In this chapter I describe Iban custom related to the individual life cycle, beginning with birth, continuing through courtship and marriage, and ending with a discussion of the ways in which men and women achieved respect and high social standing in traditional Iban society.1

The Iban are highly egalitarian people and every bilek family shares a strong regard for its in­dependence and the personal reputation of its members.

Nevertheless, those who distinguish themselves or enjoy outstanding material successes, and their descendants, are accorded considerable respect by other persons.

The Iban take pride in their family ancestry and their connections with renowned leaders and pioneers of past generations. Extensive genealogical histories (tusut) are preserved and orally transmitted by expert genealogists (tukang tusut) and by means of these histories, ancestory may be traced, in some in­stances, over as many as thirty generations.

In addition to the status of or­dinary individuals and those of outstanding achievement, the Iban also recognised two categories of hereditary servitude in the past.

At the end of the present chapter, I mention these and describe the legal and ceremonial means by which war captives (ulun) and debt-slaves (jaum) were formerly freed by the mutual agreement of the slave and his or her master.


A woman knows that she is pregnant (ngandong enggau nyera) when her periodic menstruation stops. From then onwards, she counts the number of months. As soon as her pregnancy is well along, she feels a longing for many kinds of food, especially for sour fruits.

In the seventh month of her pregnancy, the woman and her husband start to observe a number of taboos (bepenti).


On the day on which the remains of the umbilical cord drop off, the baby is brought out by his or her grandparents to the family’s open-air platform (tanju) so that the baby can look up to the sky to see the light of day. After this, a tiny piece of salt is put into its mouth so that its body shall become “salty” (masin), i.e. firm and strong throughout its life.


Before giving the baby its proper name, it is affectionately called Ulat (worm), irrespective of its sex. On the day of its naming, the infant’s parents call for their relatives to come to their family bilek so that they can assist them in determining a suitable name for the baby. The latter should be chosen from names of the child’s lineal great grandparents or the latter’s brothers or sisters, or their cousins, provided the original name bearer is already dead.

If the name bearer is still alive, his name cannot be given to the baby, for fear that doing so might shorten the life of the living person whose name is used. Instead, the child is named for a more distant relative. The reason for taking a name in the great grandparents’ generation is that the Iban are strictly prohibited from mentioning the name of their father-in-law or mother-in-law in ac­cordance with the teaching of Sengalang Burong as transmitted to his grandson Sera Gunting many centuries ago, so that if the names of nearer an­cestors are taken, parents or grandparents might be unable to mention the child’s name.

After a few names have been selected, a ball of rice is made to represent each of the names, and these balls are placed on the floor. The first rice ball Pecked at by a manok tawai cock determines the name given to the child.2


Shortly after the child has been named, its parents will discuss the day for its bathing ceremony in the river. The reason for holding this ceremony, is that if the child is not bathed in the river with offerings made to the deities and spirits, it must not be taken by anyone to bathe in any river; since it will not be protected by Sera Gindi3 and the spirits of fish, turtles and other aquatic creatures from the dangers present in the water.


When a baby reaches the age of six months, its mother may now leave it in the care of a responsible caretaker, usually an older sister or a grandmother, who will sing lullabies to the baby on a swing. Only when she gives it her breast does the mother return from doing jobs in or outside the house. This means that she must stay close by in order to be able to come when the baby wants her breast. Generally, it is felt that during this time the mother should stay close enough to the longhouse to be able to hear her infant’s cry or the call of the caretaker who has been left in charge of the infant.

In their lullabies, the singers wish for the child to become a prosperous farmer in the future, a successful overseas trader and a gallant warrior. To a female child, they wish her to become expert in weaving excellent blankets (pua kumbu), skirts, shirts, scarfs, mats and blankets of various patterns.5


At about the age of six, a boy begins to be ashamed of his nakedness. As a matter of course he starts at this age to dress himself, though while bathing and swimming in the river, he still does not cover himself with a towel. A male child at this age is called by the Iban as baru sirat leka, one who is just beginning to wear a loin-cloth.

Similarly a female child is known as baru tau minching labu, one just learning to carry the water gourds, and she now starts to help her mother and grandmother to draw water from the river with gourds.

Boys and girls at this age are still fond of playing the same games. They are fond of bathing, swimming and diving together in the river. While doing this they are not yet ashamed of their nakedness.


On reaching the age of ten, the girl is coming to the age of angkat dara, young maidenhood, and the boy is approaching angkat bujang, young bachelorhood, respectively.

A girl must now separate herself from her parents and sleep alone on a bedstead newly made for her by her father. In ancient times the most beloved daughter of a leading chief or mighty war leader of the Iban slept in seclusion under the guardianship of female slaves until the day of her marriage. Being secluded this way, she was called an anak umbong and no man above the age of ten was allowed to meet her in her apartment in the loft. Here she was taught by her mother and other experts to weave cloth of all kinds. Everything was provided for her by her female slave attendants.

At this age a boy will start to sleep on his family upper gallery (panggau), provided other bachelors sleep near him on their own panggau. If there is no one to sleep near him, his parents will make a separate bed for him in the room near them.

Also a boy must now be circumcised by a man with expert skill in per­forming the operation. It is done privately and all young males undergo cir­cumcision for fear, if not, of being called kulup (foreskin) by other people.

As they approach bachelorhood and maidenhood, boys and girls begin to learn the work (belajar gawa) that they will need to do as adults. A girl on reaching the age of seven or eight years is taught by her mother and gran­dmother to cook food, pound rice and husk padi with a mill, so that she can help them in doing such work for the family. Besides, she must learn to do these jobs for her future as from her early age.

A boy at this age starts to help his father collect small dead tree branches for firewood (ngerangkang). However, he is still considered too young to be permitted to chop wood with an axe or adze. The boy may also accompany his father when he goes to work in the jungle. From this, he gradually learns to do the various tasks he will need to perform in the future.

On reaching the age of thirteen years, a girl is taught to weave baskets by her mother and grandmother. The first types of baskets she weaves are the raga and baka baskets. As she grows older she learns to weave other types of baskets and the tikai bemban mats.

A boy at the same age starts to use an axe or adze to fell and chop trees for firewood and to help his father and grandfather clearing their farm sites.


When a boy reaches the age of fourteen, he realises that he has come to the age of bachelorhood, when he should no longer behave in the way of the younger boys. At this time, his parents and grandparents teach him how to behave well, to be of good manners, to talk with politeness and be friendly with other people.

The boy also begins to join his older friends to court girls at night. The courting of girls at night, ngayap, is traditional to the Ibans. As a matter of fact, all young bachelors must learn to respect the girls he is going to court. He must respect the girl’s sleeping parents and others in the longhouse as he goes to the girl’s sleeping place. On his arrival at the girl’s bedstead, he must wake her up with care in order not to anger her.


At the age of seventeen, a girl was traditionally taught by her mother and grandmother to weave cloth. She is first taught to weave small skirts and scarves. As she comes to master the art, she weaves pua kumbu of relatively easy design.

A young man of this age starts to take an active interest in the conver­sations of the older people. In this way, he gradually learns the interpretations of omens and dreams used by the farmers, warriors and voyagers in their various undertakings.

After a man has accumulated considerable knowledge, he would have traditionally joined the older people in going on the warpath or in voyaging to foreign ports in order to kill an enemy or buy valuable old jars or other property like brass wares.

Besides those adventures, a man may seek to become a good boat builder, or a carver or become knowledgeable in making of the weapons for his family use. He also is keen to compete with others for success in trapping, shooting or netting fish and other game.

It is at this age also that a man starts to study the history, adat law, genealogies and culture of his people.


From early youth, boys and girls are taught by their parents, gran­dparents and other relatives to respect other people in general and their frien­ds and relatives of the same village in particular. Those who are arrogant or boastful are despised and hated by many, while those who have good manners are liked and respected by all. “If you do not respect others, no one will respect you,” parents say to their children.

A girl is warned by not to stay longer than necessary in the family room of others, as the room is a place of women. Any man who is in the habit of frequenting other people’s rooms, than the rooms of his close relatives, is called a ngandak indu by the people (“girl crazy”).


At about the age of thirteen, a young man is taught by his father and grandfather to be diligent in looking after his fruit trees, rubber plantations and the inherited properties of the family.


A young man may marry at the age of twenty-two, if he is the only child in the family. If he has brothers or sisters, he is likely to marry when he grows older. A girl usually marries at the age of eighteen. At these ages young men and women generally know how to support themselves.

a. Hari Melah Pinang (Wedding day)

b. Nyundang Pinang (First visit after the wedding)

c. Sarak (Divorce)


If a man and his wife, after many years of marriage, are certain that they will have no child of their own, they are likely to adopt a child in order that he or she may inherit their property after they have passed away and perpetuate their bilek family. Most couples prefer to adopt a child of their closest relatives, such as a nephew or a niece.


After his marriage, a man is taught by his father and grandfather to respect his wife more than anyone else. He must also respect her parents, brothers, sisters and other close relatives, as he does his own kinsmen. He should never cast suspicion on his wife of misconduct with other men, unless he can prove it properly, and not just because he has heard it as rumors.

a. Maia makai (Meal times)

When one is taking food it is bad manners for anyone who is sitting nearby to blow his or her nose or spit saliva. It is equally bad manners to do this while somebody else is taking food in a family room nearby. Any­one who behaves this way is said to be an ill-mannered man.

b. Mansa Moa (Passing in other people’s presence)

It is customary for an Iban, if he must walk in front of someone, especially an elderly person, to show his respect with a traditional saying of “excuse me, may I walk in front of you,” with his hands folded to show his way. Anyone who does not do this while walking in front of other people is said to be a man of no manners.

c. Basa enggau temuai (Respect towards visitors or strangers)

Every man wants other people to respect him. If he wants to be res­pected, then first of all he too must respect other people. And in order to gain respect from others, he should work with diligence and stead-fast­ness, until he successfully gets all he wants. He should also be just in dealing with people, so that the latter can put their full trust in him. These are the teachings of Iban parents to their children.


Ibans are concern about being respected by their countrymen during and after their lifetime. In order to earn these respects, a man should be kind and just in his dealings with other people. He should be diligent, adventurous and brave in all that he does, in order to become a trusted leader.

After a man is married he may become a crew member on a trading boat which sails to foreign ports to trade. After he has gained property by such trading, if he is just in his dealings with his trading mates, he is likely to be elec­ted by others, as he grows older, to be the leader of such a venture. On ac­cepting leadership, he must learn seriously the arts of sailing his own boat and the diplomacy he will need in contacting peoples in foreign countries. If his first and second trading ventures are successful, then he will be known as Nakoda, if he has sailed to Brunei, Sabah or the Philippine Islands of Palawan and Mindanao. If he sails his boats even further, to New Guineas, Celebes, Java, Sumatra, Singapore or the Malayan (now Malaysian) states, he is called penghulu perahu pelayar (Penghulu of the sailing boat).

The Iban who only concentrates on planting padi at home will try to grow more padi than his family can eat. The proceeds from sale of his extra padi will be used to purchase valuable jars, gongs and brass cannons and boxes for the inheritance (pesaka) of his family. In Sarawak nearly all of the priceless antiques purchased by famous farmers, sailors and traders in the last century are still in the possession of their descendants as heirlooms to the present day. These, particularly the valuable jars, are blessed by the lemambang during the Gawai Tajau festival, causing any descendant who sells these valuables in future years, depleting his family’s inheritance and estate, to be cursed.


After a man has prospered in farming at home or in trading ventures overseas, in the past he might have become a fighter in wars. After a man has successfully killed one or two enemies in battle, his warleader may confer on him a praise name (ensumber). From that day onwards, he will be called by his ensumber rather than by his original name. In due course he is known by other people as raja berani if he acquired material wealth from these ventures, or simply a bujang berani, if he had not been a prosperous farmer or sailor before.

This is not the end of an Iban man ambition. If a warrior is the descendant of a leading warrior (kepala manok sabong), or a war leader (tau kayau or tau serang), he is likely to be appointed by his war leader as a leading warrior on the warpath, provided he displays ability and courage. And if he is successful in this, and his conduct also proves him to be just in his dealings with his comrades-in-arms during the war, he is entitled to lead the fighters to fight in small wars known as kayau anak.

After leading a few kayau anak wars he may be entrusted by his followers with the leadership of a larger scale invasion of their enemy’s territory with larger numbers of fighters. After he has led his warriors to fight in a major expedition, his status is elevated to the rank of tau kayau. From his success in leading these battles he would be acclaimed by all the warriors in the country as a great war leader, tau serang, who has the power to declare war on the people of another country and responsible for defending his country from invasion by enemies.

During the wars of former times, these warriors and war leaders cap­tured enemies whom they either enslaved or sold in exchange for jars and other material wealth. They also looted their foes’ property (perapasan) which their descendants still inherit to this day.


The Iban are fond of making up reciprocal names to be used by two or more people in jokingly addressing each other as a token of friendship. These names usually commemorate something done accidentally by either one of them.7

The prembian is an old form of name used by the Ibans. Prembian are also used by the heroes of the Panggau Libau and Gellong spiritual worlds and by the animal heroes of Iban fables. Common prembian names are not only used by men but also by women, and are usually made up while they are still unmarried and are remembered by friends throughout their lifetimes.


The right to own slaves (ulun) and serfs (jaum or pengurang) was en­joyed by Iban leaders and warriors since time immemorial.8 Ulun are captives in war, where as jaum are debt servants who were unable to pay their debts due to poverty. The descendants of both ulun and jaum remain the property of their owners until they can free themselves by paying their debt or by holding a festival called a gawai batimbang, in which they are freed with the mutual consent of their masters.9








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