The social role of adat Iban

The role of Adat
Posted on April 10, 2013 | Leave a comment

In order to understand the social role of adat it is necessary to describe some of the main features of traditional Iban society that bear on its workings as a body of primary rules, sanctions and judicial principles. The basic jural units of Iban society are the longhouse and the family. Essentially the longhouse consists of a series of family apartments, joined laterally, and connected by a communicating passageway, gallery and open-air verandah. Each apartment, or bilek, together with its section of gallery and verandah, is separately owned and maintained by a single family, much like a row of terraced apartments. Each family, whose members share a bilek, subsists as an independent domestic unit (cf. Freeman 1958). The family possesses its own fields and other lands on which its members cultivate their own rice, grow and collect a large variety of supplemental crops, and in general produce very nearly all of their other necessities. Although it may exchange labor (beduruk) with members of other families, the bilek family is responsible for its own affairs and prospers or fails largely on its own. In addition to its landholdings, fruit trees and standing crops, its bilek apartment and agricultural and domestic tools, every family also owns its own jars, brass wares and other heirloom valuables, possesses charms and other ritual paraphernalia, and is subject to its own ritual prohibitions, or pemali.

In composition, the Iban family is typically a small group, very similar to that of European and American society, except that it is organized as an enduring group. In each generation, one child, either a son or a daughter, real or adopted, remains after marriage in possession of the bilek to continue the family group and take over the temporary management of its economic and ritual estate. The Iban are highly concerned with the perpetuation of the bilek family. This is stressed through the use of important symbols of continuity, such as sacred strains of rice, ritual prohibitions and the inheritance of personal names, and it is the responsibility of each generation of family members to provide, as far as possible, for the future wealth and well-being of subsequent generations.

It can be seen from this that the Iban family is clearly a significant right-bearing unit in a jural sense. In addition to rights in tangible property, the family is also the focus of a complex of social rights and duties traditionally enjoined and upheld by adat. Some elements of family law are discussed here, particularly in connection with marriage, divorce and adoption, but a more detailed description of the jural nature of the family, provisions of membership, inheritance and division of its properties can be found in Freeman (1958, 1970: 1-60). In general terms, the family is a primary unit of jural rights and liabilities. The family head is responsible for defending its interests against encroachment and for representing its members should they be involved in litigation with the members of other families. When a family member is found guilty of a wrongful act, fines are usually paid out of family resources. Also owing to Iban notions that personal character is inherited, a family’s reputation suffers from the misdeeds of its past members.

Although each of its component families is largely autonomous, the longhouse as a whole also functions as an important legal unit. In former times, every longhouse was, as we have noted, a politically sovereign community. Even now, the longhouse headman is looked upon as the chief guardian of community adat. He and other longhouse elders are expected to be well-versed in adat and to make known to their followers what the rules of adat require of them. Through informal meetings and judicial hearings they are also expected to enforce compliance with these rules and, following their stipulations, resolve disputes and redress complaints that arise within the community.

In addition to this the longhouse as a whole is thought to possess a collective ritual status with regard to the spiritual world (Richards 1963: 1-2). Ritual is essential to preserve the spiritual well-being of the whole longhouse, as well as its families separately, and in the middle sections of this study Mr. Sandin outlines the major ritual festivals, or gawai, performed by the longhouse and describes the adat gawai, or rules of ritual procedure, that govern the performance of each of these festivals. More generally yet, observance of adat and ritual well being are closely interrelated, a point I shall return to presently. As the author stresses at the outset of this study, the longhouse is a religious congregation, whose members are bound together by ties of ritual interdependence. For this reason, adat is of special importance to the Iban, for not only does it preserve social harmony among longhouse members, but, in doing so, it makes possible ritual cooperation upon which their collective prosperity and well-being is thought to depend.


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