"Thank you for giving me life and please forgive my mistakes," says Sunanta, 29, weeping at her mother's feet. She is taking part in a ceremony that would-be clergy must go through as part of their ordination.

Today, 28 women, between the ages of 13 and 69, have come to Songdhammakalyani temple, on the outskirts of Bangkok, to affirm, under a scorching sun, their vows and their desire to become bhikkhunis, the ancient Pali term for the female equivalent of a monk.

After having their heads and eyebrows shaved, and taking on the saffron robe, they gather around Venerable Dhammananda, the female abbot of the temple, a very young looking 71-year-old with a serene, radiant face. Together they recite the sacred precepts of Buddhism: "I shall not kill, I shall not lie, etc …" in Pali and Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu languages reserved for the clergy. They have been studying and training for this day - for up to two years in the case of those attaining the highest degree of ordination.

According to senior monks in Thailand, however, all their efforts have been for nothing; bhikkhunis are "illegitimate".

"It is not a question about fair or unfair," says Phra Tepvisutthikawee, the abbot of the Wat Rajadhives Viharn temple and secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand, "it is just not permitted under the dhamma vinaya [rules to be followed by monks and nuns] to ordain women."

BHIKKHUNIS AND FEMALEsamaneris (novices) existed in the time of the Buddha, according to several historical sources. In the scriptures, the Buddha, reluctant at first, finally ordains his foster mother, Queen Mahapajapati, along with 500 other women, among whom is his own wife, Yasodhara.

"Buddhism is a religion with no gender," asserts Dhammananda. "Lord Buddha said that women too can be enlightened, isn't that beautiful? No other religion established equality between men and women so boldly.

"For me, the Buddha is the greatest feminist of all time."

No one denies that men and women have an equal chance to attain enlightenment and, in Mahayana Buddhism, practised in Taiwan, the mainland, Hong Kong and Tibet, female ordinations are common, but in countries that adhere to the Theravada branch of the religion, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, women were banned from becoming ordained about eight centuries ago, "for fear that women entering monastic life instead of bearing children would be a disruption of social order", explains Kittipong Narit, a Buddhist scholar at Thammasat University, in Bangkok.

Today, the argument against female ordination is essentially a formal one: according to the monastic rules, a bhikkhuni must be ordained by both male and female monks from unbroken lineages. Since the female Theravada line was cut 800 or so years ago, a woman can no longer be legitimately ordained.

Several attempts to revive the order of bhikkhunis have been met with severe repression. In 1928, Narin Klueng, a Thai politician and Buddhist activist, had two of his daughters ordained. The public were outraged and the experiment had a brutal conclusion when, a few months after the ceremony, one of the sisters was kidnapped while on her morning alms round and raped. A decree from the Supreme Sangha - the highest Buddhist authority in Thailand - forbidding monks to ordain women followed.

In Thai society, it is believed that having a son enter monkhood, even for a few days, ensures a better reincarnation for his mother; those who have only daughters often worry about their next life. Girls can only show their gratitude to their parents by financially taking care of them in their later days, in this life.

Women can nevertheless become nuns, known as mae jii. These female monastics also shave their heads but wear a white robe and live in the vicinity of a temple, under the authority of a monk. Many of them poorly educated, mae jii serve as maids to the monks. As laywomen, they are not considered to be members of the clergy and do not enjoy the same level of recognition as their male counterparts - they do not have seats reserved for them on public transport, for instance.

"It is a common belief in our society that women who chose to be nuns had a broken heart or some kind of dark secret to run from," says Kanchana Kanharat, a philosophy student in Bangkok, "not that they are looking for spiritual elevation."

Nunneries also play the role of retirement homes for elderly women who do not have a family willing to take care of them.

ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, Dhammananda, born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, decided it was time for a change. She comes from a line of female monastics: her grandmother was a mae jii, her mother a journalist who went to Taiwan to become fully ordained in the Mahayana sect. When she returned to Thailand, her mother transformed the family home into a temple and Chatsumarn grew up around meditation sessions and feminist meetings.

"Everybody was expecting me to become a nun," says Dhammananda, "but I wanted to have my own life."

Instead she went to India and Canada, to study religion and philosophy, learned Putonghua, got married, raised three sons and ended up anchoring a television show in Thailand about Buddhist practices.

"We were a very popular show," she recalls, proudly. "We even won an award for best religious programme."

As a TV anchor she would spend long hours on her hair and make-up, painting her nails and choosing her clothes carefully, a burden from which she is happy to have been released: "With nothing to choose from, the mind is less concerned … now I only have to consider that if one set of [saffron] robes is wet, the other must be dry."

Nevertheless, the seductive personality, dazzling smile and natural ease in handling foreign media remain from her TV days.

In 1983, after attending a conference on religion and social changes at Harvard University, in the United States, "I felt the need to do more. I had all the knowledge about bhikkhunis and yet nothing was changing in my country, because I was in my ivory tower," she says. "That's when I decided to become an activist."

Dhammananda became increasingly passionate about reintroducing bhikkhunis to Thailand and mulled over the idea of becoming one. First, though, she had to let go of a successful career, a husband and three sons.

"[One of the sons] always says that he is the one who had to make the biggest sacrifice. 'I had to sacrifice my mother,' he says … He complains about not being able to hug me or touch me anymore," she says.

Dhammananda does see her family but, just as Thai monks are not supposed to come into contact with a member of the opposite sex, even those from their own family, so bhikkhunis cannot touch any man or boy.

Finally, in 2000, she went to seek ordination in Sri Lanka, a Theravada Buddhist country in which the female order was successfully revived in 1998, and returned to Thailand as the first fully ordained Theravada bhikkhuni the country had seen in eight centuries.

Dhammananda started ordaining women with liberal monks by her side, facing harsh criticism from both laypeople and religious leaders.

"When I have to go to public toilets, like in the airport, for instance," she explains half-jokingly, "women try to indicate where the men's room is but, when they realise I am a woman, some become very critical. It's OK, because for me these are occasions to explain myself. The opposition to female monks is merely a question of ignorance."

Dhammananda has ordained more than 500 women. Working alongside thousands of Mahayana bhikkhunis, they are involved in social work, women's prisons and family counselling, as well as more traditional religious duties, and they are sustained by public donations.

Judging by recent press coverage and the reactions on internet forums, Thais seem to be coming around to the idea of bhikkhunis.

"I think it is time for Thai society to open up on this topic," says a female TV journalist covering the ordinations. "In secondary school, girls are often more drawn to meditation than boys. We should give them the opportunity to develop."

THE WIDESPREAD ORDINATION of women could have direct consequences on their living standards, starting with their education. Temple schools in Thailand give boys from impoverished families an education their families cannot afford.

By contrast, "girls from rural backgrounds have few choices", says Ouyporn Khuankaew, founder of International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice, an NGO focusing on Buddhism and feminism issues. "They can become a maid, a factory worker or a prostitute."

Opening temples to girls would mean free education for them, too.

Middle-class women, meanwhile, are looking for something more than a general education.

"We want to have access to the same knowledge as men, to study Buddhism deeply, not a simplified version for women, like the one they provide to nuns," says Dhammanata, a former taxi driver, who is a newly ordained samaneri.

Safety is another consideration.

"My father sent me here instead of to a mae jii temple," says Mint, 13, the youngest samaneri at the Songdhammakalyani temple, "because mae jii are living together with male monks, and he thinks this is not suitable."

Several sex scandals involving monks and underaged girls have surfaced recently. Rapes inside temples, of boys and girls, are common but a highly sensitive topic.

When asked about the subject, Dhammananda does not mince her words: "Monks are men and you cannot trust men. Girls are safer with us."

Money is also central to the issue, because being ordained means being able to receive donations. In popular belief, offering alms to Buddhist monks, whether in the form of food, commodities or cash, can earn the believer good karma and boost their chances of a better reincarnation. Giving to mae jii, on the other hand, who are laywomen, is not considered as "making merit" (" tham boon").

It is common for tycoons and movie stars to make huge donations to temples. As a result, monks are among the richest men in Thailand while most mae jii live in extreme poverty.

That perhaps explains why the revival of the bhikkhunis has met with such resistance. By promoting female ordination, Dhammananda is threatening the interests of powerful religious leaders who are allied with politicians and businessmen - who receive tax refunds when they make donations to temples, without state supervision - and are deeply involved in Thai politics.

Last year, for example, during the protests in Bangkok that led to the fall of the government, monk Luang Pu Buddha Issara led a faction of hard-core protesters. He teamed up with a high-profile member of the Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, who became a monk after the coup, last May.

Dhammananda's plea for equality comes at a time of deep moral crisis for the Thai clergy, following scandals involving sex, drugs and embezzlement. Monk Luang Pu Nen Kham Chattiko, for example, was photographed in July 2013 wearing Ray-Ban glasses and holding a Louis Vuitton bag full of American dollars, and was later found to be a trafficker of methamphetamines, an abuser of women and the lover of a pregnant 14-year-old. The revival of a female order is seen by some as an attempt to weaken further Buddhism's already damaged authority. Dhammananda's fight is not an easy one: arrayed against her are monks, one of the essential pillars of conservative Thai society, and the aristocratic and financial elites.

On the other hand, female ordinations could help improve the image of the clergy. Given the difficulty of their path, women who choose monastic life must really desire and prepare for it, unlike their male counterparts. Their dedication could help restore trust in the clergy. They may even be the only chance the institution has of remaining at the centre of Thai life.

"If the Sangha persists in their position of not accepting female ordinations," warns Sanitsuda Ekachai, a journalist who specialises in religious affairs, "monks will continue to fulfil our needs for rituals, but if they can't understand that society is changing, they will play a narrower role in [it]."