Imagine you’re a young woman living one hundred years ago in a small village in the mountains of Timor-Leste. Your family has lived and farmed here together for generations—you grow cabbages, carrots, corn and beans in a shared family farm with your father’s brothers, and your grandmother lives at home with you—and your family’s sacred house sits just a short walk up the hill. It’s the centre of traditional practice and lore in your community, a site with which you and your family maintain a deep connection and responsibility, and it’s where you’ll make offerings to honour matebian (ancestors) on the occasion of your marriage.

You’re free to choose who you want to marry; your parents won’t arrange your marriage. But in an intensely Catholic community where centuries-old customary traditions knit families together, build alliances, and strengthen community, organising a marriage isn’t as straightforward as just a proposal and a party.

Traditional marriage rituals in Timor-Leste comprise of Catholic wedding traditions preceded by a complex series of customary ceremonial exchanges between the couple’s families. Known collectively in the local Tetun language as barlake, these exchanges—covering the ceremonial meetings between future families-in-law, the deeply symbolic exchange of cash and gifts, and the connections made and strengthened between families on the occasion of their children’s marriage—are often crudely translated to English as a “bride price” or “dowry”, even though the exchanges are mutual.

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Sophie Raynor - New Naratif

Sophie Raynor

Sophie Raynor is a freelance writer based in Dili, Timor-Leste, interested in gender, youth and politics in Southeast Asia. She is on Twitter @raynorsophie.