Women Empowerment: Who Decides the Right or Wrong Way?

Dawa and I hiking up Tiger's Nest.

Dawa and I hiking up Tiger's Nest.

Jomolhari has been on my wish list for exploring mountain peaks for years now.  After all, Jomolhari is a holy peak located in Bhutan, a country that is often mistaken for being a part of India.  To witness this holy peak means sorting out the expensive travel and visa situation in Bhutan requiring foreigners like myself to pay the $250 a day fee which is inclusive of all travel costs such as hotel, tours, transport, meals and more.  To see Jomolhari up close also entails trekking to the base camp over a period of at least 5 days with significant elevation gain and loss at high altitude.

But it isn't the Jomolhari trek that left me speechless in my recent trip to Bhutan.  As a social entrepreneur who travels far and wide globally in search of women who lead on the trails by virtue of them being guides, porters, or fellow entrepreneurs, I invested time and effort to travel to Bhutan in search of these women.  What I found in Bhutan is more than what I bargained for. The journey led me to reevaluating my own vision and definition of women empowerment within the context of my being someone whose purpose is to create job opportunities for women in countries like Bhutan.  It was a journey that led me to the question, "Who am I to judge other people's definition of empowerment?"

It's important to note as an American, I have been immersed in many definitions of empowerment all my life, whether it relates to gender, race, legal status in America and whatever else.  In America, it seems that many of us are compelled to place the definition of women empowerment under just a single box. To hold numerous definitions would mean mental chaos and breakdown of our chosen structure which we desperately seek in order to affect change.   

For instance, in the recent months, within the outdoor industry, a slew of articles on women empowerment have emerged.  That phenomenon is undeniably unprecedented and historical. I can never dispute that.  But what seemingly appears positive in many ways has its downsides as well.  Recently, it has become rather common for many, both men and women, to police the conversations and assert their respective definitions of women empowerment aggressively on others.  The truth is I'm also guilty of this behavior.  As an entrepreneur who focuses on inspiring women to become outdoorsy and take leadership roles in the trekking tourism industry, I'm compelled to be vocal about my ideas.  I happen to be a woman of color who also supports full inclusion in that women empowerment should incorporate all aspects that define us, women. I have been criticized and have criticized others of how they define and/or implement the notion of women empowerment in their lives, organizations and beyond which leads to an obvious continuing need to dissect, analyze and share one another's viewpoints on this said issue.

Bhutan came along to put my own views to the test.  As an entrepreneur, I created my own vision of women empowerment, one in which women not only hike the trails but also lead as guides, porters and entrepreneurs.  With the creation of opportunities for women, I believe future generations of men and women will benefit from the increase of female presence in the industry.  As a desired outcome of this vision, the hope is that women will naturally gravitate towards the outdoors as a place of employment and a hub for lifelong economic opportunities.  But to come to Bhutan in search of a woman who leads isn't as elementary as I first thought.  It can be infinite in its complexities and insofar as how we allow ourselves to define women empowerment and how authentically we adhere to its meaning based on our own definition.

Dawa and I checking out the highest motorable pass in Bhutan, Chele La.

Dawa and I checking out the highest motorable pass in Bhutan, Chele La.

This leads me to Dawa, a woman who's been working as a mountain guide for over 10 years in Bhutan.  She represents one of the very few female mountain guides in the country where only 30 out of 300 mountain guides consists of women.  Despite being a single mother of a young child, she continues to lead foreigners on various mountain trails that offer trekkers a close up view of some of the most prominent Himalayan ranges in the region.  Motherhood didn't stop Dawa from hiking up and down these mountain trails.  At the outset, Dawa plays a central role in inspiring her fellow Bhutanese women to become leaders on the mountain trails. In fact, even the local men admire her presence in the industry, whether discreetly or explicitly.  At one point during our hike up the famous Tiger's Nest in Paro, a prominent Buddhist teacher commented that Dawa is a "half-man," a comment that Dawa found amusingly flattering.  After all, in her words, Dawa proclaims, "it's because he thinks I'm strong like a man." For many western women like myself, such comment may come across as a bit insulting.  When I asked her, Dawa disagreed.  Dawa treats the comment as a compliment. Despite the growing number of women gaining interest in mountain trekking and guiding, women remain in the minority compared to men in this industry.  

Suffice it to say, I was ecstatic at the opportunity to meet Dawa and the chance to do the Jomolhari trek under her leadership. On  my third day in Bhutan, Dawa and I started our trek towards Jomalhari with our all-male team of chef, kitchen assistant, and horseman.  I was certainly waiting for this moment.   The first day on the trail with Dawa proved to be a challenge.  The uphill was nonstop until we reached our first camp at 3594 meters.  The men in our team doubted my ability to finish the hike that day as it was expected to take up to 8 hours of hiking with a gain of over 1000 meters.  They anticipated my quitting in the midst of it and my settling to camp closer to the start of the trail.  Without explicitly being told so, I knew that this doubt on my skills was related to my being a woman.  By the end of the day, however, Dawa and I managed to replace the men's view with a new sense of trust in my capabilities.  Dawa and I secretly laughed off the comments knowing rather well our own personal abilities as hikers.  In contrast, to be led by a female guide means not having to explain myself in anyway as to my abilities.  And that was truly refreshing.

Unfortunately, on this trek, I fell ill on the second day with a bad stomach flu accompanied by symptoms of fever, lethargy and a severe case of diarrhea. Although I managed to reach our base camp at 4100 meters, my hiking abilities deteriorated rapidly.  The next morning, we aborted our plans to hike further to the high pass.  Instead, we decided it was best to retrace our steps back to the start of our trek.  Dawa was agreeable to the decision for the sake of my own safety and health.  After all, pushing forward can lead to further deterioration as we would need to gain at least 800 meters more in altitude.  

On the third day, we slowly made an attempt to walk back to the first camp only to manage to reach the nearby village merely thirty minutes downhill from the base camp as any movement of any kind completely depleted my energy.  The third day entailed resting all day and avoiding food to consume given the severe condition of my stomach that prompted my frequent visits to the toilet.  Fortunately, Dawa managed to arrange a room for me in the home of the village teacher.  The room was an upgrade from my prior tent stay in the base camp where I found myself experiencing the initial symptoms of hypothermia as that night we endured below freezing temperatures.  

The kind village teacher was heaven sent.

The kind village teacher was heaven sent.

The rest and warmth of the home we stayed in did the trick. The next day I was able to regain enough energy to walk towards our first camp successfully.  I had more rest that night, and so on our last day, I woke up feeling almost a hundred percent back to my normal health. Hiking that day became the least of my problems on the trail as unexpectedly Dawa and I found ourselves in a verbal argument with each other.  I have been working with guides for over 15 years now as an avid mountain trekker and traveler.  That day marked the first ever for me to experience a rather unruly confrontation with a guide.   And as much as I wish it never happened, I also acknowledge this to be a necessary moment in my career as a social entrepreneur as a means to re-evaluate my role and how best to carry out the women empowerment component of my social enterprise.

As sick as I was, I still deliberately made the effort to assess whether Dawa fits the the role of a guide for future trips with my enterprise.  The truth is Dawa effectively addressed my health issue on the trail and I commend her for her effort.  But as I trekked with her, I also couldn't help but notice her lack of attentiveness on the trail.  On a number of occasions over multiple days, she deliberately walked ahead of me without keeping me in view.  As someone who's guided and led trips for years, in my mind, this could lead to safety issues with clients or the people that I'm guiding or leading.  As a guide, I have routinely made sure to keep my clients in view especially if they're ill or suffering in some kind of way on the trail.  On day four of our trek, as I walked towards our camp for the night, Dawa proceeded so far ahead of me that I was left walking by myself to the camp for the last 25 minutes of the hike.  Dawa was already settled at the camp when I arrived.  

When I asked Dawa to consider the idea of ensuring constant monitoring of the clients for safety reasons, she yelled back angrily, "Don't tell me about your complaint. Tell the agency about it."  Dawa didn't want to hear it.  Although my intention was to give Dawa constructive criticism, she opted to take it more as an insult.  She went on to say, "If you don't want me as a guide, then find someone else for your company!"  Dawa was convinced that as a guide of 10 years, she didn't need to be corrected in any shape or form.  In her own words, she's "perfect" as a guide. I challenged her notion by asking if she would consider the critique as a way to become better as a guide which she refused to consider.  The entire confrontation was surreal as it was the first among the many interactions I've had with men and women alike in the guiding world that resulted in a negative encounter.   Eventually, the situation deescalated by virtue of Dawa and I agreeing to stay silent for the rest of the time we had on the trail.  

I walked the rest of the four hours on the trail pondering over what just happened and mulling over the uncomfortable feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, disappointment and anger, all wrapped into one.  My mission to find that woman in Bhutan to lead treks had dissolved into nothingness.  I asked myself how I could have offended Dawa to this extent when the purpose of the comment was to simply help her become the best female guide on the mountain trails.

And then, at that moment, I questioned my own notion of women empowerment. 

What exactly does this mean in my world?  Am I just seeking a woman who has the basic guiding skills and nothing more?  What standard and criteria am I actually looking at to define the female guides for my social enterprise?  And more importantly, am I imposing expectations on Dawa based on my definition of a guide that is highly influenced by western standards?  Am I acting like one of those (white male) westerners imposing their standards by way of controlling the locals' ability to operate in the manner they choose to in such an industry?  But when I looked down on my skin, I'm as brown as Dawa.  But even so, could I have become as desensitized as any western person who partly aims to create economic opportunities in this foreign land?  Would I settle for a female guide who doesn't believe in professional development or self-improvement?  Is Dawa merely a woman who gets by as a guide despite lacking true passion for her job, the appropriate temperament for the job and excellent guiding skills? Is that the kind of female guide that I would want to represent the women empowerment notion of my social enterprise?  Did I have the right to critique her without being invited to do so?  

No matter the answers to the questions above, I knew I was walking a fine line.  To give a woman the opportunity based merely on her being a woman without the requisite skills is no better than denying a woman the job based on her gender.  And yet, in such a big world that we live in, it is safer to say there really is no one way to define and implement women empowerment.  In Nepal and India, women empowerment came in the form of women launching their own trekking agencies that hire only women.  In the Philippines, women created a community-led organization to oversee mountain guides, both men and women.  In the U.S., women empowerment in the outdoors pertain to visibility in the media and an increase of female CEOs and managers in outdoor companies and organizations. 

If anything, I merely scratched the surface to discovering the depth of the meaning behind women empowerment in the trekking tourism industry.  With the nuances of the various cultures and politics involved in the countries that I explore to promote women empowerment, it's becoming more evident how challenging it is to zero in on a true definition of empowerment.  In some instances, providing women the financial resources to attend guiding school does not empower women necessarily unless there is a way to sustain the structure in which women are able to advance themselves and become guides.  Foreign entities such as my enterprise must be mindful of the tendency to enable and create a band-aid approach that will only create a dependency from the women themselves versus establishing a system whereby women are self-sufficient and empowered to avail themselves of the opportunities.  Combine that notion with the need to balance my role as an outsider entering the country to advance the status of women at the risk of changing the cultural and gender dynamics of the locals, the entire process is inherently filled with systemic challenges that will require in depth consideration of the most effective and yet least intrusive approach.  At this juncture, my journey towards finding the right definition of women empowerment is filled with questions that will rely upon further experiences, explorations, reflections and time for solid answers.

As a woman, I have been questioned countless of times as to my ability.  Over and over again, I had to prove my qualifications for opportunities that came my way.  Being an entrepreneur is no exception to this.  I've been used to the critiques for far too long that it became second nature for me to prove to the naysayers that I'm qualified for the job notwithstanding my being a woman.  Hence, if I'm being questioned and in response I have no escape from it but to deliver excellence, then is it fair for me to expect the same of Dawa?  

In this case, whose version of empowerment is right?  It turns out Dawa, not I, had the answer ---

If I'm not happy with her guiding skills, I shouldn't hire her for the job.  Part of me wanted to hire her but I won't.  And I didn't.