to religion as a result of a broken heart or family problems.

Thai nuns, who have their heads and eyebrows shaved, dress in white and do not take any meals after noon, are called mae chee.

Other than a few, exceptional and recognised leaders with their own spiritual centres, such as Mae Chee Sanasanee Sthirasuta of Sathira Dhammasathan in Bangkok, most of the eight-precept holders live in temples run by male abbots.

Even today, mae chee are not recognised by the Thai Sangha.

Yet a large number of women are willing to enter the nunhood. What pushes them to make this decision?

Laddawan Tamafu, a researcher at Chiang Mai University, donned a white blouse and pants and followed the eight precepts for two years, observing the life of nuns in four nunneries in Thailand.

She was an adherent of Chee Bhrama, a popular choice among women seeking a temporary retreat in Thai Buddhism.

During the two years, Laddawan met 300 women and, although the lack of official figures makes year-by-year comparisons impossible, Laddawan says their numbers are increasing.

"Nuns are generally seen as passive. But after having experienced the life myself, I know it’s the other way round. They are very strong spiritually," says Laddawan, whose thesis "Mae Chees: the World of Forgotten Women" earned her a master’s degree from the university’s social development faculty.

The researcher became interested in the subject in 2001, when a Thai woman caused a major controversy by being ordained in Sri Lanka as a samaneri (female novice).

"Why did the issue of a woman seeking religious space become a hot debate? This question inspired me to study women in religion through the lives of mae chee," she explains.

The groups of nuns Laddawan met in the study areas were reliant on male monks for accommodation, food and the chance to practise dhamma. They helped in the temple kitchen, and cleaned, finishing the chores before chanting, meditating and studying dhamma.

"Serving by doing household chores is not seen as inferior duty. Rather, it is regarded as a way of practising towards no-self, the ultimate goal in Buddhism," says the researcher, who is now assistant director of the Life Skill Development Foundation in Chiang Mai.

Shopping for necessities and food as directed by the monks, and preparing lunch for lay people who attend dhamma courses at temples, are also among the mae chees’duties.

"People tend to criticise the nuns who go to the shops for being in ‘materialistic appetite-sharpening places’," she notes.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications regards the nuns as lay people and denies them free transportation on public buses to which monks are entitled. Ironically, the Interior Ministry denies them the right to vote, considering them as clergy, as described under Section 106 of the Constitution.

"They are marginalised both in the temples and outside, yet instead of feeling frustrated and speaking out, they collect themselves and turn inwards, observing their minds," says Laddawan adding that most of the nuns are age 35 and over, have primary school education, are poor and have family problems.

Mae chees have their own strategies for survival in the male dominated temples, forming close bonds and taking care of each other, with newcomers often caring for senior nuns.

Regarding mae chees as passive and seeking shelter from life’s problems, is stereotyping, says Mae Chee Nathathai Chatinawat, of Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen in Bangkok.

Their personalities vary considerably according to both background and aspirations, says the nun, who is a postgraduate student in women’s studies at Thammasat University, doing a thesis entitled "Identities of Mae Chees in Thai Society".

Nathathai, now 41, entered the nunhood six years ago. She categorises mae chees into four types: those who study dhamma and become recognised spiritual leaders; those who help in temple kitchens; those who seek education, worldly or non-worldly like learning Pali; and those who depend on their families for living expenses.

The characteristics may overlap. Nathathai spends most of her time learning Pali and practising dhamma and divides the remainder between helping in the kitchen at the temple and university.

"Mae chees have traditionally had limited access to education. Until now, government funding for religious studies in Thailand has only been extended to male students," says Nathathai, adding that monks who finish parien kao prayok (higher dhamma education) are entitled to a monthly allowance of Bt3,500 (US$92.88) until death or leaving the monkhood, while nuns who have equal education have no monetary support.

With mae chees having to depend on the male dominated Sangha, Nathathai sees little difference between the status of mae chee and bhikkhuni (the highest ordination for nuns in Theravada Buddhism), as neither is recognised by the Sangha.

"But the Sangha has to choose and allow equal spiritual learning space for women," says Nathathai, pointing out that improving the status of mae chees is far more possible than supporting female ordination.

Mae Chee Pratin Kwan-on, president of the Thai Nun Institute, has almost lost hope of seeing an improvement in the status of mae chee in her lifetime.

"We have submitted many petitions but nothing has changed," says the nun.

"Although there is no clear evidence of the origins of the mae chee in Thai society, joining a nunnery is a source of inspiration for many women. Nuns should have the same spiritual and social space as other human beings."

Courtesy- Asia News & The Sunday Island

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