We have a saying here in Timor-Leste and it goes like this: “Feto forte, nasaun forte.” It translates to “Strong women, strong nation,” and is a popular phrase blurted out in meetings concerning women and the future of this young country.
Many of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers have heard me talk about my host-mom in Tibar more than a few times. She is a force to be reckoned with, and a caring mother. She is excellent at business management, and stays at home. She’s loud and proud, but she’s also put down by other women around her in subtle ways. She is what exists on the line dividing female empowerment and strong gender-centric values.
In Timor, the girls and women are often the caretakers; staying home to watch the kids, cleaning everything from clothes to dishes, and cooking. The men and boys, on the other hand, either are out at work as ‘breadwinners’ or taking a siesta with the other guys. None of this is so bad except that if a girl has a tantrum about how she would rather go to school than stay home and watch her little sibling, she would most likely be grounded. If a woman is trying to start her own business to support the household and become independent, her husband might start spending household savings on gambling and alcohol, just so the woman can never realize her dreams.
So while the Timorese government and local NGOs are encouraging the whole, “Feto forte, nasaun forte,” catchphrase, what is happening out here in my community that is keeping women from moving forward? As one might guess, strong cultural values is one. But I would like to think that there is another aspect, and that is when gender entangles with race and economic status.
My host-mother is an Indonesian woman who moved here with her Timorese husband about eight years ago. Before coming to Timor, she had worked overseas at hospitals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and spent time in other southeast Asian countries. This woman also attended some university, and comes from a family of small-time entrepreneurs who never took staying home as a caretaker to be an option. The second she stepped foot in Timor, she didn’t wait for her husband to get a job; she started selling pastries from her in-law’s home. When she got a motorbike, she began selling those pastries up and down the main street in our community. She began to save up more and more money, and eventually had enough to build her family a home (at this point she had already had her first son in Timor, with a second one to come soon). She moved out from her in-laws and gave her and her family a home.
Her husband got a job, and with both their salaries combined, they built up their home. Eventually she opened her second home business, a small shop with things like laundry detergent and dry foods that the community relies on between market days. She has side gigs with other small business owners on the side, such as selling clothing for a friend here, getting a truck-full of bedsheets to sell to her neighbors at a discount there. And while all this is happening, her neighbors and family members remained in the same economic state they began with. They benefited of course, in small ways—Timor and Indonesia both have strong sharing cultures. But they weren’t sending their kids to a private school, they weren’t sending money to support a third son still out in Indonesia, and they weren’t really enjoying watching their son, my host-mother’s husband, having to deal with a woman who made her own money. Some months, she makes more than him, some months less. They respect each other and try to do housework and caretaking equally. Some people can’t get with that. Every day, she tells me that the reason she goes to bed late and wakes up way too early to bake bread and fry doughnuts is to make sure her kids have the best in life.
On top of making other women grumble because she refuses to just hang out at home all day and makes a significant amount of money in terms of our community, she is also an outsider. She is Indonesian, not Timorese. She talks about places like Dubai, Brunei, and more. She knows what the outside world is like, and to top it off, now she has two more foreigners (me and my husband) living in her home. Why can’t she try to act like a good Timorese woman, behaving with their ideals, and openly embracing their values? Why does she have to be different in nearly every way? And so, the whole ‘us and her’ mentality becomes quite strong.
My host-mother is probably the strongest woman I know in my community. She defies what is expected of her at every turn. She works hard, and she understands that in a small country like Timor, one cannot just sit down and watch the days go by. She wants a better future for her kids, who have to grow up in a country where a good education can be too expensive or healthcare is not quite fully developed. She has to constantly toe the line, torn between being this ‘strong female’ that the world needs more of, and fitting in with a culture that doesn’t like her making ripples in the pond.
My host-mother is probably living the same story of many other women in Timor, and around the world. Even back in the States, I’ve seen stories like hers. Women all over are dealing with cultural values that hold them back from doing what they want—and when they do break out of these values, they are shunned for it. What is a girl to do in a world that demands her to be independent, but wants her to be subordinate?
Disclaimer: The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Timor-Leste Government.