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5 things you should know about the old customs of Iban divorce

Many of Sarawakians’ old customs are no longer practiced mainly because they have been replaced with a more uniform judiciary laws.

Some proceedings in the olden days did not rely on justice or what is best for all parties. Sometimes, the old generations relied on omens and dreams to decide including divorce.

Here are 5 things you should know about the old customs of Iban divorce as recorded by Reverend William Howell in The Sarawak Gazette on Mar 16, 1909:

1.There were two kinds of Iban divorce.

In those days, there were two types of Iban divorce. According to Howell, a temporary divorce was effected through an ill omen or a bad dream. Meanwhile, a permanent divorce was brought about by incompatibility of temper, inhospitableness, ill-temper and adultery.

The Ibans called temporary divorce “belaga” or “beluit”. The marriage could be renewed again after a short interval.

As for a permanent divorce, it could be effected before it was brought in front of the chiefs and elders.

Howell stated, “The guilty part is amerced. The innocent party takes the fine and divides it with the chiefs or elders and friends who witness the settlement of the case.

If the husband is the guilty party he pays a fine not only to the woman but towards the upkeep of the children also if he has any. The woman’s fine is called “pekain” and the upkeep of the children is called “pelanja”. The man’s fine is called “pesirat”.

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2.How the fine is imposed

The fine was imposed according to the offence. If both parties would not agreed to the settlements of the chiefs or elders or even if one of them disagreed, the case would be settled by a diving contest.

By doing so, not only the fine is settle but also the bet on who would win the contest.

In this case, the losing party would have to meet not only the loss by the shame also.

“A ring or a bracelet given by the party that brings about the divorce, if it is received by the other party, is an ample sign of divorce. Before a person can consider himself properly divorced according to the Dayak point of view such person takes away all his or her belongings from the room where they lived together,” Howell stated.

3.A temporary divorce could be brought to a permanent one.

If the temporary divorce was brought to a permanent divorce, there would be no fine.

Interestingly, the news or occurrence of death in the area of the newly married couple may result in a permanent or temporary divorce.

For an unknown reason, it was generally more taboo if a death occurred upriver.

4.Superstitions which lead to divorce.

Howell pointed out that the Iban superstition seemed to be an advantage to them in creating a plea or to exculpate them from punishment.

“If a man says he has had a very bad dream or an ill omen, with that plea he is justified putting away his wife. In view of such religion or superstition or a great many of them have simply invented a story and have had a divorces with impunity. The same thing has been also practiced by women,” he stated.

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5.The children matters in an Iban’s divorce.

The binding nature of an Iban marriage seems to depend on the children. Howell gave an example of how the children influence their parents’ divorce proceeding:

The wife of a certain man had already misconducted herself three times but her husband forgave her. The fourth time she did so with a relation and her husband swore by the gods of his ancestors that he would put her away. The case was brought before the court of justice, the man divorced his wife and the wife was fined but the children all agreed and said to their father that unless he lived again with their mother they would have nothing to do with him. The father gave in and took his wife back and paid her fine for her.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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