News that a team of Tibetan women would enter a men’s soccer tournament last May sent ripples of excitement through this sleepy hill station at the foot of the Himalayas. There was also some disapproval.
Even Tibetans who have long lived in exile retain some conservative cultural views, says José Cabezón, Dalai Lama chair professor of Tibetan Buddhism and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Tibetan women have always had a considerable and powerful role within the family, but less so in society," said Cabezón. "The patterns that existed tend to be preserved and change is not easily won in society.”
Cassie Childers is the 31-year-old teacher from New Jersey whose vision of the team one day playing in the Olympics is the driving force behind Tibetan women’s soccer.
She says Tibetan men already have a national team and the Tibetan government-in-exile offers broad funding for boys’ school clubs.
“But there was nothing for the girls," said Childers. "So we had two aims. The first is to empower all Tibetan women. The second, very political, is to form Tibet’s first women’s national team, training our players to speak their truth, to tell the world about Tibet, as a tool for peace.”
Many of the young women selected for the team were born inside Tibet and had walked with their parents across the Himalayas to escape Chinese rule.
Many had never kicked a soccer ball before. To play their first match in the Gyalyum Chemo Memorial Gold Cup, players from nine schools in the Diaspora trained intensely for a month.
Childers says as soon as the tournament began, questions about the team’s credibility seemed to fade, along with any opposition to women’s participation in competitive sports.
“There were 5,000 Tibetans in attendance," she said. "When they saw our team walk onto that ground, something shifted. You could see this is something real. This is something big.”
And, then shortly after the second half began, Lhamo Kyi scored the first goal in the history of Tibetan women’s soccer.
“This girl kicked the ball in the net and then ran into the middle of the ground and did a flip," said Childers. "And, that was the moment history changed. I never heard another [negative] comment.”
Like other young footballers around the world, team captain Lhamo and star midfielder Phuntsok Dolma aspire to the success achieved by heroes like British footballer David Beckham.
But a sense of responsibility, removed from the hype and money of the professional game, infuses the girls’ discussion of football. Dolma’s dream is to become a coach, like Childers.
“People say Tibetan women can never do what men can do," said Dolma. "But [we have shown] we can. In Tibet women don’t get any opportunities. So I will teach them and say to them, ‘You must never give up. You can take this opportunity.’”
Sarah Rosemann of Williams College, Massachusetts, is conducting a study on women in Tibetan society. She sees significant gains being made in gender equality, but offers some caution.
"Women are standing up like this; starting to demand the men’s roles and to get involved in really pursuing their independence," said Rosemann. "A lot of that comes from being exposed to different ideas while in Diaspora. But, there is a lot more objectivization of women, as well.”
Although they may not have won the tournament, Coach Cassie and her players have already won broader victories.
By 2017 - emulating the Palestinian men’s team that has twice played against China - these young Tibetan women hope to achieve full international status from soccer governing body, FIFA.