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.
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.
Barlake has consequently been denigrated and dismissed by some as a transactive process; the sale of a daughter in exchange for goods. And, while it’s been suggested that the word comes from simply joining the Malay words ber; get, and laki; husband, a Tetun synonym hafolin does join together the word folin—price or value—with the action prefix ha, to give value; or, perhaps, to assign a price.
A deep tension at the heart of modern conceptions of barlake asks: is the practice a gift exchange, or is it a transaction? Does “folin” mean value, or price? Does it thread bonds of mutual dependence and cooperation through communities, or does it merely commodify daughters? And, 20 years after Timor-Leste’s vote for independence unlocked the sealed-off former colony to the world, where does barlake sit in the project of a contemporary, globalised, modern state?
A complex social technology
The Brazilian anthropologist, Kelly Silva, has been researching barlake practices for 15 years. She’s the pre-eminent scholar on the topic and a leading voice in calls for a more sophisticated, culturally grounded analysis of barlake as a multifaceted social process indicative of the complexity of modern, individualised Timorese society—not as a mere bride price.
“Most people in Timor-Leste who criticise barlake are involved with modern society and are committed to individualism,” Silva tells New Naratif. “They’re living in Dili, employed by the state; by non-government organisations.” She says they identify as people free from traditional community obligations that would have obliged them to contribute resources to family members’ barlake.
Silva says that in Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital, an assumption that barlake is uncivilised or backward persists to today. People have thus begun to find ways to avoid saying that they engage in the practice, while still adhering to tradition. This has led to the development of a complex vocabulary naming specific rituals within the marriage exchange process.
In Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital, an assumption that barlake is uncivilised or backward persists to today.
“In Dili, it’s very common, if you ask, ‘Did you have barlake at your wedding?’, they’ll say, ‘No, but we had other gifts,” Silva says. She lists the examples: tuku odamatan (“knocking on the door”), loke dalan (“opening the way”), hamoos dalan (“cleaning the way”), or koñese malu’ (“knowing each other”) to describe the ceremonial negotiations between new families-in-law-to-be; ai-tukun bee manas, literally meaning “firewood and hot water”, but in a gift context, representing the elements needed to assist in childbirth, symbolically acknowledging the pain and suffering experienced by a mother in birthing her daughter.
Silva writes that families who consider barlake uncivilised navigate deep-seated cultural commitments by emphasising that barlake is just one in a broad suite of gift functions.
“It is possible to come across marriages in which the groom’s family offers US$10,000 to the bride’s and still claims that there was no barlake, only ai-tukun bee manas, and others in which the groom’s family transfers US$500 to the bride’s family in the name of barlake,” she writes.
Modern barlake practices in action
In the 20 years since Timor-Leste voted for independence from occupier Indonesia, the country has undergone rapid social transformation. According to Timor-Leste’s most recent census, 70.5% of the country’s population lives rurally, leading a subsistence or near-subsistence lifestyle, but the composition of the country’s employment is tending away from agriculture and toward service and industry roles, particularly in urban Dili. Four-fifths of Dili’s workforce are employed in the latter industry—waged work as office clerks, retail assistants and labourers—and the influx of income and commerce to Timor-Leste’s economy after independence means barlake and other rituals are now grappling with the question of cash.
Sonia Simoes is a 31-year-old Timorese woman who grew up in Dili and was employed at an international not-for-profit organisation before relocating to the United Kingdom to study a master’s degree. She says she was previously uncertain about barlake, thinking she didn’t want to oblige her partner Niall Almond, who is Irish, to participate, thinking the exchange wouldn’t be equal. Almond agreed.
“He saw it as a somewhat oppressive practice and didn’t understand why our relationship needed to be validated by him presenting gifts to my family,” Simoes says. But speaking with friends about the value of the rituals, and considering the effect that the couple’s decision to not participate in barlake could have on her parents, the pair changed their minds.
Her parents’ standing in their community was a factor in the couple’s decision to follow barlake, she says. “We wanted to ensure that the rest of the family and community wouldn’t be thinking or talking badly of my parents as a result of us ‘not following tradition’, as their standing in the community is really important to us, and the perceived behaviour of children can shape that.
“We were making plans to move abroad together [and] we decided to hold our engagement ceremony before we left as a way of thanking my parents for their understanding and patience, and for the lack of pressure they put on us,” Simoes says.
The couple invited close friends to stand in for Almond’s parents at their barlake meetings, as his family couldn’t travel to Timor-Leste for the ceremony.
“We agreed to my uncle’s suggestions for a few symbolic donations for the uma lulik (sacred house) and the family, including a contribution of a few hundred dollars, which Niall and I shared, one bibi (goat) and some betel nut, wine and cigarettes,” Simoes says.
The uma lulik, and the community’s responsibilities for it, remain as important in modern Timorese society as it was 100 years ago. After the negotiations were agreed, the couple held a simple troka prenda, or “gift exchange” ceremony; loosely explained to foreigner friends as an engagement party, at a hotel in Dili for friends and family. “We dressed in traditional clothes, exchanged rings and animals, and danced and feasted,” Simoes says.
Simoes contributed her own share to emphasise to Almond that she considered the exchange an equal act to create mutual bonds, not just an obligation on his family.
“She wanted to make a point to me and herself that this was an equal exchange, rather than just my obligation, which she saw as unfair if I was obligated to shoulder the whole burden when it wasn’t actually my culture,” Almond says. “If it’s just my side obliged to fully follow barlake with no ‘give’ from Sonia’s side then it’s not an equal exchange.”
Silva, the anthropologist, says the self-sufficiency of young, modern Timorese couples can cause families to fear the breaking of the complex webs that bring communities together.
Historically, families would have to borrow from one another in order to meet barlake obligations, lending and borrowing buffalo, goats, pigs, alcohol, jewellery, cash, spices, furniture, religious statues and icons. This has the function of emphasising the interdependence that exists within the community.
But in individualised Dili, she says families are growing uncomfortable with relying on or involving others as they become more capable of meeting obligations alone.
“To understand what’s going on with barlake, you have to understand the social transformation in a wider way in society,” she says. “Since independence, the number of people in waged work has increased, and young people are becoming more independent from their families to bring together the resources needed for barlake. There’s [a new] individualism, which is a big change. It’s a consequence of the significant monetisation of Timorese society.”
“There’s [a new] individualism, which is a big change. It’s a consequence of the significant monetisation of Timorese society.”
But she notes that Timor-Leste’s traditionally hierarchical society limits how young people can engage with barlake.
“Young people don’t have the same power as older people do in a family discussion about barlake,” she says. “There is not necessarily a relationship between a stance against barlake and not having it—you can be against it, but you might be obliged to accept it in your wedding. Most young people don’t have the right to say what they’d like to do in their marriage exchanges. The marriage negotiation is not a marriage of individual choice; it’s most of the time done by the lia-na’in (customary leader) who represents the interests of the uma lulik.”
Simoes said she personally felt empowered participating in barlake, from seeing it as embedded in its broader socio-cultural context. “It’s moving away from an understanding of it as either inherently oppressive, or something that needs to be followed without question,” she says.
Feminist conceptions of barlake
Critics of barlake practices have described it as a means of subjugating and commodifying women—a practice inherently conflicting with feminist values.
“As early as the 1960s [barlake practises] have been blamed for the subjugation of women,” writes Australian anthropologist and Timor-Leste gender expert, Sara Niner. “This condemnation fits into broad global feminist critiques of traditional marriage practices as mechanisms for the control and exploitation of women by men. The contemporary discourse surrounding barlake in Timor-Leste is also part of wider debates about the roles and status of women in the new post-conflict nation.”
The argument for this is that by exchanging cash and gifts upon the occasion of a woman’s marriage, her family is equating her with goods—inanimate, lacking in agency, to be transacted—and conceiving her as merely an object. And the supremacy of the interests of the uma lulik at large over the individual’s desires points to a sharp restriction of a woman’s agency.
“The contemporary discourse surrounding barlake in Timor-Leste is also part of wider debates about the roles and status of women in the new post-conflict nation.”
“Most of the time barlake is in conflict with the feminist perspective,” says Silva. “Broadly speaking, the marriage exchange is an institution which responds to the interests of the house, to men. But that doesn’t mean that barlake cannot serve to protect women.”
A man’s family will often take decades to make a barlake transfer, she explains, and a woman’s family’s rights to her continue until the transfer is complete. A deep connection remains between a woman, her family, her uma lulik, until the transfer is complete—offering sanctuary and scrutiny; an avenue to hold husbands accountable for the treatment of their wives. If, for instance, any issue crops up within the marriage during this time, a woman can still easily return to her family home.
Simoes agrees that there are valid criticisms about the ways in which barlake can produce sexist outcomes, but says the practice must be read within the context of Timor-Leste’s 500 years of history as a colonised country.
“I would argue instead that the oppressive manifestations of barlake—which affect both men and women, in different ways—are more related to the socio-economic effects of colonialism, military occupation and now, capitalist globalisation, which have massively exacerbated economic inequalities, violence and so-called ‘backward’ thinking,” she says.
“This is why I find that most of the critiques of barlake—generally made by ‘well-meaning’ liberal development workers or western-educated Timorese—which attack it as inherently backward, patriarchal and oppressive are rather problematic and even hypocritical, as they erase historical context as well as reproducing colonial narratives about the inferiority of non-western practices.”
The Barlake War
Historically, barlake was criticised by the Portuguese colonial regime in Timor-Leste as a reductive commodity exchange conducted by barbaric, backwards people—an attitude which Silva says was internalised and reproduced by many Timorese elite. But others disagreed. In the dying days of the Portuguese colonial administration in the 1970s, an ideological fight erupted publicly, between indigenous Timorese who had “assimilated” with elite Portuguese society and Portuguese civil servants, over clashing perceptions of barlake.
In a chapter titled “The Barlake War”, Silva outlines the fight. In response to a short story written by the Portuguese civil servant, Inacio de Moura, where barlake dealings to seal a marriage were presented as a commodity transaction, several Timorese intellectuals published their own thoughts. Silva writes that these men considered “East Timorese social life [highly] complex, difficult to understand for a Westerner unfamiliar with the local context.”
The men considered barlake as a matrix for negotiating social life, rather than an end in itself. “All rejected socially decontextualised understandings of barlake or hafolin (meaning either to give value, or price),” Silva writes.
“In this view, there was no opposition between material goods and persons in marriage practices; instead, the exchange of wealth either created or reinforced social ties.”
The business of barlake
But the monetisation of Timor-Leste’s economy and the new prioritising of cash in barlake exchanges has seen greed threaten the idea of barlake as a technology for social cohesion. Silva points to the significant amount of money that changes hands during the troka prenda (gift exchange)—the final step of barlake negotiations, made after gift values have been agreed to—as evidence.
“The troka prenda currently presents the strongest challenge for the customary alliance [idea of barlake] in Dili, the major reason being that significant amounts of money—commonly associated with the market economy—may be exchanged in this context,” she writes.
Barlake greed is an emerging phenomenon, with some families seeking significant sums of money in marriage negotiations.
Barlake greed is an emerging phenomenon, with some families seeking significant sums of money in marriage negotiations. Local authorities in Timor-Leste’s Ermera municipality recently decided to cap barlake cash payments at US$2,500, and Niner, the anthropologist, published a paper in which a member of Timor-Leste’s parliament told her that some people treat barlake as an income source.
One young woman told Niner:
“I agree and disagree with barlake. It is part of my identity as a Timorese and part of my culture. Barlake used to be for extending and strengthening families but now it looks more like business. I believe we should keep the form and reduce the numbers.”
Another told the researcher that she and her husband were realistic in choosing their barlake value.
“We decided on this low amount, thirty buffalos, because of my husband’s family,” she said. “We didn’t want a huge obligation for us (or for our kids to inherit) and because my family would have to match the value of the buffalo in tais (traditional woven fabric). We just wanted an amount we could afford, and which would pay respect to our culture and our parents.”
Balancing tradition with her own choices weighed on Simoes’s mind, too, as she considered her parents’ wishes in her own barlake journey. “As far as my parents were concerned, they mainly wanted us to be happy, but very much also hoped we would follow at least part of the tradition, as they do put a lot of importance in ritual and spirituality.”
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.