Women archery team defy gender norms and compete against men

Against all odds, a group of women archers are taking part in a renowned local archery competition in Thimphu. Their challenge not only remains in defying gender norms but also going against age-old beliefs.

The team is named 12 Women based on the number of members in their group.  They are led by 33-year-old Tandin Pem who has been playing the sport for about six years now. Tandin says it all started in 2019 after she opened a commercial archery range at Kabesa. Right after opening her business, the Covid-19 pandemic struck. And with hardly any customers, she says she started playing with the archers and that is how her love for playing archery blossomed.

Despite the advancements in time, she says many women still do not take interest in playing archery. Among high costs and busy schedules, Tandin says social stigma and lack of support from the public are also some of the discouraging factors.

“All of us love playing archery. There are very few women archers, so we can’t get female opponents. For some, even though they are interested, they lack the courage to come forward and play. So we have no option but to play against men. But getting the chance to take part in this competition and play against the men is an opportunity we are enjoying,” said Tandin Pem, Captain.

Tandin says although she hasn’t faced any discrimination herself, some of her friends have experienced them. But she says she doesn’t care for such remarks and will continue playing the sport she loves.

On the other hand, Pema Dolma from Wangdue Phodrang has come across people who are against women playing archery.

“When we play friendly matches and post some of the video clips on TikTok, people criticise us and say that this will lead to misfortunes like landslides and flash floods in the country. But despite all this, none of us are discouraged. We are instead more interested than before and want to take part in more competitions,” said Pema Dolma, a team member.

41-year-old Dorji Dema from Paro is one of the more experienced players in the team. The mother of three already took part in a local tournament in 2018. She was the only female participant then. Dorji also represented the country and competed in several international recurve archery tournaments including the Olympics.

“I have been playing using triggers. But in this tournament, we are not allowed to use triggers and instead, we have to use our fingers. If we had time to practice, we could have played better with our fingers,” said Dorji Dema, a participant.

Archery has traditionally been considered a man’s sport with women contributing as either spectators or dancers to entertain the crowd. Some even say there are age-old beliefs forbidding women from playing archery.

But with change in time, Bhutanese mentality also seems to be slowly changing.

“In the past, we heard our elders say that if women play this game, there will be natural calamities in the village. But we haven’t seen any such disaster so far. We say men and women are equal, so I think women playing khuru and archery and that too quite well is something to be proud of,” said Lobzang Wangchuk, archery lover from Paro.

“When we go and watch women playing archery, khuru or degor, we appreciate them. Some play better than men. I haven’t seen women playing degor in Thimphu but in Gelephu there are few women playing degor. They hit the target quite often and watching them play is quite fun,” said Tenzin, archery lover from Gelephu.

In a show of solidarity, the Bhutan Olympic Committee is funding the women’s team in the tournament.

“The Bhutan Olympic committee is supporting them because we want more women compound players to come forward. So that in the future Bhutan will have a proper compound women’s team to participate in the Olympic Games as well as in the World Archery 50 metre compound trigger games,” said Penjor Gyeltshen from Bhutan Olympic Committee.

“It is important to give equal opportunities for both male and female archers. Our country’s policy is also the same and from our side as well we have been providing equal opportunity regardless of gender,” said Tshewang Namgyal, Coordinator of Coronation Silver Jubilee National Archery Tournament from BIGSA.

Tandin and her team lost their opening match and are out of the knockout-style competition. Despite their early exit, the women remain undeterred. They vow to continue their fight against opponents both in the game of archery and in the battle against discrimination.

Karma Wangdi

Edited by Yeshi Gyaltshen 

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