Gendered Narratives of Development and Modernity from Indonesian-Occupied East Timor

Gendered Narratives of Development and Modernity from Indonesian-Occupied East Timor

Dr Hannah Loney was awarded the 2017 ASAA Postdoctoral Fellowship, here she tells us more about her work on East Timor.

Can you tell us a bit about your research? What’s the problem it explores?

As part of my ASAA Postdoctoral Fellowship, I am developing a short piece on violence, biopolitics, and regimes of the family in Indonesian-occupied East Timor. More specifically, I am interested in the one of the social development and modernisation programmes that the New Order regime implemented in East Timor: the Indonesian National Family Planning Programme (KB Programme). While the Government of Indonesia had maintained a commitment to population control and family planning from the late 1960s, it was not until 1980 that the KB Programme was introduced to East Timor. The programme was managed centrally by the National Family Planning Coordinating Agency (BKKBN), which was mandated to reduce the growth rate of the population and particularly, in the province of East Timor, to correspondingly improve the perceived low standards of family health and welfare.

I suggest that East Timor presented a distinct context for implementation of this national programme. The history of conflict, the prevalence of the military in everyday life, concerns about artificial forms of contraception, and the tradition of large families—compounded by the inability of the apparatuses of the Indonesian military state to convey information in a culturally effective and meaningful manner—meant that many East Timorese women were extremely hesitant and fearful to participate in this state-sponsored form of population control. Nevertheless, the KB Programme had a significant impact upon the lives of East Timorese women and their families in its attempts to program, plan, and govern women’s bodies and their reproductive capacity, and the opposition that this precipitated. I am interested in exploring these paradoxical and often contradictory effects.

How did you first become interested in this topic?

This project emerged out of my PhD and book, In Women’s Words: Violence and Everyday Life during the Indonesian Occupation of East Timor (1975–1999), which will be published later this year with Sussex Academic Press. Drawing primarily upon an original archive of oral history interviews, my book presents a woman-centred history of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. It reveals the pervasiveness of violence—as well as its gendered and gendering dynamics—within the social and cultural “everyday” of life in occupied East Timor. One of the chapters in my book explores women and everyday life under Indonesian rule. Within this chapter, I consider the ways in which the occupying regime sought to manage and control East Timorese women’s bodies and their reproductive capacity under the KB Programme. Upon completing the book manuscript, I felt there was more to consider and ponder within this context and thus sought to delve further into this topic.

What has been the most challenging aspect of doing this research so far?

The implementation and reception of the KB Programme in East Timor is clouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Within the approximately fifty-five interviews that I conducted with East Timorese women as part of my PhD project, only a small number of women directly raised the KB Programme, reflecting the highly sensitive nature of the issue within East Timorese society. Human rights reports produced during the period of occupation, as well as reports by the Catholic Church, heavily condemned the programme as a systematic violation of East Timorese women’s sexual and reproductive rights. At the same time, a series of documents produced by Indonesia’s Department of Information claimed that East Timor had been left severely under-developed and its people impoverished following Portuguese colonial rule; the government was thus “compelled” to introduce a series of policies, structures, and institutions to East Timor in order to “develop” and “modernise” the territory. The narratives that underpin within these three types of sources present distinctive frameworks for interpreting the KB programme. One of the most challenging aspects of conducting this research thus far, therefore, has been balancing these diverse understandings and seeking a way of bringing them together into a coherent narrative.

What are you working on now? What can we expect to see next?

My work on the KB Programme in Indonesian-occupied East Timor forms part of my new project, in which I explore New Order gender ideology in occupied East Timor. I argue that the infrastructure of the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor and its impact on East Timorese women must be understood within the context of the gender ideology of Suharto’s New Order regime and the ideas about gender, femininity, and sexuality contained within it. Within this project, I will examine a number of national programmes (such as the KB Programme) and state-sanctioned organisations that were introduced to East Timor in a purported attempt to “develop” and to “modernise” the territory. In part, these initiatives brought about new spaces for social organisation, opportunities for education and employment, and new forms of social and geographical mobility for East Timorese women. The highly militarised and repressive context of East Timor meant, however, that many women were hesitant to perceive them as genuine and well-intended; instead, these initiatives were often seen as attempts to restrict, control, and indoctrinate the population in accordance with the integrationist aims and centralising ideology of the New Order state. Although my focus in the initial stages of the project is the occupied territory of East Timor, I am interested in the impact of New Order gender ideology, and associated notions of “development” and “modernisation”, within other areas that were seen to be on the periphery of the New Order nationalist project ­– referred to as daerah rawan (“trouble spots”) – including Aceh and West Papua.


Featured image: “The Timorese with their national flag, red and white”, in Department of Foreign Affairs Republic of Indonesia, East Timor in Pictures, 1984 (Wikimedia Commons).

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