Friday, November 04, 2005

The sexualisation of girl children

This week we experienced three public holidays in a row: All Saint’s Day, Spirit of the Dead Day and Timor Women’s Day. Daniel had two final assignments to work on for his Bachelor of Teaching degree at Deakin University, so we spent the time at home. I completed reading The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester but I did not enjoy it. I find that for me to enjoy a novel, I have to identify with (or at least feel some semblance of empathy) with one of the main characters. This novel had only one main character and he was pompous, overbearing, seldom funny, not to mention a psychopath!

We also went for long walks along the beach and around Tasitolu Peace Park, each day topped off with swims in the warm ocean as night fell. Sublime.

Late Thursday afternoon, we went to a public event to celebrate Timorese Women’s Day. In attendance were a number of my colleagues and one of Daniel’s. Unfortunately, the venue for the celebration was a small park located on one of Dili’s busiest roundabouts. We could barely hear the speeches, drama and musical performances as the small amplifier was drowned out by the traffic.

Worse than that however, was to see one of my colleagues’ 10-year-old daughter dressed like a child prostitute! She was wearing jeans with a small mid riff belly button showing bright sparkly top with spaghetti straps, combined with a black lace see through short jacket and matching gloves (a lá 1980s Madonna); her hair pulled back in a ponytail with hair extensions added for length.

Men twice and three times her age were eyeing her up and down, their eyes visibly unable to leave her pre pubescent body. I was sickened. She would not have looked out of place in the West where younger and younger girl children are dressing in more and more sexually provocative ways. However, in a conservative country like Timor, you rarely see girl children dressing in such a fashion. Maybe this girl’s relations (many who live in the West) have exposed her to such disturbing fashions. I was upset to think a feminist woman in a leading Timorese women’s rights organization would allow her 10-year-old daughter to dress like this. Did she think it was a sign of her family’s modernity and hipp-ness?

In a country where women and girl children are routinely physically and sexually abused, I would have thought, allowing your daughter to dress in such a provocative fashion was only exposing her to more danger. (Two recent cases in Timor: a young teenage girl was lured to a young man’s home where he and his mates had been watching pornography from the West (an increasing problem in Timor and which is often the precursor for sexual violence against girls and women), proceeded to gang rape her. A 12-year-old girl was brutally raped and threatened with a machete for three days by her 80-year-old stepfather after the girl’s mother had temporarily left the village. The father was found guilty but given no punishment due to his age. You can read more about the legal finding of this case here.)

Or am I just being naïve in thinking parents can control what their daughters wear? Surely, it is easier here than in the West, where parents do not have to contend with the pervasive peer pressure of their daughter’s friends and the capitalist marketing culture. Girl children simply don’t dress like that here and it certainly is not a sign of progress for the country when they do. In the end, we left the celebration early as this incident had left me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

In a recent email newsletter from Crikey, one article was about the issue of the Pornification of the West, which included reviews of a new book called Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy. I read some of the reviews as I had been thinking about the very problem since seeing the 10-year-old Timorese girl dressed like a prostitute. I have felt increasingly uncomfortable about the sexualisation of girl children in the West, demonstrable by the scantily clad clothes with which they prefer now to clothe their pre pubescent bodies. Daniel and I talked at length about the issue as one day we too will be parents, and most likely, we will be parents to at least one daughter, as we want to adopt one of our children from China (95% of who are girl children thanks to the one child policy and the Chinese cultural preference for boys). How would we deal with our girl child wanting to dress in such a manner? And when many of our child’s friends and parents might not think there’s anything wrong with it and that we’re just “prudes”. (Little do they know that girl children dressing in such a manner is a sign of how far we have not come in terms of gender equality. That is, blatant sexualisation of girls and women is not a sign of progress.)

I joked that given children often do the opposite of their parents, perhaps when I become a mother, I should dress like a prostitute (a lá Eddy from Absolutely Fabulous) in the hope our daughter will dress conservatively (a lá Edwina’s daughter Saffie) or failing that, we convert to Islam and our daughter(s) and I don the burqa.
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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