Textiles and “Women’s Warfare”
For women weaving constituted the chief counterpart to male warfare. Thus, for a woman, the foremost means of acquiring achieved status was through the weaving of textiles, in particular pua’ kumbu’ or ritual ikat-cloth. While undyed cotton provides the Iban with a metaphor of equality — finished cloth, by contrast, represents the very embodiment of rank and status distinction. Just as men gained and made public display of their standing through their sponsorship and participation in gawai rituals, so too, woven cloth is ranked (be-rintai) — its ranking determined by the nature of its designs, the status of its weaver, and the particular ritual or stage of ritual in which it figures as a suitable object. Pua’ kumbu’ are essentially sacred cloth. They differ according to their ritual use and the significance of their designs and are employed in every facet of Iban ritual life, to define ritual space for example, or to create and bridge boundaries between the human and supernatural worlds (see Empiang 1991:81).
Pua’ kumbu’ designs, in addition to their specific ritual use, are identified by the skill, seniority and expertise of the particular woman who weaves them (cf. Empiang 1991:80). As an embodiment of status, individual cloth designs are graded and each woman weaver is expected, in the course of her career, to progress systematically in her art, stage by stage, being (Empiang 1991:80),
… guided through each stage from the preparation of the cotton …, the tying of threads, the dyeing process and the selection of a design [by more experienced women, with] … each stage circumscribed by ritual.
As in warfare, success is believed to require, in addition to diligence and aptitude, spiritual inspiration and gifts of charms (pengaroh or batu), and through her art a woman is similarly expected, like a successful warleader, to enter into a special relationship with the supernatural. Consequently, like warfare, weaving, too, is also believed to be dangerous. Should a woman breach “the naturally sequenced order sanctioned by the spirits” — attempting a skill or a design beyond her level of attainment — her life is said to be imperilled. Each progressive stage of expertise was marked traditionally by the mastery of distinctive designs and by the increasing width of cloth that a woman was permitted to weave. In addition, in the Saribas, after the introduction of chemical dyes at the end of the nineteenth century, a weaver’s status was also denoted by vertical coloured bands added as side borders, the order of colours being indexical of these stages of expertise. Instruction continued until a woman was acknowledged as having attained the stage of indu nenkebang indu muntang. At this stage, she was free to weave ritually dangerous patterns, provided she was sufficiently ambitious and daring, and to invent new designs inspired by her dreams. The highest level of attainment is that of indu nakar indu gar (or tau’ nakar, tau’ ngar), the phrase meaning, essentially, “women who know how to measure the mordants and perform the rites [with] divine assistance” (cf. Gavin 1991:4). These women are recognized as the most proficient of all weavers and are said to be able to mix the mordant solutions. Completing the nakar process successfully is an extremely difficult undertaking and is called, fittingly, kayau indu, “women’s warfare” (Gavin 1991:5). Nakar is performed ceremonially through a ritual called the Gawai Ngar (see Gavin 1991). Here the ritual mixing of mordants is sponsored by a group of women weavers and is led by the tau’ nakar tau’ ngar. In the sense that it valorizes her status, the Gawai Ngar thus functions like the Gawai Burong, except that the indu tau’ nakar is not the sponsor of the ritual, but its chief officiant.
In the past those women who attained the status of indu nakar indu gar received special honours. Thus, traditionally they received from male warriors the newly-taken heads of slain enemies in their pua’ kumbu’ and at major gawai, including the Gawai Burong, they were called on to sing praise songs to the trophy heads (naku antu pala’) and to receive the pig’s liver for divination by the male elders. Expert weavers were also honoured during other male-sponsored rituals, and upon her death, an indu tau’ nakar could expect to receive the highest adat mati that a woman was awarded, higher than that received by all but the most honoured of Iban men. During the Gawai Antu, she alone prepared the special garong baskets, dyed brilliant red called kebur api, that were used to commemorate the deceased indu tau’ nakar of previous generations.