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The war is over, but women in Timor-Leste are still fighting

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14 March 2012

Dr Sara Niner
Dr Sara Niner

By Dr Sara Niner

A well-documented gender inequity, favouring men, is evident in post-conflict Timor-Leste (East Timor). As has happened in many post-war societies – ours included – there is now pressure for women to conform to ‘traditional’ cultural norms. What is ‘traditional’ in Timor is difficult to define due to the country’s turbulent history, and rather a contrived ‘retraditionalisation’ may be occurring, the aim of which is simply to reassert men’s dominance.

The impact of conflict and violence has been profound for the new nation and its people. Part of this impact is the dominance of a male elite, for the most part the ex-resistance political and military leadership from the Indonesia occupation (1975-1999), some of whom we know well in Australia, and who were largely responsible for outbreaks of national violence (including the national crisis of 2006 and the attempted assassination of President Horta in 2008). Such ongoing conflict, and an aggressive political culture, favours a type of strong, militarised masculinity that marginalises women, placing them in less visible ‘traditional’ roles, and has a negative effect on their status and political participation.

The role of indigenous customs

In Timor-Leste indigenous customary practices are still very important and part of a wider, complex social system that has sustained life in the island’s challenging environment for many thousands of years. One such set of practices relating to marriage is known as barlake (often crudely translated into English as “dowry” or “brideprice”). Since the 1960s, barlake has been blamed for the subjugation of women and, more recently, cited as a major cause of high levels of domestic violence in the country.

Arguments surrounding barlake are part of a much wider debate about the roles of women in post-war Timor. Feminist criticisms of traditional marriages in the country focus on the way they maintain the control of women by men. However, barlake remains a cornerstone of Timorese indigenous culture and much recent commentary has failed to address the full range of spiritual, cultural and practical elements that fulfil the needs of those who reproduce the practice of barlake. Unless the problem is analysed holistically, adequate solutions will remain elusive.

The contradictory effects of the war

There are few surviving women who served the armed wing of the nationalist movement of Timor-Leste as combatants in the guerrilla army Falintil. Female combatants were discriminated against throughout the war and only following protests were they (partially) recognised as war veterans.

The women who fought accepted that the struggle for women’s rights was not possible during the fight for independence. However, the struggle for independence created a pool of highly skilled and motivated women who no longer accepted the status quo and today work toward equity for women.

Only now, with the war over, can women create and develop a separate identity alongside other international women’s movements. Yet this process is fraught. Separating the recently concluded struggle for independence and the modern women’s movement fighting for women’s rights is still difficult today. Such a separation would necessitate voicing opposition to the men – the leaders, the fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands – alongside whom women fought the war, and with whom they formed families and communities during the worst of times and now struggle to rebuild their country. Such a separation and shift in thinking may well be impossible for the generation who suffered together during such a long and bitter conflict.

In the contested world of modern Timorese history the crucial and unique role of women in the resistance has not yet been fully acknowledged and this affects women’s full and active participation in society today. This is significant because the way in which a post-war society treats its female veterans is a powerful indicator of the future status of women.

The case for optimism

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic about gender equity in Timor-Leste. We know that women are profoundly important within indigenous spirituality and ritual, that women can be powerful within their own domestic sphere and elite women are very privileged. The women’s movement in Timor is stocked with robust women who know how to fight and not give up and young women and men who are much less accepting of traditional patriarchy. Nevertheless, improvements for most – including the poorest – must be made through an engagement with indigenous or ‘traditional’ society. Understanding how women’s respect, status and power is upheld in these systems, and how it can be strengthened, is crucial.

Deep-seated cultural change and transformation must be part of a fairer deal for women, especially a reversal of the more destructive gender dynamics played out in both national and domestic level violence. Gender equity cannot simply be reduced to a modern political struggle for women’s rights or a task of administrative or legal reform, but must also engage, chart and monitor the deeper currents of gender dynamics.

As in most places in the world demobilization has failed to deal with the deep imprinting of violent masculinities in former combatants and the effects of militarism on society and this needs much more attention in Timor. Government could also assist by both working with customary law authorities and developing educational programs in schools and tertiary instituations. Along with well-resourced community-driven development programs gender equity must be accurately described and equity promoted in local terms amongst Timor’s citizens.

Dr Sara Niner is a Research Fellow in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Faculty of Arts at Monash University.

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