June 7, 2011

Ties and Knots in Sarawak Rural Iban Women's Lives

Most of the able bodied Iban women who live in the longhouses of Sarawak are real farmers in their own right. they decide when to fell the trees for the padi cycle. They coax the soil to produce pumpkins and winter melons. They get green mustards off on a good footing and corn stalks waving in the wind before transplanting begins. when waiting for the rice to grow taller they fish in the near by stream and pick snails for their dinners.

When the occasion arises they will form a small party to look for rattan which is getting rarer now. But I feel that rattan has almosr totally disappeared from the Limbang valley.

In a way they have definitely shown that they can work on their own while their menfolks are working overseas or in timber camps hundreds of miles away. One can often see a mother in law working side by side her daughter in law. A little toddler might be slung at the back of the younger woman. His/her siblings would be at school.

So who actually put food on the table? Needless to say...the Iban women in this context!!

I have here another evidence of how hard the Iban women (those I know in particular) work in their farming setting: how they scrape around for recycle-able materials to tie their baskets ...The ubiquitous Iban rattan baskets stick to the women's bodies as if they are their second skin. And therefore a good strap is all important.

What kind of straps do they use? What kinds of knots do their tie?

Their lives are intertwined (no pun meant) with the materials of the earth...some natural and some manufactured. One can therefore watch the world changing rapidly by examining the cultural changes in the basketry culture the rural Iban women. Traditionally the Iban basketry has been dependent on the freely giving tropical forests. But slowly the women have to adapt to the changes caused by over logging and the invasion of imported crops like the oil palm . As they adapt to the changes in the world they also gain greater resilience and make the best of recycle-able materials around them.

This strap came from cement bags....softened by use but is very tough. This is strong enough for a 15 kg load.

Strong raffia strings plaited together and knotted onto the Iban carry basket. With the price of petroleum going sky high the price of raffia is also high causing the farmers' lives to be even more difficult if they have little cash returns for their farm crops.

An excellent recycled heavy belt from a mechanical shop fashioned into a strap for another basket.

This is a store bought strong belt - the buckle had fallen off but the belt is still useable.

Another raffia based strap - intricately woven to form a strap.

Small strips of rattan and raffia are used to make this parang scabbard. Parangs are as essential as any tool in a farmer's life. And they are strapped to the waist of the women in the same way they would be on the waist of Iban warriors.

The original  and very lasting rattan strap which most Iban women can fashion or weave for their own use. But due to over logging and deforestation the rattan is now endangered and not easily found. Sarawak has started to cultivate rattan but the government and the people will have to pay heavily for the cultivated product.( In the past the women would have used ropes fashioned from the lemba or takalong. Today  plastic fibres are used instead.

These Iban women  are trying their best to maintain a sustainable ecosystem in their own way and I hope time is not running out for them..


sintaicharles said...


Sarawakiana@2 said...


Ann said...

round about when I was in form 3, there was this wild craze, flatten drinking draws, you can join them out and weave about 1/2 belts. sew the, and you can get a summer hat. We used to do this and my mum was very smart, she did the sewing.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Yes...Ann I remember that. People are still very creative making beautiful things out of clothe pegs for example. The longhouse people are still re-cycling straws to make flowers for their rooms or hats....

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