One impossibly beautiful and wet Sunday afternoon in Thimphu a few weeks ago, I tucked my beloved-if-battered camera into my waterproof jacket, and walked over to The Zone, a cafe close to my hotel. Over coffee, crispy fries and conversations, I was hoping to resolve some niggling questions I had about gender dynamics in Bhutan.
In the time I had spent in the Himalayan nation, I had met sexually liberated women, matriarchs and feisty women entrepreneurs. Driving in to my hotel in Thimphu, I was aghast to see young Bhutanese women coming to collect my bags. I had overpacked, fearing the cold, and was sheepish about having them carry needlessly heavy bags. But the girls were as graceful as they were tough, and hauled my bags in with an effortless elegance.
"[I]t was hard for me to acknowledge that women in this country faced what women elsewhere in the world did. It didn't add up."
Women, I was told over many conversations over sumptuous dinners of ema datshi and the potent Druk 1100 beer, have traditionally had the upper hand in Bhutan. An expat implant I met at Mojo Park, one of the most vibrant nightspots in Thimphu, joked that he once thought of making a calendar dedicated to the city's fiercely independent women and calling it the "Man-Eaters of Thimphu".
And yet, the latest Gross National Happiness survey findings reveal that women are less happy than men -- consistent with the 2010 survey findings. Only three women are elected members of the current Parliament, compared to the seven elected in the first session.
There are reports of domestic violence from across the country, and even more shockingly, many women condone it. A recent national study found that nearly seven out of 10 women thought their husbands had a right to beat them if they went out without telling them, argued with them, refused to have sex with them or burnt food.
Maybe it was the endorphin-inducing walks with the clouds hovering above me and the Shangri-La stereotype that Bhutan is associated with, but it was hard for me to acknowledge that women in this country faced what women elsewhere in the world did. It didn't add up.
I turned to my coffee date to make sense of the dichotomy. As the owner and publisher of Yeewong, Bhutan's only women's magazine, Pema Choden Tenzin has seen it all: being called a "glossy" magazine editor to not being taken seriously when she wore makeup and heels to meetings.
I asked Pema to repeat her recent performance that illustrated this sexism at Mountain Echoes, an annual literary festival in the country. I wanted to photograph it, because I thought it was a fascinating statement on social stereotypes.
She obliged and attempted to "de-glamourise" herself.
Pema Choden Tenzin, owner and publisher of Bhutan's only women's magazine.
Tying her long straight hair back, Pema took off her favourite pair of earrings (which I was delighted to hear were from Bengaluru). Next, she reached out for her bag and took out an old pair of glasses --her father's, she said -- and wore them. She didn't have a pair of heels to kick off her feet that Sunday, else that would have been part of her performance.
Staring back at me was a bespectacled face -- quite a transformation from how she had looked only minutes ago. To my mind, she appeared even more attractive. To many others, she said, she looked more "serious" and therefore more credible.
"People think just because you wear makeup, just because you like to have your hair done in a certain way -- you are a bimbo. And I've had that attitude towards me not just from men but also women," explained Pema.
Pema grew up thinking there were equal opportunities for men and women in Bhutan. But she began to question her ideas while in college. As a girl's captain at Sherubtse College, the top college in Bhutan, she thought she'd be helping women articulate themselves. Instead, she found herself responsible for making sure there was tea for everyone at college events.
"Bhutan fares better than India, Pakistan and Bangladesh on the gender inequality index... this may be one of the reasons that women in Bhutan think that things aren't quite as bad for them."
Not surprisingly, a 2010 study in Sherubtse College found that only 29% of men thought that discrimination against women was a serious concern, compared to nearly half of all the women. Women overwhelmingly thought that there needed to be changes in the country to give them equal rights.
I struggled to reconcile the image of the free and empowered Bhutanese woman with what Pema and the stats told me. Pema diagnosed the root of my confusion. "The whole idea of Bhutanese women being matriarchs and women having all these opportunities... I don't think you grew up seeing too much of that in India."
Sure enough, Bhutan fares better than India, Pakistan and Bangladesh on the gender inequality index. Some think that this may be one of the reasons that women in Bhutan think that things aren't quite as bad for them. (Although it's also not the most gender sensitive nation in Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka and Myanmar have raced ahead of Bhutan on that parameter.)
"I would say we are do kadam agay (two steps ahead), literally," says Chador Wangmo, a children's book writer who recently wrote the novel La Ama, which delves into dark themes of incest, domestic violence and the abuse of girls at the hands of their teachers and family. "We, Bhutanese women, have remained complacent because we feel we are on a higher pedestal when compared to women in other countries."
But why does the world's happiest country have these problems? One of the biggest challenges, says Tandin Wangmo of the NGO RENEW, is that few want to admit that there is a problem. "We have this notion of a Gross National Happiness country... We are the happiest nation in the world. So in a happy nation, nothing can go wrong. That's not true. Like any other society in the world, we have our own challenges," says Tandin. Her organisation RENEW sees a new case of domestic violence walking into its office every day.
Hearteningly, women like Pema, Chador and Tandin and many others are speaking up. While the country's young government is working on bringing more women to colleges, elected offices and the workplace, many of Bhutan's women themselves are determined to change mindsets.
As Tandin says, "When men say they are kyep phoja (lucky enough to be born as a man), I say I am kyep mojha (lucky enough to be born as a woman). There is nothing wrong with being a woman -- I am proud of being a woman."
The writer was in Bhutan on the invitation of Mountain Echoes.
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