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Iban olden customary laws against adultery and elopement

Some people call it love, while others call it breaking the adat (custom).

Historically, many cultures consider adultery a very serious crime, subject to severe punishment such as capital punishment, mutilation or torture.

This includes the Iban people of Sarawak.

According to Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin, before Sarawak was under Brooke rule, if an Iban stole another man’s wife and he was caught, the woman’s husband had every right to strike him with a club.

He explained, “As a rule, therefore, in order to prevent this from happening, immediately after the incident, it was the duty of the longhouse chief to kill a cock as soon as possible. If the striking with a club had taken place before the cock was killed and the adulterer was killed in the process, his death would not be compensated by the killer. But if it occurred the killing of the cock, the striker would be heavily fined in accordance with the customary law of ‘Malu Mungkal’.

Furthermore, he would be ordered by the chief to pay the ‘pati nyawa’, the compensation for taking a life. The cost of ‘pati nyawa’ is one valuable jar in which the type is according to the rank of the deceased.

Charges for ‘berangkat’ or elopement

Let’s say if it was only an ordinary case of elopement, then both of the accused would be charged with adultery.

Writing for the Sarawak Gazette on May 31, 1964, Sandin stated, “They would be fined 30 catties which was equivalent to $21.60; the man twenty and the women ten.

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“If they were to marry they would be charged with berangkat (taking someone’s husband or wife and vice versa). In due course the man would be fined 1 1/2 piculs or $43.20 and the woman one picul or $28.80.”

Meanwhile, the man was allowed to divorce his adulterous wife by paying the ordinary fine of twenty catties or $14.40. If they had children, they would be divided between the parties. If there was only one, according to Sandin, it would be given to the guiltless party.

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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