Piloting the Bin-Alin Hakbi’it Malu Feminist Leadership Initiative in Timor-Leste: Top Takeaways to Support Sustainable Activism
Activism Notes from the Field Our Work Reflections
By Katherine Lim, Xian Warner, and Sidalia Do Rego
It’s 10am on Sunday. The black screen flickers to life and, one by one, smiling faces trickle into the virtual room. “Bon dia! Bon dia!” echoes through the ether. Roosters crow in the background and children wander in and out of view as their mothers and aunts settle into the call. They will spend the next few hours breathing, connecting, and learning together with other feminist activists, as they do every Sunday.
At the start of the year, most of these 16 women and trans men barely knew each other but, over the past nine months, they’ve become Bin-Alin (sisters)(1). This year has encompassed two waves of COVID-19, as well as the worst floods in recent Timorese history, in which some amongst the group lost their homes, belongings, and even loved ones. Bin-Alin have supported each other through this, as well as daily struggles in their personal and work lives, discrimination and backlash.
In July 2021, the coordinators of this Bin-Alin Hakbi’it Malu(2) (Sisters Empowering Each Other) program, Sidalia do Rego,(3) Katherine Lim,(4) and Xian Warner,(5) met with the Bin-Alin to reflect on the lessons so far. This reflection summarises those and subsequent conversations.
Breathing new life into exhausted activists
Bin-Alin Hakbi’it Malu (BAHM) began with the goal of resourcing feminist leaders from an intersectional perspective and supporting them to continue their transformational work on the frontlines of multiple intersecting crises. For feminist activists in Dili, the price on their well-being is high. We wanted to centre healing and care in this pilot, as a way to tackle high rates of burnout and emotional exhaustion in the sector. So, we began the program in January 2021 with a two-day self and collective care retreat.
Here, Bin-Alin were introduced to breathing and embodiment practices such as trauma-informed yoga and simple mindfulness exercises, which we continued to integrate throughout the program. One of the clearest positive impacts of the program so far has been a self-reported improvement in mental health amongst the Bin-Alin, through their exposure to breathing and embodied practices. As one Bin-Alin reflected:
“I’ve noticed a big change in my emotions. I now always practice deep breathing. This breathing practice has helped me 100%.” - Bin-Alin participant
Many have been using these techniques in their daily lives to manage stress. Some say it has also improved their relationships with others, making them kinder and less quick to anger. One Bin-Alin reflected, “Through this program, we’ve learned how to practise gratitude, no matter what situations life throws at you, and to take pause to breathe…For me, this has really helped my mental health, especially with the COVID-19 restrictions, being at home with the kids and trying to work.”
Psychological support services in Timor-Leste are extremely under-resourced, so our response has been on providing low-cost, easily adaptable techniques that Bin-Alin can practise on their own, at any time. These approaches have been hugely successful, leading to several Bin-Alin replicating these organically outside the pilot, and sharing techniques with family, friends, and work colleagues. For example, when Dili experienced catastrophic flooding in April 2021, some Bin-Alin adapted methods from the pilot into the first response, using techniques they had learned in the program in evacuations centres, which proved very effective.
Safe spaces for sharing
Our initial scoping research identified a general fatigue towards the formal international donor-driven capacity-development workshop approach of most previous feminist leadership initiatives in Timor-Leste. Concerns were also raised that this approach had hindered the potential for feminist movement building to organically grow from such initiatives. Local feminist activists told us that they wanted a neutral space to come together as individuals, not as representatives of organisations, to reflect, connect, and re-energise. We addressed this by holding space for open sharing, vulnerability, safety, trust, friendship, and fun. We listened to what participants were saying and adapted our program based on their reflections.
During the initial retreat, participants began sharing their struggles and these similar hardships quickly formed the foundation for strong bonds between them – a communal strength from shared trauma. For some Bin-Alin, this was the first time they had been provided the space – and felt safe enough – to speak about such issues openly.
For many, it has been a deeply cathartic experience - one in which they have felt able to shed themselves of external roles and are listened to in a community of sisters.
As co-facilitator Sidalia reflected, "Something that's important is…this level of friendship. [Bin-Alin] don’t see each other as coworkers, but as someone you can talk to.” One Bin-Alin added:
"I feel as though I've gained a new family; new friends to listen to each other, and a space to openly express my feelings."
As a result, trust and ownership amongst the group naturally grew stronger over time. Eventually, the group was able to explore highly charged topics, such as violence, trauma, and discrimination, learn from one another’s lived experience, and critically analyse controversial issues. In this space, the Bin-Alin say they feel free to share, without fear of being judged or stigmatised.
While the pandemic has meant that these weekly catch-ups have mostly shifted online, connection has been maintained through an active WhatsApp chat group, photo competitions, and some face-to-face meetups with their three-person co-mentoring groups.
Building a new tradition
"Something great about BAHM is, with meetings, we don't sit in fancy places with big chairs, like other groups. This is the real Timor situation. This group fully embraces Timorese customs: we sit around the biti(6) together and talk about the situations we're facing in our lives.”
It was important for us that this pilot did not import ideas from outside but, rather, provided a contextually relevant space for reclaiming a Timorese feminism. We have done this through re-imagining Timorese rituals and traditions into new - more equal and inclusive - ways. When the group meets in person, sessions are delivered in circles around the biti (woven mat): traditionally a decision-making space for male elders, governed by complex rules of family hierarchy. We, however, use a non-hierarchical approach, in which the facilitators are also Bin-Alin, participating in the same activities, being vulnerable, and similarly sharing personal experiences like everyone else.
One of the most beloved activities of the whole pilot has been an adaptation of a traditional cleansing ritual with a betel leaf, in which Bin-Alin cleansed themselves with the leaves to release negative thoughts and emotions they felt were holding them back from achieving their aspirations. As the original ritual would usually be conducted by a male traditional healer or leader, the female and trans Bin-Alin said they felt empowered by being able to perform that ritual and being in control of their self-healing. Reclaiming traditions has contributed to transforming gender norms and a sense of ownership of the pilot.
Another key aspect of the BAHM pilot has been the seeding of connections with diverse activists from the region working on interrelated challenges. In Timor-Leste, a lack of resourcing, language barriers, distance, and connectivity issues, mean that opportunities to participate in international activist forums are limited (even in pre-COVID times), and these barriers disproportionately affect more marginalised activists.
In the pilot, we involved guest speakers, such as gender equality and disability rights advocate Max Molefhe from Botswana, Fijian LGBTIQ+ rights collective DIVA for Equality, and founder of Indonesian pro-feminist men’s network Laki-Laki Baru, Nur Haysim, among others. In these sessions, there was a sense of solidarity and friendship across borders. Through this, Bin-Alin can situate their activism in a global context and highlight shared values and mutual lived experiences. Many guest speakers have expressed to us how special the Bin-Alin space feels to them, and how beneficial it would have been to have access to a space like this when they were younger activists.
Contributing to the decolonising of international development, the lessons we are learning through the BAHM pilot in Timor-Leste are already informing EQI’s work in Australia. To date, learnings from the pilot have contributed to our self-care work with remote Indigenous communities through the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), to EQI’s online self-care webinar series, Resource, reaching a broad audience, and to forthcoming plans for a feminist leadership incubator for Australian women from historically marginalised backgrounds.
Challenges, reflections, and lessons
Our pilot has been healing in many ways, but it has not been without its challenges. Throughout the program, Bin-Alin have given up precious time, woven in between – rather than carved out of – their housework, childcare, studies, jobs, and homeschooling. This has meant finding time for the sessions has sometimes been challenging. In particular, Bin-Alin struggled to find time for the small group co-mentorship meetings. Moving to an online format, particularly in a context with unreliable internet, also proved frustrating for all involved. Throughout this pilot, we prioritised care and flexibility, however there were points at which this stretched our resources and increased the time needed to coordinate the program outside scheduled sessions.
The iterative and inclusive approach we used took longer than it would have taken to implement a pre-designed approach, but the ownership it gave participants was priceless. This allowed conversations to be driven by local events and priorities, and for ideas from outside Timor-Leste to be tailored and localised. It also allowed the pace and delivery to reflect the current situation and accessibility needs of our cohort. For example, in March and April 2021, when the COVID-19 lockdowns restricted people in Timor-Leste to their homes, and when Cyclone Seroja then flooded many of those homes, the flexible design of the pilot enabled us to be responsive to this changing context. We shifted to a focus on mental health and well-being and provided humanitarian relief and self-care outreach during this time.
Looking to the future
Amid an extremely tumultuous year, our weekly meetings have been one reassuring constant. Together, we have experienced anxiety and loss through the pandemic and flooding, grief over lost loved ones together, anger over enduring inequalities, and frustrations over insufficient resources, terrible internet, and ineffective systems; but we’ve also been held together by a bond much stronger than any of us expected. This level of openness, communal strength through shared vulnerability, and focus on self-care, is extremely rare in donor-funded initiatives in Timor-Leste and challenges the notion of a divided and competition-driven civil society sector.
In conventional leadership thinking, emotion, friendship and collaboration have often been dismissed as “soft”. In our pilot, it was the opposite. In the process, we learned that resourcing “softness” and collective care leads, in fact, to incredible strength. Bin-Alin report feeling more resilient, both individually and as a group. We all continue to grow together and will continue to take lessons forward from this program for many years to come.
*Bin-Alin Hakbi’it Malu will move into a second phase and will be recruiting a new cohort in 2022. Lessons learned from this pilot will continue to inform The Equality Institute’s ongoing work in feminist leadership, and the Australian Government's Nabilan program in Timor-Leste. We hope that it will also inform the work of those reading this - whether as funders, activists, NGOs, or allies. We encourage others to adapt and trial these approaches, as we have also adapted many approaches from feminist leaders before us.
(1) While this program was originally envisaged for female-identifying activists, several trans men activists were keen to participate. Due to the sensitive nature of many of the curriculum topics, all participants were consulted in the decision to include trans men in this cohort. The potential use of the word “sisters” in the program name was also discussed at length with the trans men participants, who fully embraced this name.
(2) Bin-Alin Hakbi’it Malu is a feminist leadership pilot program being implemented in Dili, Timor-Leste, by The Equality Institute and in partnership with The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste’s Nabilan Program.
(3) Sidalia do Rego is a Timorese feminist who co-facilitates Bin-Alin Hakbi’it Malu.
(4) Katherine Lim supports feminists and activists through projects which aim to challenge power in bold and creative ways. She is based in Sydney.
(5) Xian Warner is the Dili-based Research and Partnerships Manager for The Equality Institute and co-facilitates Bin-Alin Hakbi’it Malu with Sidalia.
(6) A Timorese woven mat, used for formal family and community meetings.