Bhutan | After the Sunset

A traditional practice of courtship draws controversy in modern Bhutan

A traditional two-storey home in central Bhutan. In the practice of bomena, today opposed by many Bhutanese, men climb into women’s homes to woo them. GAYATRI PARAMESWARAN
01 April, 2013

ON FRIDAY NIGHTS, the cafés and restaurants in Norzin Lam—the main street of Bhutan’s capital Thimphu—teem with customers. On one such night in September last year, I met Karma Dorji (name changed on request) and his friend in one such café, to talk about their past lovers over drinks. It was a warm autumn evening, and though Dorji was reticent at first, as the chatter that surrounded us swelled, he let down his guard a little. Nursing his third whisky, he grew nostalgic as he recounted his first time with a woman.

“I was 17 or 18 then and it was so adventurous,” the 34-year-old from Trashigang district in eastern Bhutan said. “I waited for the sun to go down. After it was dark, I stepped out of my home secretly. I fancied a girl who stayed quite far from my home.” It took Dorji over an hour to reach the girl’s place, and it wasn’t an easy journey. “I had to walk through dense forests, and I was praying all the time because the forest is known to host evil spirits,” he said. “But I was dedicated to get to my woman.”

When Dorji reached the girl’s home, he was met with an unpleasant surprise. “I hopped the fence, and when I landed on the other side, a stack of pumpkins came crashing down on me,” he said. “For a moment I thought I was caught entering the house. I thought I was being beaten for breaking in.” Dorji laughed at this memory, and slammed his glass of whiskey on the table.

Dorji was following the traditional Bhutanese custom of courtship known as bomena, in which a man enters a woman’s house surreptitiously, and woos her into bed—or, more accurately, persuades her to let him into her bed. On most occasions, women have little or no idea about the man’s plans to arrive at night. Bomena has of late come under increasing scrutiny as Bhutanese debate whether it is a practice that has outlasted its time, and should be ended. With the negative connotations that bomena now carries, few men today are willing to talk about it, let alone admit to having done it. It took two weeks of making enquiries before I found Dorji, who was willing to share his experiences with me.

“I was very nervous about what would happen if others in the house woke up,” Dorji continued. “I stood outside her door contemplating what to do for about five minutes. I assumed that she would be asleep on the first floor—that’s normally where the girls sleep. And I couldn’t spot a ladder to enter the upper floor.” He had two options, he said—returning, unsuccessful, or knocking on the door. Dorji went quiet for a few seconds, letting the suspense of his story build. “If I knocked, I risked waking up the parents,” he said. “But it was freezing outside and I was too scared to walk back through the forest at night. So I took a chance, and went knock, knock.”

To Dorji’s luck, the girls parents were away, and she answered the door herself. Though she was shy, he recounted, she let him in, and they spent the night together. “She said yes. I was really happy that it all paid off after I’d gone through so much trouble to get there,” Dorji said. He and the girl fell in love, he added, and remained in a steady relationship for the next two years. They parted ways when she became involved with another man, whom she met in a similar fashion.

The story of Dorji’s courtship is not an anomaly even today in most parts of central and eastern Bhutan, where bomena, which in Bhutanese means ‘going towards a woman’ remains practiced by many men. Unsurprisingly for a custom that hinges on secrecy and discretion, the precise nature of bomena varies widely. In a paper published in December 2010 in the Journal of Asian and African Area Studies, Dorji Penjore of the Centre for Bhutan Studies described it as an institution through which people seek partners for marriage. But, Penjore explains, “It can also be as short as a one night affair if coitus is the primary motive.”

The process by which bomena progresses into a public relationship—known as jai do jong (‘coming to the surface’)— begins with the man remaining in the woman’s bed till morning, instead of sneaking back to his own home in the dead of night. This, Penjore writes, “is enough to declare them as husband and wife. They then enter into a different world of adulthood, bear more responsibility, and enjoy higher social standing and status.”

But the practice has increasingly acquired a negative reputation. Among the problems associated with it, notes Penjore, are the exploitation of rural people by urban, the exploitation of women by men, the increased tendency toward promiscuity, the spread of venereal diseases, and the increase in the number of illegitimate children, teenage pregnancies and single mothers. In the modern context, bomena has come to be known by the ominous term ‘night hunting’.

Tashi Dema, a Bhutanese journalist who won a national award for a story about the subject, told me she is opposed to the practice, pointing out that in many cases, bomena turns to rape. “I have heard testimonies of women who have been forced into sex,” Dema said. “The women claimed that some men would barge into their homes and refuse to leave even after being beaten.”

Dema herself was born and raised in a small village in Trongsa district, in central Bhutan. During her childhood and adolescence, bomena was a norm, not an exception. The custom goes on even today. “I was fortunate to never have been ‘night-hunted’,” she said. “I left the village when I was young for getting schooled. But all the women who stayed behind had to face it. It is a reality until today.” Though never revealed in the census, Dema said 60-70 percent of the children from her generation were born out of wedlock, and remain unclaimed by their fathers. “I have met these children and they’ve often told me that they wish they had a father,” she said.

Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW), a women’s rights group based in Thimphu has been conducting surveys over the past two years to document the number of children born out of wedlock in Bhutan. “In a survey in one district with a population of few thousands, we found out that 700 children were born out of wedlock,” said Chimi Wangmo, RENEW’s executive director.

The organisation, which was established by Bhutan’s royal family, has been working to register fatherless children, to enable them to access basic social facilities like health and education. “In order to register a child in Bhutan, you need to have information about the biological father as well as the mother,” Wangmo said. “In many cases of night hunting, we cannot even trace the father’s whereabouts.”

Wangmo explained that the organisation isn’t against tradition, but against the exploitation that occurs in the name of tradition. “The traditional form of courtship began transforming with urbanisation and modernisation,” she said. “Men from urban areas began going to rural areas to seek sex from women and never turned back to see the impact their philandering left.” The women who are exploited by night hunting are often incapable of seeking legal remedies for redressal because they are unaware of their legal rights—RENEW supports them in these efforts too. While there is no law that directly safeguards women from night hunting, the Domestic Violence Bill, currently being discussed in the Bhutanese parliament, will offer stronger support for the victims, if passed as a law. Currently, under the Bhutanese penal code, there is no law that safeguards women against domestic violence or abuse by family members or intimate partners.

RENEW’s efforts aren’t limited to counselling and supporting women. “We have male volunteers who go from village to village and educate the men about the ill-effects of a custom like this,” Wangmo said. The organisation also helped produce a feature film in April 2012 about the night hunting culture, called Gawa, directed by Chand RC. The director said that though the film has educated lots of young audiences about the evils attached to the custom, it has also attracted some criticism. “Some sections of the society have criticised the film as being biased against men, but my job is to tell a story and tell it well,” he said. Chand added that Bhutanese people view Bhutanese society as being gender neutral, which made his job of highlighting gender-based discrimination difficult.

While efforts to combat exploitation in the name of bomena continue, the culture itself has changed with the times in much of Bhutan. Technology has played a role in rendering the practice somewhat redundant. With the advent of electricity, men find it increasingly difficult to sneak into women’s houses without being noticed. Mobile phones have allowed young couples to make appointments for meeting late at night. Television and the internet have introduced Western ideas of dating.

Today, in urban centres like Thimphu, bomena doesn’t exist. Most women I spoke to in Thimphu said they had heard of night-hunting, but never experienced it themselves. Men are almost equally reluctant to talk about it.

But back in the café, many more drinks down, Dorji said, “It gives me a nostalgic feeling—talking about those days and those experiences. It was alright then, you know. It wasn’t wrong.” Dorji is aware of the discussions around night hunting today, and said he doesn’t approve of the practice anymore. “I know what the implications are of night hunting. It harms society. It doesn’t bring anything positive,” he said, wagging his finger. He looked at his watch and announced that he had to go home. “I wish I’d known better then,” he said as he gulped down his last drink.