Place: Thimphu, Paro (Bhutan)
Date: Mar 16 to Mar 26, 2015
Interviewee: CNR College’s students (7 male, 4 female; 21 – 30 years old)
During my stay in Bhutan, I interviewed some students from the College of Natural Resources (CNR) about a traditional custom called Bomena, which is what we call “night hunting” today. Bomena is a custom whereby “a boy stealthily enters a girl’s house in the night for courtship with or without prior consultation” (Penjore 2010). In rural areas of Bhutan (the eastern and central part), teenage boys would try to enter the young lady’s bedroom by “sneaking in through the door or climbing up the side of the house to enter the room through the bedroom’s window” without awakening the lady’s parents (Bomena 8). If the girl’s parents caught the boy, he will receive punishment. However, marriage would be arranged if they accepted him. Interestingly, it is the lady who has the right to either accept or reject the boy’s invitation. According to the interview result, seven out of ten students have experienced this custom. Normally the male would ask for an agreement from the female. If the answer was yes, a discussion would ensue such as how to get in, when to turn off the Miniature Circuit Breaker, the timing of unlatching the inner latch of the house and so on. The whole process has to be done in secret, which is quite challenging but exciting.
The purpose of this practice is to meet one’s future partner in order to start a new family. One of the students sees this custom as a sort of game in Bhutanese culture. In essence, the game demonstrates how skillful a man is to win a lady’s heart. It can be seen as similar to what takes place in urban society today where a man tries to win a lady by paying her bills. Bomena is just the rural version of urban dating culture.
Under what circumstances has this dating culture been developed? Due to its geography, Bhutan is isolated from foreign contact and cultural influences. Even though Bhutan’s tourism industry has grown rapidly since 1974, the government continues to impose strong laws on the entrance of foreigners within its borders. This has led to the consequence that the Bhutanese tend to have difficulty with direct communication because they did not have the opportunity to interact with foreigners and people who live in the other parts of Bhutan. As a result, indirect communication is far more developed than direct communication among Bhutanese. In this country, it is not customary to say, “I love you” (Penjore 8). Instead of saying it out loud, Bhutanese tend to express it in another way. In the past, a folksong competition between a man and a woman, known as “tsangmo,” would go on until a winner was decided (Penjore 8). Only if the man won the competition would the woman consider marrying him. Similarly in the context of “night hunting,” the indirect communication between man and woman can be interpreted as follows:
“I’ll come to you tonight” = I love you
“Go for other girls” = I don’t love you
“Will you come always?” = Do you love me?
“I will come tomorrow” = I love you
According to Kinga (2007), it was common for women to inherit land as men moved between villages to meet labor exchange obligations in Bhutan. Therefore, the social activity of Bomena not only met the need of obtaining a sexual partner but was also for the purpose of labor exchange (Culture, Health & Sexuality 296). As to the young women in villages, the ideal husband would be a man who is physically strong and powerful so that the farm works could be taken care of; as to the young men, the physical beauty of a woman becomes the primary condition in finding a partner (Penjore 6).
Recently, Bomena has been criticized as it has increased the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as well as teenage pregnancy, rape, and sexual abuse. Due to those issues, Bomena is regarded as a crime in Bhutan today. Indeed, regulations should be established in order to protect the woman rights. However, evaluations such as “barbaric,” “primitive,” “shameful” should not be applied to this custom. If we can understand Bomena in a proper context, we can appreciate that it is reasonable, functional, and beautiful in its own way. How can the boys and girls interact in the rural areas if this custom is banned? Is there any other practice that can replace this custom in the remote society? These issues should be considered before banning this custom. And if the main reason for banning Bomena was to stop teenage pregnancy, proper sex education is what the government should enforce now. For instance, they should distribute free condoms in the villages and schools and demonstrate how to use them. Among the eleven students that I interviewed, five out of ten learned sex education by talking to friends; two learned from the internet; two out of the ten had never talked about sex with anyone and only two learned from the school. The crucial point I want to make here is that none of them learned from their parents about sex, which means the only way to establish proper sex education, is through the school. As we know the internet is the worst way to learn about sex since there is too much wrong information about sex and watching internet porn can easily implant false ideas towards sex among Bhutanese teenagers.
In conclusion, Bomena deserves to be respected rather than denigrating with negative labels. Again, it is just a rural version of the urban dating culture, which we ought not to discriminate against. While everyone is focusing on the act of Bomena, I am more concerned about the development of sex education in Bhutan. If the government cannot establish proper sex education among teenagers, then the internet should be the thing that is banned in Bhutanese society because there is nothing horrible about the act of sex only the ideology that controls the act.
Dorji, Penjore. “Bomena, a Misunderstood Culture: Contextualizing a Traditional Courtship Custom Practiced in the Villages of Bhutan”. Asian and African Area Studies, 10.1 (2010): 1-12.
Kinga, S. “Reciprocal exchange and community vitality: The case of Gortshom village in eastern Bhutan.” Unpublished paper, the Graduate School of Asian and African Studies at Kyoto University. 2007.
Lorway, R., and Dorji, G., and Bradley, J., and Ramesh, B. M., and Isaac, S., and Blanchard, J. “The Drayang Girls of Thimphu: sexual network formation, transactional sex and emerging modernities in Bhutan.” Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care 13.2 (2011): 293-308.
“Married Act of Bhutan.” Landesa: Rural Development Institute. 1980. Web. 15 June, 2015.