Taboos followed by the Iban women when their men went to war during the olden days

While Kayan women had their forbidden things to do when their husbands left for headhunting trips, Iban women also had a list of their own taboos when their men were out for war.

John Hewitt who was the Curator of the Sarawak Museum from 1905 to 1908, published the paper ‘Taboo customs of the warpath amongst the Sea Dayaks of Sarawak’ in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in March 1909.

In the paper, Hewitt discussed some of the taboos observed by Iban (Sea Dayak) women when their husbands were sent to a punitive expedition against some border tribes.

These men were part of the Sarawak Rangers and mainly came from villages around the Batang Lupar area.

Here are some taboos that must be followed by Iban women when their husbands were sent to war:

1.The Iban women must wake up early in the morning and at the streak of dawn all windows must be opened, for fear that their husbands would oversleep and be caught by the enemy. With the window opened early to bring light into the room, so would be bright when the men commence their march.

2. Wives were not allowed to take a nap during the day or else their husbands would be drowsy when walking.

3.It is forbidden (pemali) for the women to oil their hair as it was feared that their husbands would slip while walking along a batang (tree trunks) path.

4.Hewitt stated, “Every morning they must scatter popcorns (made of rice) on the verandah: and just as the elastic popcorns bounds and rebounds on the hard floor so will the men be agile in their movement. At the same time the women sing a verse-

‘Oh kamba, enti tinggi surok,
Enti baroh, perjok,
Munsoh suroh genong
Awak ka baka ditanggong, baka sangkutong’

This can be translated to “Oh you absent ones dodge under the high obstacles and leap over the low ones. Petrify the enemy and keep off the hands raised against you”.

5. It was pemali (forbidden) to bathe in the usual way with the petticoat on because the garment would become wet and heavy so it was believed that their husbands would also feel heavy in body and unable to move rapidly.

6. Homes must be kept very tidy, all boxes being placed near the walls, for should anyone stumble in the house so may the men fall when walking and thus be at the mercy of the enemy.

7. During eating, they must eat their food only at meal times and must be sitting down properly. Otherwise, the men will be tempted ‘to chew leaves or earth on the march’.

8. At each meal, a little rice must be left in the pot and must be put aside. This is to ensure that the men shall have plenty to eat and never go hungry.

Iban weaver
A woman is not allowed to sit so long that she might have the cramp of her husband will surely become stiff and unable to rise up quickly after resting or to run away. Image is under Creative Commons.

9.Hewitt also listed, “On no account may a woman sit so long at the loom as to have the cramp’ or the men will surely become stiff and be unable to rise up quickly after resting or to run away. Accordingly the women intersperse their weaving operations by frequent walks up and down the veranda.”

10. It is forbidden to cover up the face with a blanket or the men will not be able to find their way through tall grass or jungle.

11.When it comes to sewing, the women must not sew with a needle or the men will thread upon ‘tukak’ (sharpened spikes of bamboo placed point upwards in the ground by the enemy).

12.The women are not allowed to wear flowers or scent, otherwise the movements of the men will be revealed to the enemy by their smell.

13.It is bad luck to break the ‘kain apit’ (the piece of leather or bark of tree with which the women support their backs when weaving); should this occur the men will be caught be the chin on some overhanging bough during their expedition.

14.Lastly, the women are not allowed to be unfaithful or commit adultery during the absence of their husbands or he will lose his life in the hands of his enemy.

In the same paper, Hewitt further explained some of taboos and customs that must be observed by the men during the war trip. These include:

1.The men must not cover up the rice when cooking, or their vision will become obscured and the way difficult to see.

2.The spoon must not be left standing up in the rice pot, otherwise the enemy will so leave a spear sticking in their bodies.

3.During cooking time should the pots be a distance apart from each other they must be connected by sticks; so will the men have neighbours near at hand should they be surprised by the enemy. It is thus customary to put the pots very close together.

4.It is pemali to pick out the bits of husk from the rice when feeding lest the enemy in like manner pick out that man from a group.

5.As the rice is taken from the pot, the cavity thus left in the food must be immediately smoothed over; otherwise wounds will not heal quickly.

6.It is unlucky to sleep with legs crossed or touching those of a neighbour lest the spears of the enemy smite the unfortunate offender of this taboo.

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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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