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Changes to Barlake in Timor-Leste. Dr. Sara Niner Research Fellow. What is barlake?. part larger system of adat or lisan or lore developed over thousands of years to regulate society in difficult environment

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changes to barlake in timor leste

Changes to Barlake in Timor-Leste

Dr. Sara Niner Research Fellow

slide2

What is barlake?

  • part larger system of adat or lisanor lore developed over thousands of years to regulate society in difficult environment
  • barlake regulates family and society to build social solidarity and harmony: Lia Nain 1
  • an exchange between bride and grooms family of elements that are symbolically equal and culturally significant
  • full commitment rarely given at once, but staggered over the life of the marriage at significant ceremonies of life and death creates ongoing relationship which provides bride’s family with some leverage over the treatment of bride and children
  • enormously varied between Timorese ethno-linguistic groups and even from clan to clan but general principles exist which allows negotiations between different groups
  • women feel valued and protected
  • banned by first revolutionary govt. 1975
  • today feature in an estimated half of all marriages

The question of barlaque has frequently been misunderstood, by those making a casual acquaintance with the expression, to mean the sale of a daughter by her father. Nothing could be further from the truth, for barlaque actually represents a contract between the two families to form a union and, should this union fail, all the goods and animals exchanged at the time of the contract must be returned. (Margaret King 1969: 164)

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Lia Nain Perspectives

An apprentice Lia Nain described the way barlake regulates social relations: We practice barlake to create a strong society and good relationships, trust and we stand by each other [solidarity] within our families and culture… all families and relatives gather together to make strong relationships… people will respect you and call you sister and you become a valuable member of society and they know how to treat you and value you. If there is no barlake people will be confused about what to call you. If the couple just get together without approval no-one would know their relationship with others… It also protects both man and woman from violence: people will protect you as barlake is no secret—it is public knowledge—and people will tau matan (keep an eye on you) and protect you. (AF Interview 2010)

Lia Nain 1 very clearly contends: barlake exchange should be equal and not beyond capacity of those involved. The two families should agree and make the best agreement within the capacity of family. When making a barlake agreement no-one should be able to say that one family pressed the other family to pay more than they could afford. It is not a correct version of barlake that just seeks the highest amount of payment. (AF Interview 2010)

Lia Nain 2Now when people get married now they can bring a qualified Lia Nain with them to make negotiations. Such a Lia Nain is an experienced negotiator can come from other areas not necessarily from the family. He makes the best deal for the family he represents. If groom’s family bring with them the best representative with capacity to negotiate lower brideprice.… This was a trend that occurred during Indonesian times. It was a consequence of the conditions of the occupation because Lia Nains die and also had to make negotiations more effective as people couldn’t meet for long. Two days ago I was in E* representing the bride side and the other side, groom’s family, were scared and said “Oh now we must pay a lot!”...the E* Lia Nain is my opponent

dignidade or dignity: that barlake increases the dignity of a family is asserted(AF Interview 2010). The word dignity, used constantly when talking about barlake, is closely associated with notions of ‘prestige’ or ‘status’. In patriarchal societies notions of dignity, prestige and status are common and who they actually benefit in the case of barlake needs further investigation.

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current discourse about barlake
Current discourse about barlake
  • Barlake blamed for the subjugation of women and more recently cited as central a cause of high levels of domestic violence. This condemnation fits into broad global feminist critiques of traditional marriage practices as mechanisms for the control and exploitation of women by men. The contemporary discourse surrounding barlake in Timor-Leste is also part of wider debates about the roles and status of women in the new post-conflict nation.
  • However, a dominant cultural perspective in Timor is that barlake is a cornerstone of Timorese indigenous culture integral to a wider, complex system of social action and ritual exchange. This system has sustained life in the challenging environment of the island and through a long and recently concluded war with neighbouring Indonesia.
  • This perspective has sometimes crudely been reduced to a nationalist defense and assertion of culture against the creeping incursions of ‘international standards’ regarding gender equity and the introduction of a western feminist agenda [Male political elite]
  • However, there is no doubt that in Timor-Leste these practices engender a deep sense of identity and meaning for most people and that they are dominant in day-to-day regulation of life in the villages and towns where 80% of citizens reside.
  • This perspective is also supported by the more traditional anthropological approach which accepts cultural defences of practices despite them possibly being linked to abuses of rights.

Changing Barlake in Timor-Leste

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Effects of modernity & contemporary politics

  • Degradation of indigenous culture by Portuguese colonialism & Catholicism and Indonesian occupation
  • Revitalisation in post-independence: effects are uneven across the territory according to intensity of war/resistance
  • Gender politics in the post-conflict environment
  • Feminist debates surrounding domestic violence and gender equity includes marriage practices
  • Increased impact of international donor and aid and development norms,
  • Increased impact modernity, consumerist culture and commodification/monetization of material culture
  • Da Silva:
  • ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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background post conflict gender politics
Women’s Rights introduced before war but largely left unaddressed by independence movement

War required women to act more independently followed by pressure post-conflict for women to return to pre-war status becomes a site of conflict between men and women

Masculinity and militarisation lead to national violence

Residual heightened post-conflict violence includes high levels of domestic violence, sexual and gender-based violence

All part of documented discrimination of women and girls in contemporary Timorese society

International norms of human rights and gender equity now insisted upon by modern Timorese Women’s Movement; Donors; aid and development industry

Background: post-conflict gender politics
slide7

Gender roles in indigenous society

In anthropology the roles of women and men are described as ‘complimentary’ and ‘interdependent’ but his does not mean roles are equitable as that term is understood in a feminist sense

Feto hakat klot; mane hakat luan woman is born for narrow steps while a man is born for wide steps

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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women(CEDAW) 44 session Jul-Aug 2009 Concluding observations--Timor Leste

Stereotypes and cultural practices

27. The Committee is concerned about the prevalence of a patriarchal ideology in the State party with firmly entrenched stereotypes and the persistence of deep-rooted adverse cultural norms, customs and traditions, including forced and early marriage, polygamy and bride price or dowry (barkake), that discriminate against women, result in limitations to women’s educational and employment opportunities and constitute serious obstacles to women’s enjoyment of their human rights.

28. The Committee urges the State party to view culture as a dynamic dimension of the country’s life and social fabric, subject to many influences over time and therefore subject to change. It urges the State party to be more proactive and to put into place without delay a comprehensive strategy, including clear goals and timetables, to modify or eliminate negative cultural practices and stereotypes that are harmful to, and discriminate against women and promote women’s full enjoyment of their human rights, in conformity with articles 2(f) and 5(a) of the Convention. Such measures should include awareness-raising and educational campaigns addressing women and men, girls and boys, religious and community leaders, parents, teachers and officials. It further urges the State party to undertake these efforts in collaboration with civil society organizations, women’s groups and community and religious leaders. The Committee also encourages the State party to effectively use innovative measures to strengthen understanding of the equality of women and men and to work with the media to enhance a positive and non-stereotypical portrayal of women and in particular, to develop outreach programs to connect with rural women.

slide9

How barlake make women a commodity and cause GBV?

  • If the exchange of gifts is unequal so bride’s family is enriched does this mean that women and their fertility are being bought and subsequently treated as a commodity?
  • A feeling ownership of women by men makes gender/power relations unequal and women subservient to men which causes domestic violence
  • Yet domestic violence also occurs in matrilineal communities (where barlake is low) so barlake must be seen as only one of several factors leading to domestic violence
  • Other factors 1. social acceptance of domestic violence and ‘baku hanorin’2. attitudes of traditional and state authorities (lia na’in, judges and police) who do not treat GBV as illegal

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changes from modernity consumerism
Changes from modernity & consumerism

Traditional authorities too recognize that the level of resources and participation required are no longer available.

In our grandfather’s time [1950’s-60’s] they made the highest exchanges of 77 buffalo but if this agreement was made now there will be money substituted because there are not enough buffalo anymore. This level of exchange takes up lots of time and resources and maybe it will never happen again. People can’t stop their jobs for one month as that’s how long it takes to carry out the celebrations and ceremonies. (AF Interview 2010)

A male and female colleague who worked together on a cultural project in a Dili women’s NGO explained how they saw barlake changing:

In my generation we don’t have barlake because society is changing. We all live outside the village now and no-one cares. There are no brothers left to take care of the buffalo. It is like this everywhere in Timor now. In future barlake will be reduced as the structure of society changes. We now live in a democracy. But still now if my father-in-law or brother-in-law dies, or say if C’s daughter has a ceremony, then my brother will still come with a big pig and tais [textiles], then the husband’s side must bring five buffalo worth around $500-$1000 each, and this is the same all over Timor. Education has been an influence too. Education means we get jobs and don’t keep buffalo. Today people want a good house and modern conveniences not buffalo. Buffalo used to function as dollars and display wealth, but their value is only for exchange now. Now wealth is shown by houses and cars.

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modernity commodification of marriage practices
Modernity & Commodification of marriage practices
  • There is also some consensus that monetization of the exchange has increased and that this may have driven up barlake exchanges. One informant suggested a tenfold increase since the Indonesia occupation which may be linked to the change in currency (HM Interview 2010).
  • Commodification of the exchange: result of the corruption of custom by capitalism in which customary goods are replaced with money,
  • Loosened traditional meanings and encouraged sense of purchase and ownership, which is one explanation adduced for rising dowry deaths in India where what is important to young bride’s and their families ‘is that the dowry is seen to be expensive and of high quality so that relatives… will be impressed. If they are impressed this will raise the bride’s status in her new family, and she will be viewed as having style and class’.
  • The dowry may become inflated due to demands by the groom’s family or ‘the socio-economic status of the family concerned or the bride herself… greed and status enhancement are also linked to the escalating consumerist culture, in which consumer items and designer labels are regarded as the prime symbols of status and wealth (Menski :192-193) .
  • The debate surrounding Indian dowry deaths are criticized for a simplistic portrayal of the traditional marriage system as one which, ‘does not know how to treat its women as human beings and therefore violates with impunity the human rights of women’.
cultural adaptations

Cultural adaptations that some Timorese couples are using as ways of trying to maintain the cultural functions of the practice while tempering the potential for economic and gender abuse

Today, as is the trend in many societies, individuals are opting out of traditional practices, like barlake, in favor of using their available resources to pay for modern education and health services, along with more contemporary homes and commodities. Even amongst younger people who still want to continue to honor their customary practices, it is acknowledged that the practice of barlake is declining.

When we [my husband and I] were deciding the amount [of our barlake] we looked at the reality. We decided on this low amount, 30 buffalos, because of my husband’s family. We didn’t want a huge obligation for us (or for our kids to inherit) and because my family [my mother] would have to match the value of the buffalo in tais [hand-woven textiles]. We just wanted an amount we could afford and which would pay respect to our culture and our parents.

Cultural adaptations

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timorese women s perpsectives
Timorese women’s perpsectives

A veteran of Timor’s resistance struggle for independence and current Member of Parliament :

Barlake is part of our traditional culture and we have to maintain our culture, but there is misuse of it now so it has to be regulated by law, by the government. Our culture is good but some have misinterpreted the customs. That is why they have spoken about gender equality several times in the Parliament. Some say we shouldn’t talk about it anymore because as we always pay for women it means women are already valued within the traditions of barlake… There is now an emphasis on people who treat barlake as an income source and misuse it. (MR Interview 2010)

A younger woman who heads up a women’s organization in Dili said:

I agree and disagree with barlake. It is part of my identity as a Timorese and part of my culture. Barlake used to be for extending and strengthening families but now it looks more like business. I believe we should keep the form and reduce the numbers. It should be addressed along with the gender equity law now being drafted in parliament. (TV Interview 2010)

Some research shows that support for barlake is much stronger amongst older, married women and less amongst younger single women whose support is dependent upon whether women are being respected or not. There may well be a cultural and generation shift occurring amongst women in Timor on this issue (SH Interview 2010)

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