Feto bele: contemporary perceptions and expectations of women’s political leadership in Timor-Leste

Sara Niner, Therese Nguyen Thi Phuong Tam, Emily Morrison, Maria Evelina Iman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


This article explains how the face of political leadership in contemporary Timor-Leste is predominantly male, revealing the logics behind the preference for men. While an overwhelming majority of our survey respondents and focus group participants believed that women and men are equal and that feto bele, “women can” become political leaders, reservations about women’s attributes and capabilities were common. While women were generally perceived to have most of the important innate characteristics necessary for political leadership, such as intelligence and honesty, survey respondents and focus group participants consistently perceived that women do not have the skills, abilities, or experience to lead. These perceptions conformed to cultural gender stereotypes, creating an unconscious bias or “incongruent prejudice” against women leaders. Better appreciated were the structural barriers that women face, such as their substantial domestic burden, lesser access to financial resources, and cultural expectations. Women leaders face near-impossible expectations to also be the primary family caregivers and to run households, while male leaders do not. Furthermore, women leaders are expected to remain “feminine”–humble, calm, and caring–within an aggressively masculine political environment. To overcome these barriers to leadership, transformative change led by local actors is required, including increased awareness of gender stereotypes, structural and unconscious bias, and the harmful consequences for democracy of lack of diversity, along with some practical changes to electoral processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-127
Number of pages28
JournalInternational Feminist Journal of Politics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • gender and development
  • gender stereotypes
  • incongruent prejudice
  • Timor-Leste
  • Women’s political leadership

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