Fighting for identity papers, Lankan nuns pursue gender equality

Sri Lankan Buddhist nuns train in Horana. Dekanduwala Bhikkhuni Centre
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Updated 13 March 2020

Fighting for identity papers, Lankan nuns pursue gender equality

COLOMBO: News that Buddhist nuns have been denied identity documents in Sri Lanka made world headlines recently, exposing a complex reality that reflects unequal gender dynamics in monastic life.

“The media has distorted the whole issue,” Buddhist preacher Rajitha Viduransi told Arab News, referring to a December report by the BBC in which Bhikkunis, or Buddhist nuns, narrated the challenges that they face in obtaining their official identity.

For laymen and laywoman, Viduransi explained, national identity cards are issued by the Department for Registration of Persons. For Buddhist monks and nuns the documents are produced by the Department of Buddhist Affairs, which is directly under the prime minister, reflecting the special status the majority religion holds in Sri Lankan society.

Once they enter a Buddhist order, future monks or nuns have to renounce their national identity and will have their identification documents replaced by special cards that carry the name of a recognized prelate who ordained them. And that is where the problem starts.

Despite numbers of prominent Bhikkunis in the country, who have served for decades in monasteries, not a single one has the right to confer holy orders on novices, Viduransi said. While the Department of Buddhist Affairs is unable to issue the special identity cards without an ordinance, male clergy have been reluctant to authorize the service and lineage of Lankan nuns.

The lineage is special and started with that of monks in the third century BCE. According to tradition, the ordination lineages of both monks and nuns arrived on the island from India, with King Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, and daughter, Sanghamitta.

BACKGROUND

• Bhikkunis have been struggling to obtain the right to confer holy orders on novices.

• Male prelates are seen as blocking the re-establishment of female Buddhist orders.

Sri Lanka’s proud history of male and female monasticism was interrupted by famines in the 11th century. While male orders were later restored, the Bhikkuni lineage lapsed for centuries, to be revived only in the late 1990s, but not without male opposition, which is also manifested in hindrances to the ordinance, ultimately throwing their female counterparts into a catch-22 situation.

The nuns say that they cannot obtain identity cards like regular citizens, because special procedures are in place for them, and often they cannot complete the procedures, because their ordinance is rarely recognized by the chief clergy.  

Department of Buddhist Affairs director general, Sunandsa Kariyaperuma, confirmed to Arab News that for an identity card to be issued to a Bhikkuni, they need unanimous approval from the four prelates of the country’s main Buddhist orders. But the male clergy have been refusing to grant it.

According to Kolitha Thero, a deputy of Walukarama Temple in Colombo, the number of ordained Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka is about 40,000, while of nuns merely 4,000.

Senior nuns have been calling unsuccessfully for equality. They want to be able to ordain their novices too and face no discrimination in access to the basic right of having identity documents, without which no one can officially exist. 

Bhikkhuni Kusuma, who celebrated her 90th birthday in December, said: “I was working for the establishment of the Bhikkhuni order for maybe 20 years. There was a flourishing Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka for nearly 10 centuries and then the lineage died out.” 

“I wish that Bhikkhunis, not only in Sri Lanka but all over the world, could be educated, practicing, talking about the dharma (Buddhist cosmic order) and giving that knowledge to the world. Then, it will be a different world altogether,” she said.


Iran dismisses ‘desperate’ US move to end nuclear waivers

Updated 28 May 2020

Iran dismisses ‘desperate’ US move to end nuclear waivers

  • ‘Ending waivers for nuclear cooperation with Iran ... has effectively no impact on Iran’s continued work’

TEHRAN: Tehran on Thursday dismissed the impact of what it called Washington’s “desperate attempt” to end sanction waivers for nations that remain in the Iran nuclear accord.
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said the United States had made the move in a bid “to distract public opinion from its continued defeats at the hands of Iran.”
“Ending waivers for nuclear cooperation with Iran... has effectively no impact on Iran’s continued work” on what the Islamic republic insists is a purely civilian nuclear energy program, its spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi added in a statement published on the agency’s website.
The US decision, he said, was in response to Iranian fuel shipments to Venezuela — which is also under US sanctions — and the “significant advancements of Iran’s nuclear industry.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the United States was responding to Iran’s “brinksmanship” — its scrapping of certain nuclear commitments aimed at pressuring Washington to remove sanctions as called for by the 2015 accord.
“These escalatory actions are unacceptable and I cannot justify renewing the waiver,” Pompeo said in a statement.
President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the landmark agreement — also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — and reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018.
The remaining parties to the deal include Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
In May 2019, Iran announced it was suspending nuclear commitments to the deal, starting with removing limits on its heavy water and enriched uranium stockpiles.
It was in retaliation for US sanctions and what Iran deemed Europe’s inaction to provide it with the JCPOA’s economic benefits.
Washington had until now issued waivers to allow companies, primarily from Russia, to keep carrying out the nuclear work of the agreement without risking legal ramifications in the US economy.
It will end waivers that allowed the modification of the heavy water reactor in Arak, which prevented it from using plutonium for military use, as well as the export of spent and scrap research reactor fuel.
Kamalvandi said ending the waivers would not impact Iran’s continued work on the Arak reactor and “other equipment” by Iranian experts.