Gender News

New Government in East Timor Sparks Gender Debate

Over the last half-century, peace and stability have remained elusive goals in East Timor, officially known the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Invaded by Indonesia shortly after it achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, East Timor has only been a formal country with de facto control of its borders only since 2002. On July 7, the country held its third parliamentary election that was won handily by the ruling party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction. Outside observers have praised the election as relatively uncorrupt, with people walking hours in order to cast their votes. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao announced the formation of a new cabinet on August 7th, completing the new government.

The choice of Maria Domingas Alves, previously the Minister of Social Security, for the more prestigious position as Minister of Defense and Security (the military’s top civilian overseer) proved to be the most controversial cabinet pick. President Taur Matan Ruak, who was elected as an independent candidate in April, seems to have balked at the selection of a woman, and forced the nomination of Cirilo Jose Christopher instead. Christopher’s nomination is now secure, but women’s rights groups in East Timor are furious. The Rado Feto womens’ network claims that the snubbing of Alves is a decision to “reduce the dignity of East Timorese women, and ignore women’s capacity that was well demonstrated [by Mikato] in her over five years contributing strong successes in the administration of the first coalition government.” The women of East Timor’s parliament have also expressed their anger, claiming that the President’s decision “kills the spirit of participation among women.”

President Ruak’s real name is José Maria Vasconcelos. Taur Matan Ruak is rather a nom de guerre meaning “two sharp eyes” in Tetum, an Austronesian language straddling the Indonesia/East Timor border. Having fought the Indonesian occupation of East Timor for its entire 29-year duration, Ruak remains a very popular political figure. He played a controversial role in the 2006 East Timor Crisis, a period of infighting among the military, where he distributed weapons to civilians to help back his faction, but this seems not to have damaged his political career. After a generation at the helm of East Timor’s armed forces, Ruak sees Alves as an outsider who lacks the necessary experience and pedigree, a charge deemed ridiculous by Alves’s supporters.

Adding to these tensions is East Timor’s persistent (and historically justified) fear of conflict with Indonesia. Recently a small fight broke out between Indonesian and East Timorese civilians inside the “Free Zone” that separates the two countries. Apparently, the East Timorese attempted to build a customs facility in the zone, which Indonesians attacked with rocks. An East Timorese security post suffered damage, but otherwise no one was harmed.

Allegations of presidential sexism notwithstanding, the last month has generally been regarded as a success for East Timor. With its history of war and a GDP per capita of only $1,588 in 2011 (156th in the World according to the World Bank), carrying out successful elections remains a significant accomplishment for the country.

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Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India

 

The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.



[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

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Thai Transsexual Wins Election

Yonlada Suanyos, a transsexual woman, recently gained fame by becoming Thailand’s first katoey (or openly transgender person) to be elected to public office. Ms. Suanyos, a PhD candidate who also runs a television station and a jewelry business, will soon become a councilor in Nan province in northern Thailand. She was formerly a member of a transgender music group called Venus Flytrap, performing under the name of Posh Venus.

Thailand is noted for both the size and the public acceptance of its transgender community. According to a Global Post article, roughly one biological man in 2,500 live as women in the United States, whereas in Thailand the figure could be as high as one in 165. Not surprisingly, Thailand is a major center of sexual reassignment surgery. Thai transsexuals often suffer abuse, but less so than in most other countries. They are periodically celebrated in beauty contests, and last year, according to Reuters, “A new Thai airline [began] hiring transsexual ladyboys as flight attendants, aiming at a unique identity to set itself apart from competitors as it sets out for the skies.”

Military service can be a difficult matter for transsexuals in Thailand, a country that practices conscription. As the Global Post article recounts:

 In practice, long-haired, perfumed draftees with hormone-induced breasts are very rarely drafted. Instead, they are dismissed as unfit for service, often for having “malformed chests.” The most common reason for dismissal, however, is also the more damning: “mental disorder.” Worse yet is “permanent insanity,” a ruling written into the permanent record of kathoey Samart Meecharoen in 2006.

The Thai Buddhist establishment is also concerned about the prevalence of transsexuals in the country. Some monasteries even provide “masculinity training,” a difficult and highly controversial practice. Reportedly, half of the young men trained in one program have gone on to live as women.

 

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Violence against Women in Solomon Islands

According to Australia Network News, a recent World Bank report lists Solomon Islands as suffering from more violence against women than any other country. The Bank’s recent Gender Equality and Development Report states that 64 per cent of women in the Melanesian country claim that they have been victims of domestic violence. Most of the violence against women in Solomon Islands is reported to be sexual in nature. Laws to criminalize domestic violence have not been instituted in the island country.

An earlier Australian governmental report claims that violence against women is common across most of Melanesia:

In Melanesia and East Timor, violence against women is severe, pervasive and constrains development. The impacts of violence against women include escalating health care, social services, policing and justice system costs and restrict women’s participation in political, social and economic life.

 

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Mother Goddess Worship in Vietnam

Wikipedia Religious Freedom Map

Wikipedia Religious Freedom MapAlthough Vietnam is in name a Communist state, the practice of mother goddess worship  endures through much of the country.  Mother Goddesses are thought to represent heaven, earth, water, mountains, and forests.  They are celebrated in rituals as symbols of fertility and creation.  For the first time, the worship of Mother Goddesses is on display at a public museum in Hanoi.  The exhibition, “Worshiping Mother Goddesses: Heart – Beauty – Joy,” opened at the Vietnam Women’s Museum on 5 January 2012.  Its installation comes after two years of research among practitioners by the Vietnam Women’s Union.

Organizers of the exhibition reported approval difficulties with local authorities. According to anthropologist and Mother-Goddess-worship specialist Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, these problems are unsurprising, “since in the past, the worship was seen as superstition.”  However, signs suggest a change, since Mother Goddess worship is at last “being officially acknowledged in modern society.”  The ritual may be proposed as an UNESCO cultural heritage.  This exhibition may be the first step towards greater recognition and appreciation of the ritual, as Vietnamese anthropologists propose to found a private museum focused on the worship of Mother Goddesses.

Overall, Vietnam is generally regarded as having a relatively low level of religious freedom, as indicated in this admittedly highly problematic Wikipedia map. Vietnamese human rights activists have recently accused the government of discriminating against religious minorities, especially among the country’s tribal populations.

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The Defeat of Anti-Bride-Abduction Legislation in Kyrgyzstan

Bride Kidnapping Kyrgyzstan Film Poster

Bride Kidnapping Kyrgyzstan Film PosterThe forcible abduction of women for the purpose of marriage has long been common in Kyrgyzstan. According to a recent Eurasia.net article, almost half of all wives in some provincial towns were “non-consensually kidnapped.” The practice is illegal in Kyrgyzstan and violates Islamic law, but many local Muslim clerics are willing to legitimize such unions. A bill in the Kyrgyz parliament designed to eliminate the practice recently went down to defeat, in part because many legislators remained absent. The bill reportedly failed to gain widespread support because male members of parliament feared that it would also be used to crack down on polygamy. Polygamy is also illegal in Kyrgyzstan, but it is increasingly common among the wealthier members of the society.

According to the Eurasia.net article, clerics usually bless such “marriages by abduction” after the kidnapped women agree to it, but such “agreement” often follows rape and other acts of violence and coercion.

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Circumcision Quandries in Zambia

Public health officials have been urging circumcision on men in sub-Saharan Africa, arguing that the universal application of the practice could prevent two million HIV cases a year. A recent study in Zambia, however, shows that roughly a quarter of newly circumcised men resume sexual activities before they have fully healed, facilitating the spread of the virus. As a result, health experts fear that the spread of circumcision in the region could actually increase HIV infection rates.

 

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