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Love and lust in Bhutan

At first there is disbelief. Then hesitation. Night hunting is not something the average urban Bhutanese wishes to discuss. And certainly not with a journalist.

But — perhaps because I come from a country which has enough strange-to-foreign-eyes customs and traditions of its own — there is a slow unfolding. And finally a willingness to share. Reactions range from shamefaced admissions and denials to a vociferous defence of what is an age-old tradition.

What’s true is that night hunting exists — in both new and old forms.

To begin at the beginning, night hunting does not really imply hunting at night. Originally called Bomena, the custom in rural eastern Bhutan was a way of allowing courtship between two consenting parties. Boys, and even grown men, would scale the first floor of a girl’s house to spend the night in her bed.

Often a girl would leave a window or door unlatched for her suitor. The dark was a perfect cloak, and often the visitor would leave before the cock crowed and the family woke up. If caught, he would close the circle by marrying the girl and moving into her house. Even otherwise, marriage or a life together could follow. And even when an errant suitor abandoned a girl after she got pregnant, there was no real stigma attached. The girl would find another man who would accept her and her child as his own.

“When I was in high school, my male classmates used to go night hunting,” admits Lily Wangchhuk, who has been a diplomat and is now executive director of the newly founded Bhutan Media Foundation. “Yes, there were cases of some making women pregnant, in which case they had to pay a penalty to the family, like digging up a field, or agreeing to get married.”

There was, she adds, little stigma attached to the practice. “But it was and is a practice restricted to the east.”

Stories abound of men on night hunting sorties. The lone “hunter” out seeking a tryst with his chosen love was not always the norm. Groups of young men would prowl the village, entering chosen homes; the group decimating as each dropped off to climb into a selected house.

Not all met with success, though. Sometimes a wrong choice, a mistake in the location of the bed or a noisy landing could wake the household, and a hasty retreat would be the only way to escape paternal ire. Not that it stopped the thwarted from venturing out at the next available opportunity.

But today, things have changed, along with attitudes. Urbanisation and social norms coming in from outside, now that the doors of the country have been opened to an extent, make for new ripples in a custom that once reflected a pastoral way of life.

Steel latches on doors, and metal locks keep hunters out and the damsels in. Changing social norms, where dating has come into the open, and where the law demands a father’s name for a child to enter school, make night hunting with its risks less attractive for women.

A debate is on in Bhutan on whether the custom should continue. Male chauvinism, once seen as something to be taken for granted, is under scrutiny. Questions are being asked if every night hunt is indeed consensual.

But even as the rest of Bhutan, especially its still infant media, grapples with the ethical and social aspects of night hunting in a part of the country that is geographically and still socially distant from the capital where most of the media reside, the practice has morphed to include new, more fearsome aspects.

“There is so much migration to the towns,” says an Indian observer who prefers to remain unnamed, “that the villages hardly have any men left.” To top it, he adds, the sexual urge is one that cannot be ignored.

He explains that the corruption of the practice started when city-based officials or professionals on postings to east Bhutan found themselves attracted to the beautiful eastern women, who in turn allowed the men liberties thanks to either their implicit faith in an old custom or because they dreamt of a new life.

“Women thus often become easy prey. And end up abandoned and destitute more often than not.”

Ugyen Tenzin, editor of Bhutan Today, elaborates further. “Some decades ago there was a system of offering a pretty girl along with food and drink and presents to a visiting dignitary from the government. Today, things have changed, and the officials are given strict instructions not to indulge (in the practice). I know, because I have toured with ministers and we are all told not to drink, or indulge in night hunts.”

But the custom hasn’t come to an end. “Chemistry is a powerful thing, and the village girls are so pretty and vulnerable. We go there, we drink, we are tired, then it could happen... The girls say no, but often the no is not serious. Sometimes a relationship develops. The girl takes down the man’s mobile number, they keep in touch. Sometimes it leads to a marriage. And sometimes it could lead to a married man getting divorced by his wife. It all happens very smoothly, there are no cases of rape or violence,” says Tenzin.

Inside her spacious office, Chimi Wangmo, executive director of Renew, a foundation which helps empower and rehabilitate women in distress across Bhutan, voices a much stronger view on the issue.

“Consensual is a tricky thin line — the tricky part is knowing how the girl consents. What are the circumstances? Often she gives in hoping for a new life, but like in the Hindi films she is left pregnant and abandoned, and heartbroken.”

In many cases, she adds, the family comes to her aid. The village headman is told of the case, and a family male lends his name to the child, so he or she gets access to schooling and other rights of a citizen.

“It is when a girl is poor or does not have family support that the real issue comes up. If a girl is the unacknowledged child of a night hunt and is living with relatives like an orphan, she could well be “offered” to a rich visiting official, in the hope of favours from him, or a chance he will take her away with him. It never really works out that way, and the vicious cycle is repeated if the girl gets pregnant.”

To educate and protect women, Renew has volunteers in each of the country’s 20 districts, and the network allows anyone to call for help. Police are also being trained to be sensitive on gender-based issues.

Trying to give illegitimate children their rights, Renew also offers DNA testing if a mother is able to identify the father of her child and legal aid. At the city centre, tickets to Gawa, The Other Side of the Moon are sold out. It is Renew’s production, a full-length feature film on the negative fallout of night hunting as a practice.

The crowd outside the theatre includes both men and women. I wonder if this is the beginning of a change.