‘How old are you?’ asked the hairdresser. She was Indonesian, like nearly all hairdressers in Dili. I was the only customer. The power had gone out which meant a cold wash and no blow dry. Never mind. A young Timorese assistant hovered nearby with an older Chinese woman, perhaps the owner.
‘Fifty-nine,’ I said, although the $10 haircut had made me look much younger – like about six. There were small gasps. ‘You are very healthy,’ the young Timorese woman said, as if it was a miracle that I was still out and about. And to her it may have been. Older women are rarely seen on the streets of Dili. They age before their time; by their late sixties, most are dead.
I hope these women – who wear sarongs, chew betel nuts that stain their mouths red, and have survived two and sometimes three occupations of their country – are treated well. I know I am. As an older malae woman, I’ve received nothing but respect in Timor. It starts with hello, which is big in these parts. ’Mana’ – the usual female greeting – is often upgraded to ‘Senora’ or ‘Avo’ (grandmother) in my case. The white hair probably helps.
It’s harder for young malae women, who get pestered and groped, even on their motorbikes. Their freedom seems to bedazzle local boys who are used to girls staying home and doing as they’re told. Women are the workhorses of Timor. It starts young. When we arrived in our compound, Mersia was four and prone to spectacular tantrums. Now she’s a competent six-year-old who totes younger siblings around on her hip like an old hand. Maia, nine, sweeps our yard, often with a toddler in tow. Teenage girls fetch and carry, cook and clean.
Last week, when no girls turned up for our advanced English evening class run by volunteer tutors, I asked the boys why. ‘Personal security’ (their words) topped the list. Our classes don’t finish till 7pm and girls have to be home by dark, they said: public transport stops; they can’t afford motorbikes; it’s not safe to walk. But it’s a catch-22. No girls are allowed out after dark because it’s too dangerous. Therefore, if a girl is out after dark, she’s labelled a prostitute, which increases the danger.
Girls also have chores to do in the evening, the boys said. It’s not as if there are mod cons to ease the load. Even in Dili, cooking’s usually done on wood fires or petrol stoves, while kids, clothes and pots are scrubbed squatting at an outside tap.
On the plus side, there’s plenty of woman power and little risk of suburban neurosis with all that company and chat. Not to mention the communal activities like weaving tais and mats that strengthen women’s friendships, skills, self-esteem and standing.
Girls may be closely chaperoned (couples aren’t allowed to visit each other’s homes until they’re engaged, I’m told) but the babies keep coming. Six apiece on average in this Catholic country where contraception’s a no-no and most of the population’s under 17.
Not marrying doesn’t spare you from drudgery. My Tetun teacher Angela – unusually single and childless in her early 30s – goes home every day to cook lunch for her family. Her weekends are filled with household chores and shopping, attending Mass and visiting her mother’s grave.
Like nearly half of all married women, Angela’s mother was widowed during the 25-year Indonesian occupation and left to bring up six children. War turned traditional roles on their heads. Some women became fighters, spies and messengers for the clandestine resistance movement. Others fled to the forests and mountains, struggling to hold families together. My creative writing students have recorded 800 such stories. There are countless more.
Sadly, independence has not brought an end to violence. Kids are whacked at home and school. Dogs cower if you bend to pick up a rock. On Sunday afternoons, men crowd five-deep around a cock-fighting ring set among the palm trees in our street, gambling wads of cash on birds bred to fight to the death with blades attached to their legs. I know this from Pat: it’s a strictly men-only zone.
I’ve lost count of how many Timorese women have confided in me, often within a few minutes of our meeting, that their husbands beat them. Living at close quarters as they do, everyone must know. Perhaps they just need someone to say it’s not OK. Few leave, which isn’t surprising when you think about all those kids, and no jobs, and the complicated web of relationships cemented by marriage, and families having to repay the balaki (bride price). Those who do strike out on their own – like the 50-year-old woman I know who is divorced, studying law and supports her family by renting apartments to malae – often end up ostracised.
Don’t get me wrong. Timorese women are strong and spirited. They laugh a lot and dress with a panache perhaps inherited from the Portuguese. As usual down among the women, they find ways to help each other. At one Kiwi volunteer’s workplace, a group of women has formed an informal credit union, putting money from their meagre pay into a joint fund and doling out lump sums in emergencies.
My students were quick to point out that Article 17 of the Timorese constitution guarantees equality between men and women. Female quotas are legislated at both government and suku (village) level. There’s a greater proportion of women in Timor’s parliament than New Zealand’s. Nine of the 38-strong new executive in this week’s overhaul by outgoing Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao are also women, although only three are full ministers, and only a handful of suku chiefs are female.
Changing minds is harder than changing laws. A local NGO worker in his 30s, genuinely perplexed, asked Pat: ‘I’ve heard that in Australia women are first on the list, then children, then dogs, and men are only about fifth. Why is that? In the Bible, God says men are first.’ He was the NGO’s gender equality spokesman.
My students are more enlightened. They agree that it’s important for girls to attend our English classes. I asked them how they can help, after declining their suggestion that I ring all the parents to assure them of their daughters’ safety. They said they’d start encouraging their sisters and other girls in their neighbourhoods to come because they can walk them home afterwards. I hope they do.
It’s tempting for me to want the same things for Timorese women as I want for myself. To forget I come from a different culture, one that has sacrificed almost everything on the altar of individual freedom. Melly, Pat’s communications offsider at World Vision, is a feisty young mother of two who works full-time. When she goes home at night, all she has to do is feed her baby. Her meals are cooked, children cared for and housework done by her extended family. She was horrified to hear about the juggle of careers, kids and chores that is the lot of western women, often single-handed.
Timorese in general are mystified by malae who live solitary lives and put personal happiness first. When my best students – girls and boys – apply for overseas scholarships, they invariably couch their ambitions in terms of being able to help their country. A unique version of gender equality will emerge from their communal culture that, for all its restrictions, sustains them and gives them a deep sense of their place in the world.
Too tempu oin/Till next time