[Easttimorstudies] Arena: Oan Kiak: Women and Independence in T-L

Jennifer Drysdale jenster at cres10.anu.edu.au
Wed Jul 26 14:19:58 EST 2006


>Arena Magazine
>Issue 83 -June-July 2006
>Against the Current
>Oan Kiak: Women and Independence in Timor-Leste
>In the most isolated areas of Timor-Leste, women 
>are providing a powerful counterpoint to the 
>apparent failure of independence, write Anna Trembath and Damian Grenfell
>Men are so often identified as the dominant 
>agents in the process of nation formation, not 
>least through their relationship to public 
>performances of violence in moments of war and 
>revolt. This pattern appears to have continued 
>in what is so often referred to as ‘the world’s 
>newest nation’, Timor-Leste, which has over 
>recent times experienced a tremendous level of 
>political and violent turmoil. To a world 
>watching via a globalised media, the images of 
>clashes in the masculinised domain of the urban 
>street and the gun battles by military and 
>police serve to typify the kind of nation 
>Timor-Leste is becoming: a violent and 
>unpredictable place where women are shown only 
>as victims or with their agency limited to their role as carers.
>The relationship between nation formation and 
>gender is, of course, a complex one, and 
>certainly much more so than that suggested when 
>images of a divided military apparatus act as a 
>reductive framing of Timor-Leste as a whole. In 
>narrow coverage of spectacular violence these 
>narratives only speak in one way of what has 
>been happening in Timor-Leste since the 
>Indonesian withdrawal in 1999. To denounce 
>Timor-Leste’s attempts at national independence 
>on the basis of volatile state institutions 
>overlooks many narratives of successful 
>transformative processes, not least the agency 
>shown by many women to ensure that national 
>independence has also meant an opportunity to 
>address patriarchal structures in society.
>Few who have not visited Timor-Leste itself 
>would realise the considerable activity of 
>women’s organising. While of course, constrained 
>by patriarchal structures, East Timorese women, 
>from the political elite in Dili to rural women 
>in the most remote areas, have found ways to 
>foment change. In Timor-Leste, a striking level 
>of public campaigning, policy development and 
>activism has been taking place on the subject of 
>gender; seemingly a far greater importance is 
>attached to the subject in East Timorese public 
>discourse than is the case in Australia. In 
>practice, as elsewhere, gender-focused activity 
>overwhelmingly means addressing the conditions 
>of women’s lives. Largely based in Dili, a 
>variety of East Timorese civil society 
>organisations, such as the Alola Foundation, 
>PRADET and FOKUPERS, promote programs to support 
>women in diverse areas including literacy, 
>maternal health care and support for those who 
>have suffered different forms of violent abuse.
>International non-government organisations 
>(NGOs) such as Oxfam, Concern Worldwide and 
>Caritas, and a range of United Nations agencies 
>such as UNFPA, UNIFEM and UNDP, extend 
>considerable resources to gender as part of 
>their broader programs and policy advocacy. With 
>the government’s Office for the Promotion of 
>Equality, the women’s network Rede Feto, and 
>FONGTIL (in English, the NGO Forum), there is a 
>further complex array of organisational forms 
>that often work together in various 
>policy-planning, programmatic, training, 
>campaigning, advocacy and funding ways, and with 
>local partner organisations throughout 
>Timor-Leste. This complexity of gender-focused 
>organisational activity is further extended by a 
>complex set of ideological positions, political 
>affiliations and histories, relations between 
>locals and foreign workers, differences between 
>East Timorese women, donor politics and a 
>constant friction between modern and traditional 
>social structures within East Timorese society.
>Although much gender-related activity is driven 
>from Dili, the political centre of the nation is 
>not the sole domain for the expression of 
>women’s agency. Beyond the formal political 
>rituals of the capital, a politics that seeks to 
>change and improve the condition of women’s 
>lives can be found in many small rural 
>communities ‘out in the districts’ (the 
>euphemistic phrase used to describe those areas 
>of Timor-Leste beyond the capital, ignoring that 
>Dili itself is actually a district).
>Maria Domingas Alves Soares, now Adviser to the 
>Prime Minister on Gender Equality, has written of how:
>[m]ore and more, women in rural areas are 
>organising and demanding a voice in community 
>decision-making and national policy-making 
>show[ing] that women have the strength and skill 
>to take leadership and contribute significantly 
>to the development of a new, independent East Timor.
>One of the most isolated rural communities in 
>Timor-Leste is Barikafa, an aldeia (village) in 
>the sub-district of Luro, located in the 
>mountains at the eastern end of the island. A 
>local women’s collective, Oan Kiak, began in 
>this community in 2003 and now has approximately 
>thirty members. While a literal translation of 
>‘Oan Kiak’ is ‘poor or orphaned child’, 
>culturally the phrase carries the meaning of 
>‘the poor people of Timor’. A spokesperson for 
>the group, Theresa de Jesus Fernandes, explains 
>that they chose the name because the group ‘had nothing, just the people’.
>That the women had nothing, only themselves, is 
>evident well before reaching Barikafa. Leaving 
>behind all the noise of Dili ­ of taxis, DVD 
>shops, newspaper and telephone card sellers ­ 
>and all the restored grandeur of Portuguese 
>architecture, it quickly becomes apparent that 
>the reconstruction effort undertaken in the wake 
>of the 1999 Indonesian withdrawal has been 
>concentrated in the capital and, to a lesser 
>extent, several major towns. From the narrow 
>main road that skirts along the coast from the 
>capital towards the east, a virtually unseen 
>dirt road veers sharply off towards the island’s 
>mountainous interior. This road, a challenge to 
>a four wheel drive even in the dry season, is 
>dotted with remnant electricity poles, long 
>stripped of their wiring by retreating armed 
>forces. Tetun (one of the two national languages 
>alongside Portuguese) is not widely known here, 
>necessitating three-way translations for those 
>unfamiliar with the local languages.
>Barikafa is a spread-out collection of buildings 
>that includes the more frequently used bamboo, 
>wood and corrugated iron houses along with the 
>distinctly traditional four-stilted homes for 
>which the eastern end of Timor is renowned. 
>Women across a range of ages tend the numerous 
>small vegetable plots that fall on either side 
>of the pathways winding between the homes. In 
>Timor-Leste’s subsistence farming communities, 
>women carry heavy workloads ­ undertaking 
>household tasks, caring for children and other 
>dependent family members, as well as carrying 
>out agricultural work necessary for food 
>production. Framing and shaping the cultural 
>parameters in which women live and work is a 
>range of socio-historical factors that have 
>entrenched patriarchy and have made social 
>change to gender relations an extremely 
>difficult task, a point made well by Emily Roynestad:
>The majority [of East Timorese women] live in 
>rural areas, in an overwhelmingly patriarchal 
>society shaped by centuries of indigenous 
>cultures and religious beliefs, and influenced 
>also by the overlaying gendered impact of 
>Portuguese colonialism and (mostly) Catholic 
>Christianity. They have been marginalized from 
>politics, and collective community agency has 
>been hampered not only by cultural norms, but 
>also by colonial and neo-colonial obstacles, 
>felt most acutely over the last twenty-five 
>years during the suffocating and brutal Indonesian occupation.
>Oan Kiak developed initially as a tais weaving 
>group. Tais is the traditional textile of Timor 
>and while it is worn by both women and men, it 
>is typically woven on a backstrap loom by women 
>who pass the skills and knowledge to daughters. 
>It can take months to produce a high quality 
>piece, and is part of many cultural rituals, 
>including the exchange of gifts between the 
>families of the bride and groom during marriage ceremonies.
>For Oan Kiak, the act of coming together to 
>practice weaving skills represented a 
>significant social opportunity. Yet sales of 
>their tais, especially to foreigners who work in 
>or visit Timor-Leste, was also seen as a way for 
>the women to raise much-needed revenue and gain 
>some economic independence. Given Barikafa’s 
>isolation from the capital, however, the selling 
>of tais has proven an extremely difficult task.
>In 2003, Oan Kiak was able to adapt its 
>practices significantly due to contact with the 
>international NGO Concern Worldwide, which was 
>undertaking broader consultation with 
>communities in Luro sub-district at that time. 
>Concern Worldwide aims to reach the poorest 
>people within national communities and to 
>support them to become self-sustaining. For 
>Concern in Timor-Leste, Luro had been identified 
>as one of the most isolated communities with 
>some of the highest degrees of absolute poverty. 
>Oan Kiak decided to focus on starting a small 
>kiosk rather than pursue the sole economic aim 
>of selling tais. Concern subsequently provided 
>the group with cash support of only US$150, help 
>in reconstructing a small building and some 
>planning support. While many kiosks originating 
>from microfinance schemes have struggled in 
>Timor-Leste, the kiosk operated by Oan Kiak has 
>been highly successful on a range of fronts. It 
>provides local people an alternative or 
>supplementary supply of goods that is far more 
>accessible than the weekly market some twelve 
>kilometres away (reached on foot). Vitally, the 
>work by the collective has meant that money has 
>been able to stay within the community. As the 
>financial records publicly displayed on the 
>kiosk walls attest, by mid-2005 the kiosk had accumulated a kitty of US$2300.
>Beyond this straightforward financial success, 
>the small co-operative experience and profit 
>generation gained through the kiosk have enabled 
>the women to pursue other projects and goals. 
>Oan Kiak later established a communal garden, 
>developed a poultry raising enterprise and 
>purchased a mechanical rice mill, which female 
>members are trained to use and maintain. The 
>community as a whole has access to the mill to 
>process their dried rice and corn for a minimal 
>cost, which is directed back into Oan Kiak’s pool of earnings.
>Oan Kiak’s activities assist in alleviating the 
>absolute poverty of such communities, allowing 
>the group to forward-plan as well as to loan 
>money to individual community members at the 
>minimal interest rate of 1 per cent. This loan 
>system has already aided community members to 
>cover the cost of children’s school fees ­ a sum 
>that is often very difficult for subsistence 
>farmers to accumulate at any one time.
>While on the surface the kiosk and subsequent 
>undertakings could be understood as meeting 
>practical community needs, changes in material 
>conditions have led to important cultural 
>changes as well. Reflecting upon their group’s 
>progress, the women of Oan Kiak explain with 
>pride that while before 1999, visitors to 
>Barikafa would have been received only by men, 
>now it is they who are able to introduce 
>visitors to their community. More generally, and 
>in an unprecedented manner, women collectively 
>control services that are now integral to the 
>livelihood of the community, adopting leadership 
>positions beyond their traditional gendered roles.
>The management of the kiosk has also created the 
>demand for basic numeracy and literacy 
>development, with the women holding regular 
>classes to advance various skill sets. Many of 
>the members, most with no or minimal formal 
>education, can now write their names and use 
>basic bookkeeping methods to keep track of the 
>income generated (rather than placing the coin 
>received for an item next to the type of product 
>sold, the previous technique for recording sales).
>International organisations such as Concern are 
>able to make positive contributions by accepting 
>that groups such as Oan Kiak will adapt and 
>change over a period of time, rather than 
>dictating the implementation of programs. 
>Moreover, Concern has been able to adjust its 
>practices to respond to the needs articulated by 
>the women, such as providing support for a local teacher.
>While groups like Oan Kiak face extraordinary 
>challenges, such endeavours demonstrate how East 
>Timorese women form the centre-point in a broad, 
>difficult and uneven social transformation of 
>women’s lives, driving the process across the 
>day-to-day. This counters any assumption that it 
>has been Westerners who have ‘brought’ modern 
>feminism to Timor-Leste as part of 
>‘nation-building’ undertaken by international organisations.
>In speaking about the development of Oan Kiak, 
>Theresa de Jesus Fernandes explains that with 
>national independence came the possibility to 
>press for greater opportunities for women. That 
>the women of Oan Kiak, like many others, saw a 
>historical moment in which claims and changes 
>could be pressed for, and were in turn able to 
>adapt and draw in support from international 
>organisations, demonstrates that these women 
>have a clear capacity to challenge dominant social and cultural structures.
>Such narratives disrupt the broader projection 
>of East Timorese being ‘unable’ to govern 
>themselves, and show that any suggestion of 
>state-failure needs to be contained so that it 
>does not represent all aspects of East Timorese 
>society. Oan Kiak illustrates that even in the 
>most isolated areas of Timor-Leste women are 
>looking to redefine their own communities ­ and 
>in turn the nation through its formative years ­ 
>in ways that are inclusive of women. In a period 
>of violent contestation over access to state 
>power and national meaning, it would be a 
>mistake to overlook these narratives while 
>making sweeping conclusions about the failure of 
>Timor-Leste’s attempts at independence.
>Anna Trembath and Damian Grenfell are 
>researchers with the Globalism Institute, RMIT University.

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