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7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips

In the olden days, Kayan men were known as notorious headhunters. Their reputation as fierce warriors spread so wide and wild that they were often mistaken as cannibals.

Whenever the men went for headhunting trips, the women were left in the longhouses fending themselves.

These headhunting trips usually took months before they could return to their loved ones.

In the meantime, the Kayan women would take care of the household and their farms making sure their families had enough to eat.

Back in those days, the Kayan people also had their own traditional beliefs and shamanism.

Besides commencing their usual chores, the Kayan women were forbid to do certain things due to their beliefs.

7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips:

Ethnologist Benedict Sandin published his paper The Traditional Folklore of the Kayan of Upper Rajang when he was a Senior Fellow in Universiti Sains Malaysia.

From his interviews with the elders of Kayan from Upper Rajang river, he recorded seven things wives, sisters, mothers and close female relatives were not allowed to do.

1.May not eat the meat of barking deer, as this animal is believed to produce bad luck.

2.May not eat the dongan fish (a type of freshwater fish) as the stripe on its body marks the cuts made by the enemy on her warrior son or husband.

3.May not eat the cabbage of palm of all kinds, in order not to blind the warrior’s eyes while fighting against his foe.

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4.May not hold a needle to avoid the legs of the warrior’s being pricked by thorns and spike made by the enemy.

5.May not have sexual intercourse with another man, in order that the warrior or husband might not fell down under the body of his foe. Besides this, it was believed that the warrior would act as if he is having sexual intercourse in front of his foe.

6.May not eat the mekai leaves (Albertisia papuana), to prevent the eyes of the warrior from being unclear when drawing out his sword from its scabbard which give a chance to the enemy to cut him.

7.May not awaken late in the morning, in order that the warrior husband may not be slow to fight during the warpath.

Henry Ling Roth in The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo

Anthropologist Henry Ling Roth recorded similar dos and donts for women in his book The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo.

However, he did not point out which tribe that practised them and generalised them as Dayak women.

Regardless of what happened during the headhunting trip, the women would continue their daily activities like usual.Roth noted, “As long the men are away their fires are lighted on the stones or small just as if they were at home.”

Apart from carrying on with their daily jobs, the women carried out a couple of tasks symbolically to protect their men from afar.

For example, the women spread mats and kept the fires up till late in the evening and lighted again before dawn.

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This was to ensure men during the war expeditions would not get cold.

Roth added, “The roofing of the house is opened before dawn, so that the men may not lie too long and fall into the enemies’ hands.”

It is good to know that women had their own roles when comes to headhunting.

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 or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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