The Trouble With Timor-Leste’s Gender Quotas

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The Trouble With Timor-Leste’s Gender Quotas

The devil lies in the details.

The Trouble With Timor-Leste’s Gender Quotas
Credit: Flickr/NeilsPhotography

I ask for no outpouring of sympathy, but those of us who spend our days jotting down opinions and making them available for public consumption face a perennial question of whether we want feedback. Perhaps, though, that’s just me. A response might arrive in the inbox with sentiments of support but, more often than not, they come with the opposite intention.

In such opinionated circles, the publication of one op-ed can provoke a brief guerre de mots. That is what happened last month when Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, wrote a piece for the New York Times’ Sunday Review called “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Whatever Lilla’s views – some are fine, others questionable – his article was certainly relevant in that it provoked a discussion of the merits of identity politics. Sifting through the discourse, I was reminded of a remarkably obvious, yet neglected, statement expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens almost a decade ago. “People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with,” he wrote. “One does not banish this specter by invoking it. If I would not vote against someone on the grounds of ‘race’ or ‘gender’ alone, then by the exact same token I would not cast a vote in his or her favor for the identical reason.”

But how does this get us onto the topic of this article, which, as the reader might have noticed from its title, is about gender quotas in Timor-Leste? Well, the small, half-island nation has been praised in recent years for having one of Asia’s highest percentages of female parliamentarians: 38 percent. This was a direct result of a law introduced in 2006 that requires political parties to nominate one woman for every group of four candidates at national elections. Three years later, another law was enacted that means every suku (village) council must have two reserved positions for women, and two for youth representatives, one male, one female. Then, in July, another law was passed that requires a female candidate to stand in every election for village chief in Timor-Leste. At the time, only two percent of village chiefs were women. The local elections that took place in October and November were the first to apply this law and saw the number of female village chiefs double.

But are these gender quotas actually achieving anything? Wait, given how combustive this issue is, allow me to refine my question: Are gender quotas allowing East Timorese women to gain genuine positions of power or are they simply creating a statistic that can be wielded as a sign of progress?

First, it needs to be stated that Timor-Leste has a grand history of female activism. Rosa Muki Bonaparte was one of the founders of Fretilin, the nationalist, anti-imperialist movement and later political party. She went on to lead the party’s women’s arm, Organizacao Popular Mulher Timorense (Popular Organisation of Timorese Women). She was gunned down nine days after the Indonesian invasion in 1975. And, during the 24-year independence struggle, women played an indispensable role, not only as soldiers, but also as messengers, spies, and breadwinners. Still, female combatants rarely held positions of power in the anti-colonial forces and, worse, the historical narrative created after independence focused on the actions of the male fighters, particularly those in senior positions who have dominated East Timorese politics since 2002.

Now, that said, chart your mind back to when I informed you that in Timor-Leste 38 percent of parliamentarians are women. In my opinion, there are three different conclusions that can be drawn from this fact. First, that there are few problems with gender discrimination in Timor-Leste. Second, that gender discrimination remains prevalent and that is why quotas are necessary. Third, that gender discrimination remains and the country needs to aim higher than 38 percent. However, not one of these conclusions actually reveals anything about what the parliamentarians are doing, how they’re changing politics, and what power they have.

In a 2002 essay, the anthropologists Sofi Ospina and Tanja Hohe described contemporary life in rural Timor-Leste thusly: “The decision making process is the domain of the senior male of the existing social groups within the hamlets. Rural women are not supposed to be outspoken and take the floor in public meetings.” Responding to this quote, Sara Niner, an anthropologist at Monash University, wrote in a 2011 paper Hakat Klot, Narrow Steps that “in public or political decision-making processes senior men dominate, while women, particularly senior women, have symbolic and ritual power.” She went on to say that “although Timor has one of the highest levels of female parliamentary participation in the world, many of these women are often ineffective and viewed merely as token representatives (possibly forced on the Timorese by the idea of a foreign quota system).”

Amongst all of these fine words, the most important is symbolic. Politics, however much one might disagree, is about power. And what is a rank without power? Symbolic. This is a problem with gender quotas: it can become style over substance; numbers over meaning. The 38 percent of parliamentarians in Timor-Leste become just that, a statistic to be quoted by journalists, praised by the government and lauded by the international community. Indeed, take the 38 percent as an example. Of the 38 cabinet positions, women hold only eight. Although these include important positions (including Santina Cardoso as minister of finance; Maria do Céu Sarmento Pina da Costa as minister of health; and Isabel Amaral Guterres as minister of social solidarity) the percentage of women in high-placed roles is just 21 percent.

It becomes more problematic than that. In her 2011 paper, The Problem of Gender Quotas: Women’s Representatives on Timor-Leste’s Suku Councils, Deborah Cummins found that since the introduction of reserved seats, “there appears to have been limited public interest in how these women are performing. Instead, the focus of the Timor-Leste government, the United Nations, and NGOs alike has been on encouraging more women to run for election to the post of xefe suku (chief of the suku council).” Indeed, the climax of this goal was the legislation passed in July.

But what Cummins intends to show, as I read it, is that once a quota system is introduced, there is little insight into how effective it is. So, in one way, not only are gender quotas merely creating symbolic positions of power, they are also working to create more and more symbolic position of power without ever stopping to consider the effect. Once the ball is rolling, all that matters is the ball is rolling, not where it’s heading. In another way, the desire for more and more quotas is becoming the end, not the means.

But what should be the means and what are the ends? It seems rather simple, but the ends should be female emancipation and autonomy. But it is not only in Timor-Leste where the ends and means become blurred. The American politician Madeleine Albright once commented that there is “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Albright sparked controversy during the last year for criticizing female Americans who did not vote for presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

One might parry Albright’s quote with one by Mary Wollstonecraft, from A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their ‘fascinating’ graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

One must never forget that there is a short stumble from advocating to patronizing. If the intention of having gender quotas is only to have more women in politics so that they can agitate specifically for policies that affect women then not only is this incredibly patronizing, as it belittles the role of women on national issues, but it also has the effect of homogenizing women into one single bloc, solely based on gender (not the best start if the goal is to foster more autonomy and individuality).

For a newcomer to Timor-Leste and its politics, I cannot recommend enough Gordon Peake’s Beloved Land. Writing of the political situation, Peake cuts away the fat and notes that it is a country of “family relationships, friendships, romances, and antagonisms that collectively render ideas and concepts such as ‘accountability’ and ‘separation of powers’ almost completely impractical… Kinship and opaque connections are the ties that bind – not five-year plans and detailed strategic documentation.”

Indeed, when one speaks to an East Timorese official (an ambassador to another Southeast Asian country, let’s say) one regularly hears that the president is a personal friend or the prime minister is a cousin. Last year, when I was in Dili, the country’s capital, which has a population of less than 200,000 people, I was told that that it is a city of cousins and friends. If everybody knows everyone then amongst the claustrophobic political class this is even more true. And this is the same for men as it is women.

Writing in the East Asia Forum in June, Netina Tan provided a decent summary of gender quotas in Asia, but left this reader wanting more when, in conclusion, she wrote that “the rise of elite women does not signify a revolutionary change with regards to gender equality in the region.” Tan left this sentence lingering, but it is well worth looking into its implications. Consider what Cummins had to say in her paper about Timor-Leste: “While the elite female parliamentarians have through their intelligence and political savoir faire earned for themselves a certain degree of respect by men, the stereotype of the ‘uneducated’ and ‘weak’ village woman remains.” Such a statement can be paired with one by Niner: “There is often tension within the women’s movement about these priorities and a divide between less-educated rural women and middle class urban women with a more feminist agenda.”

Take as an example the position of a suku council member (remember two seats on each are reserved for women). Because this is essentially a voluntary position, members only receive a small stipend to perform their tasks. Because of this, Cummins wrote, “only those with a good income stream can afford to take on these roles, a fact which automatically limits participation in terms of social class.” Indeed, gender quotas take no account of differing attitudes amongst women in Timor-Leste, nor the role of class in gender politics. What one woman from the urban elite might think is best for women might differ radically from what one who suffers in rural poverty might consider more important. Quotas solve none of these problems.

Forgive me for drifting off on a tangent, but in my relatively short life I have come to the conclusion that one of the only known cures for poverty, and genuine social equality, is female emancipation. This means autonomy over money; over reproduction; over relationships; over laws. But this means more than mere numbers and requires a good deal of iconoclasm.

First, one should find it detestable that abortion is only available to women in Timor-Leste if it can save their lives; everything else remains illegal. The 2009 Penal Code added this rather paltry allowance. Second, one would also have liked to have heard a little more opprobrium from gender-rights activists when, in March, Prime Minister Rui de Araújo met with Pope Francis. This is the man who last year said a defiant no to the ordination of women to the church, making it one the last institutions in the world without women leaders; the man who continues to believe abortion to be more evil than contraceptives, meaning many women, mostly the poorest, still cannot control their reproductive cycles; and the man who rails against divorce. (And before your mind flickers to the thought, Timor-Leste is a Catholic country, that’s just the way they think, then consider the corollary that Timor-Leste is a patriarchal, traditional country, so men in the power is normal.)

Returning to my point about differing attitudes toward what is best for women, these are seldom specific to the realm of gender. Consider the observations I just made above: most are first and foremost theological matters. What then, for example, if all women in politics were hardline Catholics? None would vote to allow abortion or divorce or an increase in contraceptives.  Or consider the comments of Niner and Cummins about the distinctions of social class. If all women in politics were from the wealthier classes, as the situation tends to create, would they be the best advocates for women who endure rural poverty?

A profound issue lies here: gender quotas seek to force Timor-Leste to transcend the very same problems that require their introduction. Either Timor-Leste is a tolerant country in which women would be elected to political positions without laws requiring it; or Timor-Leste is an intolerant country and wouldn’t elect as many women if such laws didn’t exist — and, in turn, such intolerance won’t be ended just because people see a few more women in power. With the quotas, one cannot ascertain an answer to these questions.

“According to a growing number of Timorese women in politics, the quota should only be seen as a ‘temporary special measure,’ a means to an end, and not an end itself,” reads a 2012 article by Susan Marx of the Asia Foundation. “The women we spoke with said that there is an opportunity with the new generation of female leaders to eventually transition to a purely merit-based participation, but only if political parties are willing to change their own patriarchal ways and allow women full participation in leadership.”