Like many young men in East Nusa Tenggara, university student Bani, 25, used to live by the unwritten rule that boys are natural troublemakers, lest they be called a banci (sissy).
“I was a heavy drinker – that’s what we, boys, do here. If you don’t drink, you’re not a real man.” he said. “So I would just get drunk with my friends, then afterward we would have a brawl with some people.”
Then one day in 2013 his friends from church told him he should join a discussion, which they said was “important for my well-being,” he recalled the fateful day.
The discussion was part of Gerakan Laki-Laki Baru or the New Men Movement, a program conducted by the non-profit Circle of Imagine Society (CIS) Timor to untangle the toxic masculinity culture and promote gender equality among the youth in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT).
After attending several discussions, it dawned on Bani that if he didn’t change, he would just continue the tradition of his previous generations.
“I usually got drunk with my father too. So, I thought, if I stayed like the old men, like my father, I would be useless to my family and my community. From that point on, I committed to change,” he said.
The highly patriarchal culture of NTT means young boys often grow up spoiled and entitled. They are socially expected to drink heavily, pick fights and womanize. At home, they are served by their mothers and sisters, while their fathers work to provide for the family. As a result, many boys grow up irresponsible, unreliable and, possibly, abusive.
The New Men Movement aims to change the social paradigm in that society, and transform the male youth to become more sensitive towards gender issues and to become more productive members of their communities.
“We want to show that men can also be sensitive towards women issues and men can say ‘no’ to violence against women. Our slogan is ‘men support women,’” said the Coordinator of CIS Timor, William Fangidae, during CIS Timor’s meeting with Magdalene and a few other media on a visit to East Nusa Tenggara with development organization Oxfam.
Initially introduced by Aliansi Laki-Laki Baru or the New Men Alliance and Oxfam back in 2013, the ideas were first disseminated at panel discussions at church, which has an influential role in the predominantly Christian province.
CIS Timor itself was established back in September 1999 to focus on refugees crisis at NTT’s border with Timor Leste. After the refugees' situation eased off, CIS Timor expanded their scope to broader humanitarian works and widened their area to cover the entire province. There are now over 100 people, male and female, who volunteer for CIS Timor.
“We specifically target the youth. We believe there only two possibilities of the youth’s role in society: they can either be the cause of conflicts or the agent of peace. We strive to encourage them to become the latter,” said Willy, as he prefers to be called.
CIS Timor make their language and approach more accessible to the locals’ sensibility.
“Of course we involve women, but we don’t use phrases like ‘fight patriarchy.’ Instead, we show our community that ‘even without patriarchy, we can still live,’” he added.
“In here, when a boy calls his mom once, it means he wants her to make him a cup of coffee. Twice means meal. If I came home and found there was no food in the kitchen, I would beat up my sister and told her to fix me something to eat."
Community organizers (C.O.) first undergo training on gender equality and violence, including those perpetrated by men and women. They are taught to be able to identify the different types of domestic violence.
“Once they are trained, they will form a community so that they can share their knowledge to more people,” Willy added.
Transforming the “Bad Boys” Culture
Asides from his drinking habit, Bani’s behavior at home in the village of Tunfeu in Kupang started to change too.
“In here, when a boy calls his mom once, it means he wants her to make him a cup of coffee. Twice means meal. If I came home and found there was no food in the kitchen, I would beat up my sister and told her to fix me something to eat,” he said.
“But after 2015, I started to help out my mother in the house, doing the dishes or cooking. Sometimes I also help my female friends at church. Some people said, ‘Why don’t you just wear a skirt?’ But I understand now that as a new man, I can work alongside women,” he said.
He also started to help in the field where his parents tended. No longer does he spend his day speeding recklessly on his motorcycle, getting drunk or brawling. He also participated in the CIS Timor community’s “Learning Garden,” a half-a-hectare wide land cultivated with purple sweet potato.
“After that, people started to pay attention to what we do. They eventually say ‘oh, so this is how a man should be,’” said Bani.
The change, of course, did not come without some frictions. His father mocked him in the beginning for helping out with household chores, but after meeting with his friends from CIS, he understood and soon changed his ways too.
“We talked it out and I said, ‘Dad, you’re going to be old, what if you got sick?’ Now, my father doesn’t drink anymore.”
In fact, he added, the family’s relationship changed for the better as well. Before, the family would eat separately – Bani in the kitchen, his father in the dining room – Now they sit together at the dining table and have a pleasant conversation, Bani said.
“After a long process I realize that there are changes in the way I think, the way I talk. Now, I can listen and appreciate people more."
Bani’s friends were also shocked by the transformation. In the beginning, they weren’t happy that Bani, who was somewhat a pack leader because of his drinking habit, no longer drank, but recently the change had affected them too.
Willy of CIS Timor recalled Bani’s past reputation: “Where there was Bani, there was always a bottle [of alcoholic drink]. However small, or thin a boy is – even if he looks so frail that the wind might blow his body away – if he could handle a lot of drink, he is considered a tough guy.”
It is no coincidence that the slogan to encourage the youth to stop drinking is “Dari Sopi ke Kopi”, from Sopi, the local alcoholic drink, to coffee.
Changing perspective on social construction
Yoksan (23), who joined the movement in 2013, had never had any problem helping out at the house. He was raised by his parents to help out with the dishes, washing clothes and cooking. But he used to draw the line at one task: helping his mother sell vegetables at the market. For young boys, helping out at the market is largely considered a taboo, and doing it amounts to humiliation and indignity.
“Before the New Men, I really hadn’t done anything meaningful,” he said. “I wanted to help my mother but was too embarrassed to do so. But after joining the movement, I realized, who else would help my mother if not me?”
He started small, carrying baskets from the market to the depot, and now he is no longer embarrassed to sell the vegetables at the market.
Though his parents have always supported his involvement with the movement, his community was not as receptive to the idea at first.
“People in my neighborhood stigmatized us, saying that when boys do domestic work, it would bring bad influence to other boys,” said Yoksan, who now also drives motorcycle taxi for a living.
“One person even told me: ‘Just get married already!’ Is there even a connection between marriage and washing the dishes? No!” he added.
Having learned about himself through the movement, he feels as if he is a changed man.
“After a long process, I realize that there are changes in the way I think, the way I talk. Now, I can listen and appreciate people more,” he added.
The program encourages the youth to talk and give their opinions.
Said Willy: “We trained them how to express their thoughts eloquently. Once, somebody couldn’t even say a word, so we hang around until midnight to wait for him to say something. The only time they could talk before was when they were drunk.”
It is not all their faults, he said. Society often perceives the male youth as a no-good or a hopeless case. The New Men movement also aims to change the old perception about the youth.
Commitment to treat women equally
The movement has changed the dating habits of the young people too.
Said Bani: “Before the movement, when we’re taking our girlfriends on a date, we would just tell them to jump out of their windows to meet us at an alley or somewhere. But now we know how to treat them better. We pick them up in their house and we talk to their parents.”
“To be honest, now I feel more comfortable. I become closer to her parents and I can simply tell them what time we will be home. I feel more at ease because if something happens to us, our parents would know where to look,” Bani said.
A friend of his, a known womanizer who delighted in recounting his sexual activities with his girls and was often abusive with them, had changed, too, since he joined the movement, said Bani.
“He wanted to show to the community that he could change. He started talking to girls normally, instead of constantly hitting on them. And he is loyal to his girlfriend now,” he added.
The New Men community must pledge to observe the “The Declaration of Commitment” when they get married. Among other, it contains a promise to love, respect and never abuse one’s wife, as well as to do household chores, to provide and to be responsible for the family. Another important aspect of the declaration is on consensual sex: a husband must ask for his wife’s agreement for sexual intercourse.
Each “New Man” has to read out loud the declaration during his wedding reception, in effect giving his guests the responsibility to make sure he will not violate his vow.
“They must put up the print-out of the declaration on their wall to make sure they will never forget what they have promised,” Willy said.
Read Ayunda's article on feminist preacher in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT).