When wealthy East Timorese business man Raul Lemos kissed Indonesian pop star Krisdayanti in front of Indonesian press cameras last week and said this was common behaviour in his country of Timor-Leste it upset East Timorese women so much that three women’s groups (including the overarching women’s council Rede Feto) held a press conference and denounce his statement? (http://bit.ly/9M39Lk) They said his statement about unmarried couples lip-kissing in public degraded East Timorese society, culture, and women and the sanctity of marriage and corrupted East Timorese children. In doing so they invoked the name of CEDAW: the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against women. This seems an over-reaction to a kiss between consenting adults and an off-hand comment about kissing. So what’s really behind such a strong reaction?
The women were careful not to criticize this powerful man personally or his kissing-buddy, a popular celebrity. They carefully pointed out they were not criticizing his personal choices (although they did express solidarity with his wife who is from a politically prominent East Timorese family and, it can be assumed, many in the women’s movement know personally). Polygamy and philandering husbands are common in East Timor’s patriarchal society, especially amongst rich and powerful men. The wives seem powerless to change this situation and suffer these practices, along with domestic violence, as they have little access to legal recourse and to separate from a husband is in most cases economic and social suicide (women earn one eighth the salary of men). Publicly criticizing men is also not socially acceptable (and certainly the women were careful not to criticize Raul Lemos too personally although their disapproval of him is explicit). Women instead criticised his statement about kissing therefore being more muted in their response and skilful in getting around these cultural norms. The humiliation and disempowerment associated with a philandering or violent husband keeps women suffering in silence, along with a social acceptance that these issues are private domestic ones that must be kept hidden (as happens all over the world). This press conference might seem to have been about “kissing” but it is really about much more. It might not have been couched in these terms but it was a criticism of patriarchy and how men get to behave in ways women cannot and how men treat women in East Timorese society. It was a signal women do not want to put up with such treatment and want to be treated with more respect and consideration, just the same way men are treated.
Direct, forthright, open criticism of men might still be considered as going too far. It might be judged as a betrayal of the new nation and the nationalist struggle women and men have all fought for so hard together. It might be deemed too early to turn on their brother’s and point out how women have been discriminated against during that struggle and how their contribution remains substantially unacknowledged and rewarded and how painful that is. Taking on patriarchy and pointing out the entrenched power and privilege of men is a tough, life-long struggle that women (along with their male supporters) all over the world are engaged in. On a personal level it can mean missing out on having a husband or even a family. This is a big sacrifice and most women find ways to live with patriarchy but continue to make efforts to change things, just as the women at the press conference did last week. Culture changes all the time and this is evidence of that: it wasn’t just about the kiss.
Dili, Timor-Leste August 2010