Thai Buddhist Women, 'Bare Life' and Bravery


  • Barbara Kameniar The University of Melbourne



Thai Buddhist Women, Mae Chii, Agamben


This paper addresses the ambiguous position of the largest group of Buddhist renunciant women in Thailand today, the mae chii. It provides a brief historical overview of the position of renunciant women in Buddhism more generally before taking up the case of the mae chii. While the mae chii are often represented as subordinate women who are suppressed by the current legal and religious systems in Thailand, this paper attempts to offer a different reading of their current position through the lens of Georgio Agamben’s notion of homo sacer. The paper draws on research literature and interviews undertaken in 2007 and 2008 to make the case that it is possible to not only see “mae chii” as a submissive category but as a subversive one too.

Author Biography

Barbara Kameniar, The University of Melbourne

Barbara Kameniar lectures in Curriculum Studies and, Teaching and Learning in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. Her research interests include an Thai Buddhist women, ordination debates and education; Religious Education; Indigenous Education.


Agamben, Giorgio 1998 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Bowring, Sir John 1969 The Kingdom and People of Siam, 2 vols., facsimile reprint of the 1857 ed., with an Introduction by David K. Wyatt. Oxford in Asia historical reprints, Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.

Cook, Nerida 1981 The Position of Nuns in Thai Buddhism: The Parameter of Religious Recognition. MA thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.

Ekachai, Sanitsuda 2008 Thailand: Little Hope for Nuns in New Draft Bill. Buddhist Channel, May 8.

Falk, Monica Lindberg 2000 Women in Between: Becoming Religious Persons in Thailand. In Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women, edited by Ellison Banks Findly, 37-57. Wisdom Publications, Boston.

Making Fields of Merit: Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Order in Thailand. NIAS Press, Copenhagen.

Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn 1991 Thai Women in Buddhism. Parallax Press, Berkley, CA.

Kameniar, Barbara 1993 Shifting the Focus: A Small Group of Thai Mae Chii in a Semi-Rural Wat. MA thesis, University of South Australia, Adelaide.

Rurality, Ordination Debates and Thai Mae Chii. Paper presented at the International Congress of the Position of Women in the Sangha, July, University of Hamburg.

La Loubère, Simon de 1969 [1691] The Kingdom of Siam [translation of Du Royaume de Siam], facsimile reprint of the 1693 London edition of A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam, with an Introduction by David K. Wyatt. Oxford in Asia historical reprints. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.

Mills, Catherine 2004 Agamben’s Messianic Politics: Biopolitics, Abandonment and Happy Life. Contretemps 5: 42-62.

Pratt, Geraldine 2005 The 2005 AAG Antipode Lecture: Abandoned Women and Spaces of the Exception. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 37(5): 1052-78.

Robinson, Richard H., and Willard L. Johnson 1977 The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. Wadsworth Publishing Co., Belmont, CA.

Terweil, Barend J. 1975 Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand. Curzon Press, London.

Van Esterik, Penny 1982 Laywomen in Theravada Buddhism. In Women of Southeast Asia, edited by Penny Van Esterik, 55-78. Center for Southeast Asia Monograph Series. Northern Illinois University Press, Dekalb, IL



How to Cite

Kameniar, B. (2010). Thai Buddhist Women, ’Bare Life’ and Bravery. Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, 22(3), 281–294.



Penny Magee Memorial Lecture