Sharing of Her Stories are the stories from three young SCM women who participated in the Women Doing Theology Workshop. Christine Tsoi from Hong Kong shares her experience of identifying herself as a Christian woman behaving in a particular way as prescribed in Biblical texts and the expectation of her Church. Alzira’s from East Timor shares her life journey of growing up as a Timorese woman under the military occupation by Indonesia. Her life journey is a witness to the violence and exploitation by the military power towards innocent people in Timor Leste. Xochi from Australia shares her reflections on multiple identities assigned by the society, family and the teachings of an ideal woman within Christianity, challenging her to find her own self—a God given identity outside of her gender social construct.
In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor. At that time I was three years old and the sixth of seven children in my family. In 1974 my first brother became a soldier under the Portuguese colonial period. During this period, we could not stay permanently in our house. We moved from one place to another in the mountains. During the day, we looked for food and return to the mountains to hide.
Until 1979, we could not move anymore because we were already on top of the Matebian mountain. All towns and villages were already occupied by the Indonesian army including the surrounding of Matebian mountain. Airplanes were passing through our area from morning until afternoon. People were scared and didn’t go out to look for food as we heard bombings and firing. The Fretilin let the people surrender and join with Indonesia since many were starving and became victims of the firing.
At that time, we were six siblings in my family. My oldest brother lived in the mountain with the Falintil (the Timorese soldiers for independence struggle) as a medic. So only five of us with our parents returned back to the town. On our way back to town, my third brother was forced by the Indonesian army to work for them and carry their food and military equipment. He was even forced to fight the Falintil groups who were hiding in the mountains. He had no choice but to follow their instructions.
In the municipality, only four of us lived with our parents. Our situation was pathetic. There was no food and people were dying of starvation. I lost my father during that time. I could not go to school because many of my family members and relatives died. In 1980, my third brother returned to live with us and that was the time I started going to school. Somehow I completed my primary school until senior high school.
After I finished my senior high school, I wanted to continue to university but we could not afford it and I did not want my mother to suffer for this. I then decided to stay at home with her working as a farmer and trying to earn some money by selling crops to meet my basic needs.
In 1997 I stayed with my elder sister in Dili since she was working as a teacher in the junior high school. I started a petty business of a small kiosk and sold small things for my survival.
In 1999, Timor Leste became an independent country. But we had lost everything during the war and we had to start from scratch.
In 2001, Crystal Superior Institution (ISC), an educational programme, opened. I saw a ray of hope to fulfil my dream to continue my study in the university level.
I supported my study by selling things through my small kiosk and finally I completed my studies in 2003 and graduated in 2005. But again in 2006, there was a political crisis on the issue of Lorosae and Loromunu people. Houses were seized and burned down, including my house and all our household things. Many became displaced and lived in the camp as refugees. I too suddenly became a refugee and lived in the camp. I started teaching the children in the camp who had to leave their schools. After two years I returned to my home town, lived in a tarpaulin shed and continued to teach there.
This is my identity as a Timorese woman. My experiences of both positive and negative, pleasant and unpleasant. Those experiences showed me various realities of life that I have lived and it is difficult to accept this reality.
I am not sure how I understand my identity as a growing up woman. I struggle for my identity. I have never looked to society as a basis of identity, yet am acutely aware of gender social constructs.
I feel no need to submit fully to gender social constructs, but am very aware of the pressure to take on particular roles and define myself in a particular way and often feel like I am failing and feel guilty when I chose to have my own identity. I think I have two separate identities; the first is me, living as I wish, finding my identity within the image of God. The second is the public me, the woman who lives as a socialised woman on the surface, to gain acceptance and tolerance by society.
It is necessary to live as a socialised woman to some degree if I desire the acceptance of society. I must realise that living as a socialised women is something that I do, not something that I am. The trick is finding the balance—how to live as a socialised woman and still keep your identity intact. If I do not live as a socialised woman, then I am slightly distrusted by society and they will become wary of who I am and less likely to listen and accept the things I say and who I am. As a future priest it is very important for me to retain the acceptance of society as I need society to be willing to listen and accept the truths that I speak. It is a delicate balance between living as a socialised woman and becoming a socialised woman.
There are several different identities I have. Within my family I am mother; I have the primary responsibility for the care of my children. I am responsible for most household chores, for the preparation of meals, I take the children to school and all after-school activities, I discipline, comfort and encourage the children, and I give tough and gentle love. I also have the role of wife; I am the nurturer, problem-solver, supporter, decision maker. I must be the stronghold who knows when to yield, the mediator, the one who smooths the way and maintains the balance. Within my children’s schools I am helper and tutor, expected to provide answers to questions with the speed and range of a Google search engine with unlimited patience. At university I am studying theology, as 1 of only 3 women in a class of about 25. In church, due to being in the process of priestly formation, I am viewed as a future spiritual leader and am often sought for pastoral care as well as seen as a leader of different areas of ministry.
I imagine that I have been living as a socialised woman based on gender social construct in the following ways. As a woman with young children, I don’t work. My primary responsibilities and duties are to my children, my husband and my home. The order of my responsibilities is children, husband, home, church, and then me. My passions, yearnings, the essence of who I am must be viewed and explored only when it doesn’t interfere with those above me in the list. My studies are done only when all other jobs have been done.
Theology is my passion. Yet in a classroom setting I am seen to be confrontational and to be humoured as I bring up, once again, the issue of women’s issues in a class who doesn’t understand the importance or relevance and wants to know why I am so passionate about always having to look at it from a feminist perspective. Can’t I just accept it? I live as a socialised woman at University because so very often I didn’t ask the questions that are burning inside of me, because so often I think ‘I had better not question that point, it might challenge too many of the men in the class and make them feel uncomfortable.’ As a socialised woman I continue to put care of others ahead of care for myself.
This makes it difficult to discover my identity because I don’t have enough time to look at myself and my needs. When there are so many external demands on my time it is easiest to forget about my needs than others—they loudly remind me often.
I have only in the last couple of years become Anglican, I was up to that point, Roman Catholic. The use of Mary as an aspiration for women was originally very negative in my discovery and living out of my identity. In the Roman Catholic church, Mary set all the ideals of what the church believed women should emulate; to be submission, loving, gentle, tolerate, quietly shoulder life’s burdens, gentle of spirit, passive, completely responsive to requests, self-sacrificing, virtuous, chaste, a virgin etc. I felt it provided very little support for women who didn’t find themselves in this identity.
Something about Australian cultures gender constructs that is both positive and negative is that we have a gender construct (for both men and women) that is not fixed. We don’t have a duty to exist completely within our social gender constructs. We have the freedom to choose to do whatever we want to. The negative side is that although we are not fixed within our gender constructs, we are still expected to fulfill them. I may be studying full-time and working part-time and my husband may be working full-time, but the responsibility for the care of the children and maintenance of the house will still naturally fall on my shoulders.
What I would like to gain from this experience is a deeper understanding of how other women view and experience their identity and a confidence that will allow me to more fully define and embrace my God given identity outside of my gender social construct.
In my memory as a child, my family did not force me to do “what girls should do” and they did not ask me to be “what girls should be”. Even my father and my mother seldom asked me to do the housework most daughters in the Chinese tradition should do. Maybe because I am the only child in my family and there is no comparison between me and other siblings. But there were times I was asked to behave like a woman or a lady in some occasions by my parents. Otherwise my parents gave me a carefree environment to grow up. Thus, I didn’t really realize the identity of a woman discriminatory from a man in my family.
I began going to Church when I was a Form 5 student. The Church is the first place I learned about God and Bible. When I started reading the Bible I could see the given identity of men and women. The prescriptions for man and woman are clearly written, one of the examples: 1 Corinthians 11:3-10; 1 Timothy 2:9-15. I was confused and didn’t know how to interpret these texts. We are taught to believe that the Bible is the word of God, so do we (women) need to submit ourselves and obey men? However, these teachings didn’t work on me, since I have never been treated like a ‘woman’ as how these texts in the Bible say.
But it began to work on me when I was fascinated with a boy in my Church. The teachings of the Bible about a woman’s image became the guidelines for me. People appreciate if a woman behaves in certain manners. So I tried to be a religious woman like the Bible says to please my friend whom I liked. But soon I realized that I am not the woman the Bible describes. My new identity and the guidelines became one of my pressures. I questioned myself why should I follow these rules to let a boy like me? I found no reasons why a woman should be submissive and obey man if God created everyone equally.
I felt it is a suppression of my own personalities, my own self which was making me to another person. There was no meaning for me to become another person in order to make someone happy. I realized that one should not change his/her own self for the interest of others.
Recently, I read a book called Woman at point zero. It tells about the story of an Islamic woman in Egypt, from her experience of circumcision to her awakening of self-liberation. Her story inspired me. Women should live for themselves. I am now trying to be an independent person and trying not to pretend to be a “woman” who I am not. The others should appreciate my real personality, who I am.