15 January 2013

Marriages in Timor-Leste

ETLJB 15 January 2012 Guest Poster: Matthew Libbis BA (Hons) Anthropology* - Marriage is the most socially cohesive institution in Timorese society. The indigenous taxonomies around marriage include terms such as fetosa-umane, tunanga and be manas ahi tukan. There is bridewealth amongst some, which occurs in an imbalance, so that the man’s family give the woman’s family gifts of greater value (buffalo, goats and gold or money), while the woman’s family give the man’s family items of lesser value (pigs, tais [textile]).

Fetosa-umane is the relationship between the two families of the marriage: the fetosa, wife taking clan, or husband’s family; and the umane, wife giving clan, or wife’s family. It has wider implications than just the pecuniary exchange; it establishes a bond of obligation between the marrying families. 

Tunanga allows – indeed, prefers - a man to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, but forbids him from marrying his father’s sister’s daughter, as her mother is his aunt (an aunt is paternal, either father’s sister or mother’s brother’s wife). 

Be manas ahi tukan is the occasion on which engagement gifts are exchanged: for a bride’s parents, wine, cigarettes and cash, all presented in a traditionally woven basket; the wife’s family give the man tais, and he becomes known as mane foun, or new man, once the couple marry. 

Van Wouden spoke of an asymmetric connnubium, which encompasses these arrangements, where the wife’s family has higher status than the husband’s, particularly where the unequal exchange of gifts between the families of the marrying couple occurs; and where cross cousin marriage only occurs in one direction, but not the other. 

Increased urbanisation because of relocations has forced this change to marriage patterns. Cross cousin marriage is frowned upon by the church, and has ceased in the towns, but continues in more remote areas in the mountains, away from the eye of the church.

The Tetun eschew the notion of bridewealth: they see its absence as respect for daughter’s dignity; they do not “trade women like buffalo”.  The only gift is that of a belak, or breastplate, to the uma lulik (sacred house) of the wife’s family, where the marriage is discussed.  The parents’ house is central, with the married daughter’s houses surrounding them. The wife’s family give the husband land, but this is not considered to be part of bridewealth exchange; it is so he can prove his ability to provide for her and the family. Sometimes a man will not move in with the wife’s family, but where he is deemed to be marrying in, the wife’s family still give him land to work on and provide for her family.

The notion of bride wealth and bride service is not an economic one, rather it compensates for or replaces the reproductive potential of the woman (Schulte Nordholt 1971:137). In both uxorilocal and matrilineal systems, this is not necessary, because in the first instance, the women remain in the village; and in the second, the children of the marriage belong to that village.  This practice occurs amongst the central southern Tetun of East Timor, according to whom the practice spreads as far as Wehale in West Timor, but not as far as Viqueque in the East.

Uxorilocality occurs with the failure to pay bridewealth. In such cases, the children of the marriage belong to the lineage of the wife’s father. In Mambai areas of the mountains of Manufahi, if a man’s family cannot pay the woman’s family bridewealth, the first child of the marriage is returned to the wife’s father’s village. Matrilineality is a result of several successive generations of uxorilocality (Schulte Nordholt 1971:435).  

In a remote and rural uma laran, people say that in their grandparents’ time, one child would go to live in the father’s village (the husband moves in to wife’s family’s house); now, two children will go. It is decided at birth which children will live where, and they are named accordingly: given their father’s family name if they are to live in father’s village.

Should I stay or should I go?
In contemporary context, where a couple live once they are married may simply be a case of living where there is employment – either on spouses’ land or to a place to which there is no affinal connection. This will be increasingly common as people move into the formal economy. However, people continue to belong to that village, and are expected to return on ritual occasions and to offer assistance with infrastructure, to care for their grandparents and, where applicable, assume ritual authority  and custodianship of the sacred goods and sacred house. The bond of marriage means helping when the village needs food, building houses, fighting with and for, providing goods or animals for rituals and ceremonies and helping the sick. 

When a man and woman from separate sacred houses in the same Tetun village marry, the wife will move into the husband’s sacred house, because when the wife’s father dies, his brother can move into the sacred house, but the husband’s father’s brother may not, and it must be passed to the son. The belak must stay in the sacred house. Elsewhere amongst the Tetun, men move in with the women. Children of the marriage are evenly distributed to the couple’s parents’ villages. This is divided by gender, so that if there are two boys and two girls, one boy and one girl will live in the mother’s village, the other boy and girl in the father’s village.

Where Bunak, Mambai and Tetun live in hamlets close to each other in the same village, there will be a tendency for young people from in those areas to form relationships. Some of those will lead to marriage; and marriage has different traditions for each group. How they will proceed is discussed in the sacred house; but first, whose sacred house in which will be discussed must be decided. In some cases, the family is happy for the woman to move to the man’s land, provided the discussion takes place in the woman’s sacred house; in others, it is the marriage that must take place on the woman’s land if she is to live on the man’s land; but where marriage to a woman from a Tetun area, the men will move there.

There was one village that offered an interesting illustration of how people adapt to potentially conflicting traditions.  The village comprises Lakelai people from Fahenian, Tetun from Welaluhu, and Mambai from Turiscai and Same who had moved onto the disused prison farm to cultivate the land. They have no shared tradition, being three distinct ethnolinguistic groups with different marriage patterns and practices. When marriages occur, they conform to patterns of villages they marry from or into, so a man marrying a woman from a Tetun village will go there, and no bridewealth will be exchanged; but if they marry from a Mambai area, the woman will go to live with the man, and the male’s family will give a buffalo to the wife’s family. It doesn’t matter where they marry from, or where they live after marriage, as long as some children from the marriage are returned to the village.

People can marry anywhere and any way they like; the only prohibition is tunanga. People do not need to fulfil the requirements of the marriage agreement, as long as they adhere to them in principle; those who spurn to notion are themselves shunned, and their marriage considered if not illegitimate, then inferior. 

Men who move into their wives’ families’ houses are variably thought of as inferior (Schulte Nordholt 1971:122-3) or conquering for having displaced the wife’s brother, who must leave the house (Therik 1995:119). Men do not play ‘an active part in society of the southern plains’ (Francillon 1967:391). They are considered passive by their patrilineal neighbours in the mountains.

Where will the children play?
Marriage can occur between people from anywhere; what is important is where the children of that marriage belong.  This determines the continuity of lineage.  It also acts as superannuation, to ensure care for the elderly is entrenched in custom. The imperative is the potential of progeny to perpetuate the family.

The negotiations that occur before marriage serve to keep a balanced population – in size, as well as proportion. An examination of data reveals a symmetrical accuracy across gender and generation that would win plaudits from demographers and bookkeepers . In Tetun areas, if one’s spouse moves in to the household, then a sibling will move out when they marry. An equal number of each will move in as well as out when marrying. This is most simply explained by the notion that half the number of children from a marriage will belong to the household or village of the parent who has moved in.  Some of the children of the marriage will belong to this house; others will belong to the father’s parent’s village.

At birth, each child will be named after either the mother’s or father’s parents, and will belong to that grandparent’s village accordingly.  The number of children so named varies between sub villages, from one to two for the father’s village, to equal division to both parents’ villages. The child once so allocated will then be expected to live in that village after marrying (although the spouse may come from anywhere and need not be from that village). They will have responsibility for the health and welfare of those grandparents, and will be expected to contribute to weddings in the village involving that family, and for the grandparents’ funerals. It also involves taking over the sacred relics when the grandparents die.

If a partner to a marriage leaves, the children stay with the remaining parent; if that is a man, then the man’s mother will take charge of the child or children. This is more problematic in a matrilineal organisation.  Legend has it that a woman who abandons her betrothed for another man will be doomed to remain forever childless, barren. I tested this notion while travelling with the Timorese police, hearing a Tetun song about a man’s lover leaving for another, I said she won’t have children, and they said ‘ah, o hatene! (you know!)’

While I was busy prying on their lives, they asked me about my own. I had children from a previous marriage, and while I was undertaking fieldwork, my long term partner had left me and taken up with someone else. In explaining this I may have been careless with particulars, as it became apparent that they conflated my recently ex partner with the mother of my children. They asked why my children were not therefore living with my mother, or with my grandparents, as that is what would happen with the children of a marriage if a wife left her husband.

They also asked if I was not concerned for my ‘wife’s’ welfare, no, I wondered; why should I be. Was I not afraid that my brothers would kill her? Not really, no. They hastily huddled into a discussion, and returned, relieved, to tell me that I need not be concerned, as it is only when the husband leaves the wife for another woman that the wife’s brothers have to kill him: once married, women never leave for another man, so I needn’t be concerned; effectively, there was no precedent that my brothers had to follow.


Francillon, G (1967) Some matriarch aspects of the social structure of the southern Tetun of middle Timor, unpublished PhD thesis, Canberra:ANU

Hicks, D (2012) Compatibility, resilience and adaptation: the barlake of Timor-Leste, in ‘Local-Global: Identity, Security, Community’, vol 11: Traversing customary community and modern nation-formation in Timor-Leste (D Grenfell, ed), Melbourne: Globalism Research Centre, RMIT University, pp 124-137

Schulte Nordholt, H (1971), The Political System of the Atoni of Timor, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff

Therik, G (1995), Wehali: the Four Corner Land: The Cosmology and Traditions of a Timorese Ritual Centre, unpublished PhD thesis, ANU, Canberra

van Wouden, FAE (1968), Types of social structure in eastern Indonesia, The Hague:Nijhoff  

[i] Where ‘one or more children are incorporated into the mother’s’ house, bridewealth is modest, and is often replaced with brideservice’ (Schulte Nordholt 1971:117). Because this involves the husband living in the bride’s household, the first born child(ren) will assume their mother’s name and lineage. His family must pay the bridewealth before they can claim any of the children of the marriage to their lineage.

[ii] The notion of Barlake is used by some, but I never heard it used by the Timorese cohort amongst whom I conducted research. 

[iii] Amongst the Tetun of Wehale, ‘feto sawa has not the same importance as among the hill kingdoms...the south plain people put a great emphasis on the distinction between women who are prohibited partners and marriageable women’ (Francillon 1967:465).

[iv] Husbands ‘have little or no rights in the house into which they marry in virtue of the matrilineal and uxorilocal principles’ (Francillon 1967:406).

[v] The northern Tetun of Wehali are patrilineal, and do not have an asymmetric connubium; furthermore, the cross cousin marriage proscribed in pretty much the rest of Timor is allowed amongst this group (Therik 1995:10, 165; Wouden 1968:48). It is interesting to note that the Tokodede of Liquica district in north western East Timor, who migrated from Wehali around between 1522-1759 (Francillon 1967:67-8) are now patrilineal.

[vi] Their patrilineal neighbours, however, accuse the Tetun of being cheap or paupers.

[vii] When children who are given the name of their father’s marry, it is discussed in custom house (uma fukun) of father. Amongst the matrilineal southern Tetum, after a husband’s death, a child of the marriage then enters his father’s descent group (Wouden 1968:47). 

[viii] Hicks describes uxorilocal residence as one of three main marriage systems amongst the Tetun of Viqueque. Both Therik and van Wouden state that the northern Tetun of the mountains of Wehali are patrilineal, and the southern Tetun of the plains are matrilineal. Francillon’s account of the matrilineal Tetun corresponds most closely with the Tetun of Manufahi.

[ix] Data collected by the author in Manufahi district, 2002

*Matthew Libbis conducted anthropological fieldwork from 2000 to 2002 in East Timor, focusing on how the population was making the transition from occupation into independence. In addition to exploring socially sustaining institutions such as marriage, ritual and customs, his research was guided by prevailing issues that most concerned and affected the community, such as tensions between food production and participation in the formal economy, as well as more pressing issues of housing and reconciliation. He returned to East Timor from 2006 to 2008 following the Crisis that ripped the country apart to work in rebuilding the shattered civil society and governance structures. He has more recently been working in community resilience, social inclusion policy implementation, and humanitarian and disaster management, mitigation and recovery.  He may be contacted at malibbis-at-gmail.com  

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