Traditional Bhutanese archery is for men only – even though the country’s women archers have had great success in the modern sport. As Michelle Jana Chan reports, Olympic archer Dorji Dema is assembling a team of women to put this right.
I hope I’ve got the right house… I walk past a potato patch to the front door. There’s no knocker, so I call out. Dorji Dema appears at the doorway, a visibly toned and youthful 35-year-old in a tight orange T-shirt. She’s an archer, and archery is Bhutan’s national sport.
Long associated with victories over invading forces, archery has been practised for centuries here. Most villages have at least one range and contests are integral to the numerous religious festivals.
As I travelled across Bhutan, inside its monasteries and temples I’d seen statues and paintings of figures holding bamboo bows, often pulled back taut, aimed at their enemies. Some were male, others fantastical creatures; none looked anything like the woman in front of me.
Dorji smiles shyly and apologises for her English. Shorter than me, with a friendly smile and her hair tied back with a ribbon, she doesn’t fill me with fear, but Bhutanese men quake when she lifts her weapon.
I remove my shoes and enter her home. A wall is covered with certificates, medals and security passes from international archery competitions – in venues from Thailand to Sri Lanka – and there are polished trophies on a shelf.
“It’s not the winning, of course,” Dorji says. “It’s the participating.”
“Surely not,” I reply sceptically. “You must have wanted to win.”
She shakes her head. That’s very Bhutanese. Not a lack of ambition or passion, but congeniality, the sense of the collaborative.
- From Our Own Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
- Listen on iPlayer, get the podcast or listen on the BBC World Service, or on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30 and Thursdays at 11:00
Tournaments in Bhutan are often as much about fun as the frenzy of competing. They are accompanied by raucous singing, boo-ing, cheering, dancing and sometimes even heavy drinking by contestants. Archery is much more than just a sport.
“Will you teach me?” I ask Dorji. We’d planned a lesson.
She bounces off to get her Recurve, the model they use at the Olympics, which has a trigger to release the bow. She grabs a sheaf of arrows, and we head out to the garden. I hadn’t noticed the strip of land, flanked by a muddy bank, which serves as her practice ground. She usually shoots from 50m, but we move much closer to the target for my sake.
She talks me through the action. Lift the bow. Pull your arm back completely. Keep the bowstring close to your cheek.
I’ve always thought of myself as pretty strong, and I’m eager to try. But my left arm soon starts to shake with the strain. We giggle. I struggle to pull back the string. In a last-ditch effort I roar as I might at the gym, trying to lift one last weight. The arrow flies towards the target.
“Six points,” Dorji says, beaming.
It was a fluke. I get steadily worse with each try until I can barely lift the bow, let alone take aim.
Dorji shoots 20 arrows, one after another. They cluster around the bulls eye so tightly they look like one entity.
As the light fades, we head inside. We’re cooking dinner together and I’m spending the night – Dorji now runs a homestay.
Sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, we chop radishes and spring onions. One of her three children runs past, calling out a cheerful hello. I notice the girl’s age and glance up at the dates on the certificates on the wall.
Dorji nods knowingly, and explains that it wasn’t easy. In 2005, she was seven months pregnant when she competed in South Korea. Every time she took aim, the baby moved. She laughs.
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008 she was three months pregnant and admits it was dreadful.
“I couldn’t eat anything. I was throwing up all the time,” she says.
“But although the baby makes you physically weaker, your mind is stronger. And the stronger your mind is, the less you shake.”
I turn to Dorji’s mother, who’s been watching television in a corner.
“You must be proud of your daughter?”
“I’m proud of her because she’s made lots of money,” she guffaws. “She was the one who fixed the roof of this old house, not my son-in-law.”
Everyone laughs – Dorji’s husband, too. He’s obviously used to her tongue.
I ask Dorji if she’ll try for another Olympics?
“I’d love to,” she says. “I watch all the competitions on YouTube.”
Her more immediate goal, though, is to put together an all-female team for a tournament in Bhutan next year. Dorji says women are excluded from the traditional discipline, where the distance to the target is 145m. Instead they’re mostly seen on the sidelines – as cheerleaders, and the ones who bring food to competitors and taunt the opposition.
Dorji wants to change that.
“In the past, women weren’t even allowed to touch a bow. It was considered bad luck,” she says. “But now we should be equal.”