Monday, March 06, 2006

Women’s participation in 2007 elections

Today I attended the second of three workshops that local NGO Fokupers and UNIFEM held to discuss women’s participation in the 2007 elections. The main aim of the workshop was to inform political parties, especially those contesting the election, about the women’s platform and the importance of their vote. Most of the twenty registered political parties in Timor, with the notable exception of Fretilin, attended.

The Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri gave the welcoming address. He stated that his party Fretilin did not support mandatory quotas for women. However, his party has done well to get women elected to parliament with 33% of seats held by women. The total number of women elected to the national parliament represents 27% of the total, higher than Australia (24%). Nevertheless, statistics on the number of women in parliament in general, does not translate into how progressive or women friendly a society is (Sweden is one of the few exceptions). Timor is far more patriarchal than Australia and yet these statistics belie that reality.

While sitting in on a workshop called ‘The role of political parties’, a man around my age befriended me. He spoke very good English so we conversed in my mother tongue (actually, he did most of the talking, surprise of surprises). About half way through the workshop, he gave me his business card and I was astonished to read that he is a member of the national parliament. His name is Antonio Ximenes and he represents the Christian Democratic Party, which has only two representatives in the parliament.

Antonio was born in Venilale in Baucau district, in the same month and year as me (he did not tell me his DOB but later I looked up his name on the parliament’s website and it includes members’ places and dates of birth). He is one of five children and has two brothers and two sisters. One of his brothers has twelve children! One sister is an accountant and the other has a health science background, both were educated in Melbourne. Most of his immediate family fled to Australia as refugees after the Santa Cruz Massacre in 1991 as the Indonesian military murdered his uncle for his stance against the their regime. His family of origin now reside in my home state of Victoria and earn enough money to send him political party contributions.

Antonio studied philosophy and theology in both Indonesia and Portugal and intended to become a Catholic priest until he decided that he could serve his country better by entering politics. He is fluent in seven languages: his local indigenous language Makasae, Tetum, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia, English, Spanish and Korean and he is learning an eighth: Chinese He also teaches philosophy, theology and political science part time at the two major universities in Dili. Antonio has a Chinese Timorese girlfriend whose father also became a victim of the Indonesian military. She now lives and works in Darwin from where she also sends him political party contributions.

Antonio doesn’t support mandatory quotas for women but, in his favour, he did say that Timor is a deeply conservative society and women drop out of school at higher rates than men as they are raised to believe that their lot in life is as mothers only and thus do not need an education. Little do they realise how important education is for them and their children as studies consistently show that educated women have lower fertility rates and better health, and their children likewise have better education outcomes.

We sat together at lunch and he told me how difficult the language situation was even for gifted linguists and members of parliament like him. He was very critical of the use of Portuguese as the official language as he felt it was not democratic to communicate in a language that only 5 to 25% of the population understand. I heartily concurred with him.

When we went our separate ways, I marvelled at the differences of our lives simply due to where we were born. This has been described by many as the amazing power of the ‘accident of birth’.

President Xanana Gusmao gave the concluding speech. This was the first time that I had heard him speak in person and I was genuinely shocked at how negatively I reacted to him. Firstly, I did not like his manner as he commanded the floor and everybody’s attention, and throughout the course of the day would interrupt people with funny little outbursts, which of course, everyone laughed at. I simply thought: “hmmmm, are you just a little bit of a narcissist?” This behaviour is a way of bringing the attention back to one’s self, which clearly shows a more than healthy ego. Moreover, I felt like a subject in the royal court with Gusmao unmistakably the king. I wondered where the humble man so frequently written about had gone. There was no sign of the pining pumpkin farmer that was eventually persuaded to become president.

Secondly I didn’t appreciate his speech as he seemed to say (I was listening to an English translation through headphones) that getting women elected to parliament (and the issue of quotas), wasn’t all that important and other more pressing women’s issues such as maternal health and education mattered more. I disagree, they all matter!

However, I understood why this country loves him: he epitomises everything that is revered about Timorese men. The great charismatic hero of this tiny nation is paternalistic and patriarchal and embodies some of the worst aspects of male culture. This combined with his strong stance on not pursuing justice and holding those Indonesian military men accountable for the gross human rights violations that his fellow country men, women and children suffered from while the perpetrators continue to murder people in places like West Papua, means I have little respect for him.

I feel like a heretic saying this about him as so many people, both Timorese and “malae”, worship the ground he walks on. However, in my mind, they aren’t critical enough and obviously like strong father figures (he is often referred to as “the Father of this nation”; it is impossible to imagine the opposite “the Mother of this nation” unless of course you’re talking about the Virgin Mary). I know that many other human rights activists, again both Timorese and “malae” aren’t so enamoured with him so my thoughts on him are not unique and after all, I am an iconoclast.
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Your observations are very interesting, particularly given the fact that the President's wife is an advocate of woman's rights.

By Blogger ginger, at 3:24 pm  

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