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LOCATION: Malaysia (Sarawakstate)
POPULATION: 657, 700 (2004)
LANGUAGE: Iban; Malay
RELIGION: Christianity; Islam; traditional beliefs


The state of Sarawak, or the Land of the Hornbills, is the largest state in Malaysia. Sarawak was a British colony from 1946 until the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Before 1841, Sarawak and its people were under the rule of the kingdom of Brunei. On 24 September 1841, the government of Sarawak was given to James Brooke as a reward for helping Brunei pacify a local revolt against the oppression by its representative in Sarawak. Sarawak was then ruled by a member of the Brooke family, commonly known as the White Rajah, until the Japanese occupation from December 1941 to August 1945. On 1 July 1946, Sarawak became a British Crown Colony. In 1963, Sarawak became one of the 13 states in the Federation of Malaysia.

As a democratic state, Sarawak ran its first general election on 7 July 1970. Since then, a general election has been called every five years to elect the state's assembly from which the state's cabinet is formed, and the chief minister is appointed as the head of the government.


Sarawak occupies the northwestern coast of the island of Borneo, the third-largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. The diversity of Sarawak's terrain, the variation of its soil types, and its consistently high rainfall and temperature throughout the year have resulted in the development of the most complex and luxuriant rain forests in the world. The forest is the second-most-important economic resource of Sarawak. Originally, it covered about three-quarters of the land area. Sarawak also has an intense network of meandering rivers that were the main channel of communication for its population in the past. Even though Sarawak about 124,967 sq km (48,250 sq mi) of land, it has a population of only 2.3 million people.

The Land of the Hornbills is home to at least 25 different ethnic communities. These communities can be categorized into four groups: the coastal communities, which include the Malays, Melanau, Selakau, and others; the lowland communities, which include the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, and Kenyah; the upland communities, which comprise the Kelabit, Penan, Lun Bawang, and many other smaller communities; and, lastly, the Chinese community.

The Iban are the largest ethnic group in Sarawak and the single-most-populous indigenous group in Malaysia, aside from the Malays. The Iban account for 29% of Sarawak's total population, while the Chinese make up 25.6%; Malays, 23.4%; Bidayuh, 8%; Melanau, 5.4%; other indigenous groups, 5.7%; and others, 0.2%; Indian, 0.2%; Non-Malaysian citizens 3.4%. The Iban mostly inhabit the lowlands of Sarawak, building their longhouses along the main rivers and smaller streams of the interior of Sarawak. The word Iban has various meanings, one of which is "wanderer." The Iban are a very mobile and vigorous people, moving through the hills of Borneo, farming dry-rice, fishing, gathering, and hunting, expanding in territory and numbers. They are originally from the Batang Lupar and Saribas river system of Sarawak, and from the adjoining Kapuas region of Western Kalimantan. They have gradually moved in through the Rejang Valley, traveling northward and eastward, until today they are present in every district and division of Sarawak, both in urban areas and the countryside.

Other Indigenous Groups*128.85.7
Non-Malaysian Citizens77.03.4
Total 2,262.7 100


The Iban speak their own language called "Iban." However, there was no written form of the language until education was introduced into Sarawak. Formerly, all information was handed down orally from one generation to the next. The Iban had to recall important events through memory, and one of the common ways used to narrate important events was through berenong (singing songs).

The Iban language is widely spoken in Sarawak, alongside the Malay language that has been the lingua franca, or common language, of the archipelago for centuries. There are significant similarities between the two languages. Although the Iban language is widely used, there are existing vernacular differences between regions or districts. For example, Iban spoken in the Miri-Bintulu region has a different accent than the Iban language spoken in the Kuching-Bau region. Despite the variations in dialects, all speakers of Iban understand each other's speech quite well.

Among the Iban, as among many other natives in Borneo, names consist of two parts: the given name, and the father's name. However, it is common practice among the Iban to insert the word anak, meaning "the child of," in between the given name and the father's name, for example, Ugat (given name) anak (child of) Muli (the father's name).


Although a relatively large number of Iban are now Christian, most of their beliefs, traditions, and practices are based on their native beliefs and customs. Their myths, fables, legends, and stories tell of headhunting raids, though these practices have ceased to exist. They also tell of Iban augury, a divination system in which divine guidance is sought in natural events, particularly in the behavior of birds and other natural species. Even though the Iban did not practice human sacrifice, many of them were headhunters. It was believed that the possession of an enemy's head was a sign of bravery, boldness, courage, and leadership qualities. Therefore, Iban folklore includes stories of great exploits, the opening of new land settlements, and success in warfare and/or headhunting raids. The heroes and heroines of these exploits were respected during their lifetimes and have been remembered for generations in ritual invocations, legends, fables, and stories.


Over the years, many Iban became Christian, while some others became Muslim. However, a large percentage still keeps their traditional beliefs of animism, in which all beings possess a soul. This understanding underlies various rituals of the Iban. They revere mythical and legendary heroes and deities. In the past, as with many other native groups in Sarawak, the Iban relied on dreams and bird augury, particularly through the banded kingfisher, rufous piculet, and maroon woodpecker, as guidance before commencing any undertakings. For instance, they would observe the behavior of these birds and other animals, reptiles, and insects before farming, hunting, or becoming involved in a trading deal. They would not proceed with any of those undertakings if these natural events were thought to be bad omens.


Besides celebrating other Malaysian major holidays, Christmas, Hari Raya, and Chinese New Year, the Iban in Sarawak celebrate various religious festivals known as gawai. There are a number of gawais that are very important in the Iban society. These are the gawai batu and gawai memali umai (rice cultivation), gawai nyintu orang sakit (health and longevity), gawai kenyalang (warfare and bravery), and gawai antu (festival for the dead). The rituals for these festivals include miring (offering of food), biau (chanting), and timang (incantations) by lemambang (ritualists). The Sarawak government has set aside two or three days each year to observe the most important and interesting festival—the gawai dayak. It is a thanksgiving celebration to end the harvest season and to mark the beginning of the next farming cycle. It is an occasion to seek the blessing of the gods and spirits for the New Year. Besides observing certain rituals, this festival involves much merriment and the drinking of tuak (locally brewed rice-wine), as well as the display of elaborate traditional costumes.


A child is not immediately named when born, but will be called ulat (baby). A baby is normally named after his or her grandparents and/or grandparent's cousins. The bathing ceremony is performed at the river after a name is given. A girl reaches puberty when she is 10 years old and is expected to sleep by herself until she is married. Meanwhile, a boy at the same age will move to sleep in the gallery with the other bachelors. In the past, a boy had to undergo circumcision, although it is not a ceremonial event. Girls are taught to cook, pound, or unhusk rice when they attain the age of seven, while boys are expected to accompany their fathers on hunting trips. At the age of 13, girls learn to weave and boys learn to gather and split firewood with an axe. This training prepares them for marriage.

The birth of a first child marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood and signifies a change in status. The new parents cease to be called by their personal names, but are now known by relational names, that is, apai, "the father of," and indai, "the mother of," so-and-so.

When an Iban dies, she or he is said to become a spirit (antu). Complicated death rites are observed after a death, to ensure the harmony of the temporary presence of the spirit among the living, and also for the future welfare of the living and the dead. Many series of rites are observed. The final rite, the gawai antu, is the most important of them all. At this rite, a tomb house is erected over the grave of the deceased, as a house for the dead.


Social interactions in the Iban community, like other communities in Sarawak, are governed by adat. Adat includes a variety of customs, practices, basic values, and the religious system that governs life in the longhouse, shapes relations between people and their environment, and forges a path between humans and the spirit world. It also governs interpersonal relations between individuals. Among the Iban, it is considered indecent to blow one's nose, or to spit, or even to mention something dirty while someone else is eating. When walking in front of someone who is seated in the longhouse, it is considered polite to bow one's head, place one's hands between one's knees, and say, "Please excuse me. I wish to walk in front of you." The Iban have great respect for visitors. It is polite to ask a visitor, who happens to pass the longhouse or landing place, to come up into the house and be served a snack of betel nuts. Offering betel nuts is the traditional welcome that the Iban accord to visitors in the gallery. If the visitor has not dined, she or he is served food. An Iban who does not take care of visitors is considered greedy.


Many natives in the interior of Sarawak, including the Iban, live in longhouses. However, today there are significant differences in living conditions between Iban who live in urban areas and Iban who still live in longhouses in the interior of Sarawak. A longhouse is much like a row of terraced apartments, except that the longhouse is erected on wooden pillars, 1.2 m to 2 m (4–7 ft) above the ground, for safety's sake. It consists of a series of family bilek (apartments) joined laterally and connected by a communicating passageway, gallery, and ruai (open-air veranda). Each apartment is separately owned and maintained by a single family unit, including its gallery section and the veranda. Each longhouse is governed by a tuai rumah (longhouse elder), who has to be a man of skill and prestige.

Even though many longhouses are supplied with tap water and electricity, some do not have these basic amenities, and have to get water from the nearest river and burn kerosene for light in the night.

From childhood, the longhouse provides a sense of belonging for the Iban. Therefore, most still owe loyalty to their longhouses after allegiance to the family unit.


An Iban family is normally small, very similar to those in European and American society. However, an Iban family is organized as an enduring group. Continuation of the Iban family or bilek (section of the longhouse) is highly regarded. Thus, in each generation, a son or daughter is to remain after marriage in possession of the bilek. This is to continue the family unit and to take over the temporary management of its ritual and economic estate. The family is a basic social and economic unit. It is also a very close unit, with the head of the family (normally the father) responsible for defending its interests against any encroachment. He also represents its members, should they be involved in litigation with members of other families. If any family members are found guilty of an offense, fines are usually paid out of family resources. This is because individuals have interrelated interests and are bound by kinship connection. As such, each member of the family bears the responsibility to uphold family honor.

Keeping animals as pets is very uncommon, not only among the Iban but also among many other natives on Borneo. Animals such as pigs and chicken are reared for meat, while dogs are kept for hunting. Even cats are reared as work animals, to keep mice away from the farm and the longhouse.


Today, most Iban men and women wear Western- or Malay-style clothing. The men wear shirts and pants, while the women wear blouses, skirts, or baju kurung and kebaya [see "Malaysian Malays"]. These current and daily dressing codes are very different from their traditional costumes.

The Iban prefer earthy colors of brown and brick-red, with accents of indigo-blue color pigments obtained from tree roots and leaves, as can be seen in their famous weaving of pua kumbu (a handspun cotton textile).

A traditional Iban woman's costume includes the bidang (tubular sarong-type skirt), kain pandak (short skirt), or kain tating (weighted short skirt). She may also wear a rawai (corset made from rattan or brass), a sugu tinggi (headdress made of silver), a marik empani (a beaded collar), a selampai (sash or shawl), and silver necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. The man's costume includes a kelambi or baju burung (woven cotton jacket with decorative designs) and the sirat (loincloth). Other accessories include the labong (a turban of embroidered cloth) or a rattan cap with feathers, the dangdong (shoulder shawl), a sword, silver bracelets, and ivory armlets.

At the Gawai Dayak festival, one can witness the full display of Iban traditional costume. Several young women and men are dressed in all their finery for the costume parade. A kumang gawai (festival princess) and a keling gawai (festival prince) are chosen during the parade.

The traditional woman's rawai is a closely fitting corset made of a series of cane hoops covered with tiny silver or brass rings, pinned together with brass wire. This encased the hips, waist, and abdomen, thus limiting body movement so that the body remained stiff and rigid. However, it was considered extremely elegant, particularly when the silver was well-polished.


As in many other Asian communities, rice is the staple food among the Iban in Sarawak and is eaten three times a day. It is normally served and eaten with wild vegetables or wild meat from the jungle. While the women collect vegetables, such as mushrooms, fern tops, and/or other young leaves of edible wild vegetation, the men are responsible for bringing back any form of meat, either from hunting or fishing activities.

The family normally gathers for dinner in the evening. They will sit together in a circle on a mat, and the dishes, which include at least a vegetable dish and a meat or fish dish, are placed in the center. The rice can be served on a plate or in leaves and can be taken by hand or spoon. The vegetable and meat dishes are served with a communal spoon from which nobody eats. Water is served and drunk after the meal. Normally, it is the women's responsibility to wash up and clean the kitchen after every meal.

Besides using brassware as cooking utensils, the Iban use bamboo and leaves to cook and serve their traditional food. Cooking meat or vegetables in bamboo is one of their exotic cuisines. The meat is marinated with salt, ginger, and lemon grass before being stuffed into a bamboo pipe 38 cm (15 in) long. The end is covered with young tapioca leaves to give a special aroma to the meat inside. The meat in the bamboo is placed on the fire and has to be constantly and consistently turned in order to avoid being burned. This dish is served with rice.


The Iban know the importance of education as a means to excel in the modern world. Education is seen as a means for social security and mobility. In line with Malaysian government educational policy, the Iban children are required to go school when they are six years old, and both male and female children are deeply encouraged to attend school. As a result, the literacy rate among the Iban has increased from 3% in 1947 to 35% in 1980 and to 48.7% in 1990. Today, many Iban are literate and have obtained degrees both from local and overseas universities. With these qualifications, many Iban today are holding high positions in the public and corporate sectors. They are policy makers, corporate managers, professors, lecturers, doctors, and lawyers.


Many of the musical instruments of nearly all indigenous peoples in Sarawak are made from bamboo, rattan, and woods native to the local area. However, the bronze-knobbed gong is widely used by the Iban and other indigenous communities in Sarawak. It is an ancient instrument appearing in many sizes and styles and used in a variety of ways at both musical and nonmusical events. The ketebong is another musical instrument popularly used by some Iban communities in Sarawak. It is a slightly hourglass-shaped single drumhead that is carved from the trunk of a tree. Various dances are performed to gong and ketebong music. These include the ngajat (performed by women), warrior dances, and the sword dance.

The Iban do not have a strong literary tradition. Most of their stories, legends, and myths are passed down orally from one generation to the next. Only quite recently have efforts been made to document and compile these stories.


Most Iban who live in town areas are involved in formal paid employment. This is partly as a result of Iban traditional custom known as bejalai, which encourages young Iban to leave their longhouses in search of prestige and new experiences. As a result, many have become professional workers and some are factory workers in places like Singapore and Johor. There are others who work on offshore oil platforms, not only in Malaysia and Brunei, but also in the Middle East and other parts of the world. This is quite different from those who still live in longhouses in the interior; they cultivate hill rice, gather wild vegetables, and fish and hunt for meat. They also rear chickens and pigs for home consumption. They are self-sufficient and self-reliant. However, some do take their produce to the market to be sold.


Various native sports and games include cock-fighting and spinning tops. Other games are played too, particularly soccer, which is becoming very popular. Individual tug-of-war (batak lampong), team tug-of-war, arm-wrestling, and long-jumping, are played in the open space in front of longhouses and are also staged during festivals.


As there are no televisions or movie theatres in the villages, Iban normally entertain themselves with traditional music and dance. After working under the hot sun the whole day, the longhouse is filled with the sound of gong. This is very common, except during mourning periods. Women and men, old and young, dance to the music. Various dances are performed, such as sword dancing, dancing with castanets, saucer dances, war dances, and shield dances. It is considered a time to display one's dancing talents.

Among the Iban, cock-fighting is not only a sport but a form of recreation and entertainment. An annual cock-fighting season was held in the past, until it was banned because it had become a place to gamble money. Cock-fighting also has some symbolic connotations. It is a symbolic form of supernatural fights between two rivals.


A pride of Iban cultural heritage is the pua kumbu. The pua kumbu is a handspun textile that is made from a locally grown cotton plant called taya. The weaving of pua kumbu is an art that requires great skill, technique, and rich and complex ideas. Thus, Iban women are considered to be Borneo's most-skilled weavers, producing artistic masterpieces on simple backstrap looms. The secrets of making pua kumbu are passed down from mother to daughter. Producing a pua kumbu requires skill at every stage, from the preparation of the cotton yarn to the tying of threads, the dyeing process, and the selection of design. Pua kumbu is used for the women's bidang, the men's kelambi, and also as blankets.

The Iban also spend their spare time making pottery, producing clay pots for cooking. They also produce other important handicraft items such as baskets, mats, and caps from rattan, bamboo, nipah palm, bemban, screw-pine, and many other plants native to their area.


The issue of land rights is one of the most crucial social problems faced by the Iban in Sarawak. The rapid economic development currently taking place in Sarawak, which requires the Iban to give up their land for land development, has put the Iban and the other ethnic communities in a dilemma. To be involved in "progress" and "development" requires them to give up their land to be developed into agricultural plantations. This is exacerbated by a high rate of rural-urban migration among the Iban. Many longhouses are often left empty, except during the festive seasons of gawai dayak and Christmas. Many Iban return to their longhouses on special occasions.


Egalitarianism is one of the most central values among the Iban. It permeates almost all social relations, including relationships between men and women in the society. Therefore, as with the men, Iban women play a major role in preserving the family as a unit. Their main duties and responsibilities are to nurture the family, which includes looking after the children when they are young. Besides managing the home, Iban women are also required to work in the fields, particularly during the planting season and the harvesting season. They manage their farms together with their husbands.


Buma, Datuk Michael. Iban Customs and Traditions. Kuching, Sarawak: Borneo Publications Sdn. Bhd., 1987.

Chin, Lucan, and Valerie Mashman, ed. Sarawak Cultural Legacy: A Living Tradition. Kuching Sarawak: Society Atelier Sarawak, 1991.

Jawan, Jayum A. The Iban Factor in Sarawak Politics. Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hull, 1991.

Munan, Heidi. Culture Shock: Borneo. Singapore: Times Books International, 1988.

Ngadi, Henri Gana. Iban Rites of Passage and Some Related Ritual Acts: A Description of Forms and Functions. Master's thesis, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Hull University, 1988.

Sandin, Benedict. Iban Way of Life. Kuching Sarawak: Borneo Literature Bureau, 1976.

———. Iban Adat and Augury. Pulau Penang: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, for School of Comparative Social Sciences, 1980.

—by P. Bala

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ETHNONYMS: Dayak, Dyak, Sea Dayak


Identification. The name "Iban" is of uncertain origin. Early scholars regarded it as originally a Kayan term, hivan, meaning "wanderer." The use of the name by those Iban in closer association with Kayan gives support to this possibility. Other Iban, of Sarawak's First and Second Divisions, used the name "Dayak," and even today consider "Iban" a borrowed term. The participation of a few Iban in alliances with Malays for coastal piracy in the nineteenth century led to their being called "Sea Dayaks."

Location. Iban are to be encountered in all of the political divisions of the island of Borneo, but in the largest numbers in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the northwest coast. They have lived predominantly in the middle-level hills of the island, and during the last 150 years, fully half have moved onto the delta plains. Within the past 25 years, 20 percent of Sarawak's Iban have moved into the state's urban centers.

Demography. There were approximately 400,000 Iban in the state of Sarawak in 1989 (368,208 in 1980). Reliable figures for Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island, are unavailable.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Iban language is distinct from other Bornean languages, and though it shares a limited number of words with Malay it is not a Malay dialect.

History and Cultural Relations

The Iban trace their origins to the Kapuas Lake region of Kalimantan. With a growing population creating pressures on limited amounts of productive land, the Iban fought members of other tribes aggressively, practicing headhunting and slavery. Enslavement of captives contributed to the necessity to move into new areas. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they were well established in the First and Second Divisions, and a few had pioneered the vast Rejang River valley. Reacting to the establishment of the Brooke Raj in Sarawak in 1841, thousands of Iban migrated to the middle and upper regions of the Rejang, and by the last quarter of the century had entered all remaining divisions. The most dramatic changes in the past three decades have been abandonment of longhouses and permanent settlement in Sarawak's towns and cities. Iban have lived near other ethnic groups with whom they have interacted. The most important of these societies have been the Malays, Chinese, Kayan and, during the Brooke Raj and the period of British colonialism, Europeans. The dynamic relations between Iban and these societies have produced profound changes in Iban society and culture.


Iban settlements are still predominantly in the form of longhouses. During the time when headhunting was endemic, the longhouse provided a sound strategy of defense. It continues to be a ritual unit, and all residents share responsibility for the health of the community. A longhouse is an attenuated structure of attached family units, each unit built by a separate family. The selection of different building materials and the uneven skills of Iban men who build their own houses are apparent in the appearance of family units, some with floors of split bamboo, others with planed and highly polished hardwood floors. The average width of a family unit is 3.5 meters, but the depth, that is, the distance from front to back, varies widely. A longhouse may include as few as 4 families with 25 residents in a structure less than 15 meters long, or as many as 80 families with 500 residents in a house about 300 meters long. Access to a longhouse is by a notched-log ladder or stairs. At the top of the ladder is an uncovered porch (tanju ) on which clothing, rice, and other produce may be dried. Inside the outer wall is a covered veranda (ruai ), which is the thoroughfare for traffic within the house, where women and old men sit during the daytime weaving or carving, and where families gather in the evening to recount the day's events or to listen to folklore told by storytellers. Beyond the inner wall is the family apartment (bilik ), where the family cooks and eats its meals, stores its heirlooms, and sleeps. Above the bilik and extending halfway over the ruai is a loft (sadau ), where the family's rice is stored in a large bark bin and where unmarried girls sleep. The longhouse is constructed with its front to the water supply and preferably facing east. The core of each longhouse community is a group of siblings or their descendants. Through interethnic marriages, members of other societies may become part of Iban settlements and are assimilated as "Iban" in a generation or two. Until the past quarter-century, all Iban lived in or were related to longhouse settlements. Life in the longhouse was considered "normal," and those few people who lived in single-family dwellings apart from the longhouse were thought to be possessed by an evil spirit. Within the past 25 years, through a process of social and economic differentiation, many affluent Iban have built single-family houses. In the towns to which Iban are moving, they live scattered among Chinese and Malays in squatters' communities.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The primary activity of a majority of Iban is rice farming. In the hills, farmers practice swidden cultivation of fields averaging one hectare. Each family maintains its own seed bank of rice, and plants between one dozen and two dozen varieties in any year. At the center of its field they plant their sacred rice (padi pun ), a gift of some spirit to an ancestor, which has been retained over generations to recall the origins of that family. Given the uncertainties of rice farming in the hills, dozens of ritual acts are performed to ensure a successful crop. At the end of April, the head of the house holds a meeting of all family heads to discuss farm sites and an approximate date for the first rites. The meeting ensures that all residents coordinate their activities and that the rice matures at about the same time. Simultaneous maturation is critical because it helps reduce the losses of any one family to insects, birds, and wild animals, who spread themselves over several fields rather than concentrate on just one. It also permits families to coordinate their harvest rituals. Auguries are taken in June, farms are cleared in June and July, and burned over in August or September. When the rice has ripened, it is informed through ritual that it is to be harvested and transported back to the longhouse. On the last day of harvest, farmers make an offering to the final stand of rice to ensure that the soul of the rice will return to the house with them, and not remain behind in the ground. In the plains, farmers practice farming of wet rice in permanent fields. Introduction of herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers has permitted Iban to remove vegetation, control weeds and insects, and increase the yields of their farms. With much greater control over the success of their efforts, farmers rely much less on ritual. In addition to rice, farmers plant gourds, pumpkins, cucumbers, maize, and cassava. Rice is complemented with a variety of jungle vegetables and fruits collected by men and women for consumption with the evening and morning meals. Fishing has provided the principal source of protein in the Iban diet, but logging and the consequent silting of many streams and rivers have greatly reduced the numbers of fish. Techniques of fishing are sophisticated and adjusted according to the conditions of the waters. Fish traps are placed in constricted streams, and large nets are inclined over larger streams. Fish are taken with a seine or with hooks. Hunting of wild pigs and deer, using dogs, traps, and nets, varies from community to community, according to the region, forest conditions, and animal population. Almost all families keep chickens and pigs, and every longhouse has dogs. Chickens, pigs, and water buffalo are used in sacrifices, and eggs are an essential ingredient of any offering.

The most important commercial activity for the largest number of Iban men has been the institutionalized bejalai, or journey to work for wages. In some longhouses almost all able-bodied men are away at any given time, working for a distant logging company or in the oilfields of northern Borneo. Wage earning enabled men to buy jars, gongs, and other valuables for their families. Rubber and pepper have provided an unstable source of income, as has cocoa, a recent introduction. The attraction of salaried jobs is one of the principal reasons for Iban urban migration. Iban are employed in every major occupational category in Sarawak's cities.

Industrial Arts. Iban women are superb weavers using the backstrap loom. Most men are skilled in the use of the piston bellows. In addition to weaving blankets and other cloths, women weave mats and baskets.

Trade. Iban collect bamboo and rattans for their own use or for sale. Natural rubber and the illipe (Bassia sp., the Indian butter tree) nut, which is available about every fourth year, are other important collectibles. Ironwood, sawed as logs or cut as poles, is becoming increasingly scarce.

Division of Labor. Domestic chores, such as cooking and tending the bilik, are performed primarily by women. Both men and women collect wild foods for family consumption and, among Iban living near towns, for sale. Men fell trees and do the heavier farm work, fish, hunt, and take on contracts with logging and oil companies. In urban contexts, both men and women perform office jobs.

Land Tenure. Rights to land are established by clearing and farming it, or by occupying it. Rights to the use of farmland are vested in the bilik-family, and are held in perpetuity. These rights are maintained in the living memory of the residents of each longhouse. Boundaries are indicated by landforms or trees, or are marked by planting a row of bamboo. Except for the land overshadowed by the eaves of the longhouse, there is no land to which a community holds rights. With the introduction of surveys and titles to land in the early 1900s, Iban who lived closer to government centers obtained titles to their land, under which rights of individual familes to land could be verified. As a result of increased population and the commercialization of land, some Iban have bought land for investment and speculation.


Kin Groups and Descent. The fundamental unit of Iban society is the bilik-family, a group of five or six persons defined by kinship and affinity. Depending upon negotiations at a couple's marriage, there is an almost even chance that their children will be born into the family of either the wife or the husband. Iban families are part of a widely ramifying kinship system that developed in response to Iban mobility. The suku juru and kaban belayan correspond to the kindred. The former connotes kin ties originating with one's grandparents and includes persons to the degree of first cousin. The latter is any group of people who share rights of reciprocity with an Iban, and may include nonkin and even non-Iban. More inclusive groups include "the brotherhood" and "food sharers," made up of distant kin who would be invited to one's festivals, or whose festivals an Iban would attend. Attachment is ambilateral and descent is ambilineal. Although some Iban are capable of reconstructing genealogies up to fifteen generations in depth, such reconstructions are selective and illustrate the Iban practice of "genealogizing" so as to establish ancestral ties with strangers.

Kinship Terminology. Terms of reference are Eskimo and the terms of address are Hawaiian.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Preferred and proscribed marriages are commonly recognized. Though parents prefer to arrange their children's marriages, especially educated young people would rather choose their own mates. Marriage is preferably with a person between the degree of first and fifth cousin. Distinctions are made between parallel and cross cousins; marriages between the former are avoided. Although most Iban marriages are monogamous, isolated instances of sororal and nonsororal polygyny occur. Marriage between a man and a woman who are related as members of adjacent generations is not approved, but propitiatory rites can be performed if, for example, an aunt and nephew insist on marrying. Marriage within the kin group is preferred to protect property rights and to avoid union with a descendant of slaves or a person of ill fortune. Residence is ambilocal or neolocal. Divorce may be initiated by either partner and, with mutual consent, is relatively easy.

Domestic Unit. The bilik-family is an autonomous unit, able to join with other units of a longhouse or to detach itself. Iban become members of a family through birth, adoption, marriage, or incorporation. The family is responsible for construction of its own unit, production of its own food, and management of its own affairs. In a sample of 1,051 families, 60 percent were comprised of parents and children, 40 percent included grandparents. The family is a kin-based, corporate group that holds in trust land, sacred rice, sacred charms, ritual formulas, taboos, and heirloom gongs and jars. Traditionally, one son or daughter remained in the bilik to ensure continuity over time. With urban migration and mail service making possible postal remittances, an increasing number of parents have no adult child residing in the bilik with them.

Inheritance . Male and female children share equally in rights to real and other property so long as they remain members of their natal bilik. Children who move out of the bilik at marriage or for any other reason receive a small portion of the family estate, and in theory relinquish all rights to family land. In fact, however, they retain the right to request land for farming at the annual meeting commencing the agricultural year.

Socialization. At birth an infant becomes the center of attention and the subject of numerous rituals. Weaning is casual and discipline relaxed. During the farming season, children are left in the care of older people. By age 5, children wash their own clothes and by 8, girls help with domestic chores. Traditionally adolescent males would undertake "the initiate's journey," a trip of several months or years, from which they were expected to return with trophies. Adolescent females demonstrate their maturity with diligence and in the weaving of ceremonial cloths, baskets, and mats.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each longhouse, as each bilik, is an autonomous unit. Traditionally the core of each house was a group of descendants of the founders. Houses near one another on the same river or in the same region were commonly allied, marrying among themselves, raiding together beyond their territories, and resolving disputes by peaceful means. Regionalism, deriving from these alliances, in which Iban distinguished themselves from other allied groups, persists in modern state politics. Essentially egalitarian, Iban are aware of long-standing status distinctions among themselves, recognizing the raja berani (wealthy and brave), mensia saribu (commoners), and ulun (slaves). Prestige still accrues to descendants of the first status, disdain to descendants of the third.

Political Organization. Prior to the arrival of the British adventurer James Brooke there were no permanent leaders, but the affairs of each house were directed by consultations of family leaders. Men of influence included renowned warriors, bards, augurs, and other specialists. Brooke, who became Rajah of Sarawak, and his nephew, Charles Johnson, created political positionsheadman (tuai rumah ), regional chief (penghulu ), paramount chief (temenggong )to restructure Iban society for administrative control, especially for purposes of taxation and the suppression of head-hunting. The creation of permanent political positions and the establishment of political parties in the early 1960s have profoundly changed the Iban.

Social Control. Iban employ three strategies of social control. First, from childhood, they are taught to avoid conflict, and for a majority every effort is made to prevent it. Second, they are taught by story and drama of the existence of numerous spirits who vigilantly ensure observation of numerous taboos; some spirits are interested in preserving the peace, while others are responsible for any strife that arises. In these ways, the stresses and conflicts of ordinary life, especially life in the longhouse, in which one is in more or less constant sight and sound of others, have been displaced onto the spirits. Third, the headman hears disputes between members of the same house, the regional chief hears disputes between members of different houses, and government officers hear those disputes that headmen and regional chiefs cannot resolve.

Conflict. Major causes of conflict among Iban have traditionally been over land boundaries, alleged sexual improprieties, and personal affronts. Iban are a proud people and will not tolerate insult to person or property. The major cause of conflict between Iban and non-Iban, especially other tribes with whom Iban competed, was control of the most productive land. As late as the first two decades of the twentieth century, the conflict between Iban and Kayan in the upper Rejang was serious enough to require the second rajah to send a punitive expedition and expel the Iban forcefully from the Balleh River.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs and behavior pervade every part of Iban life. In their interpretations of their world, nature, and society, they refer to remote creator gods, who brought the elements and a structured order into existence; the bird-god Sengalang Burong, who directs their lives through messages borne by his seven sons-in-law; and the popular gods, who provide models for living. Iban religion is a product of a holistic approach to life, in which attention is paid to all events in the waking and sleeping states. The religion involves an all-embracing causality, born of the Iban conviction that "nothing happens without cause." The pervasiveness of their religion has sensitized them to every part of their world and created an elaborate otherworld (Sebayan), in which everything is vested with the potential for sensate thought and action. In Iban beliefs and narratives trees talk, crotons walk, macaques become incubi, jars moan for lack of attention, and the sex of the human fetus is determined by a cricket, the metamorphized form of a god.

Though the gods live in Panggau Libau, a remote and godly realm, they are unseen, ubiquitous presences. In contrast to the exclusive categories of Judaism and Christianity, "supernaturals" and "mortals" interact in all activities of importance. In contrast to the gods who are more benevolently inclined towards mortals, Iban believe in and fear a host of malevolent spirits. These spirits are patent projections onto a cosmic screen of anxieties and stresses suffered by Iban: the menacing father figure, the vengeful mother, the freeloader, and becoming lost in the forest. Iban strive to maintain good life and health by adherence to customary laws, avoidance of taboos, and the presentation of offerings and animal sacrifices.

Religious Practitioners. There are three religious practitioners: the bard (lemambang ), the augur (tuai burong ), and the shaman (manang ). Individually or in teams, bards are invited to chant at all major rituals. They are highly respected men, capable of recalling and adapting, as appropriate, chants that go on for hours. The augur is employed for critical activities such as farming or traveling. The shaman is a psychotherapist who is consulted for unusual or persistent ailments.

Ceremonies. Iban rituals (gawa, gawai ) may be grouped into four major categories: (1) one dozen major and three dozen minor agricultural festivals; (2) healing rituals, performed by the shaman, commencing in the bilik and progressing to the outer veranda; (3) ceremonies for the courageous, commemorating warfare and headhunting; and (4) rituals for the dead. Iban of all divisions perform rituals of the first two categories. Ceremonies to honor warriors have assumed greater importance in the upper Rejang, and rituals for the dead have been much more elaborated in the First and Second divisions of Sarawak.

Arts. The Iban have created one of the most extensive bodies of folklore in human history, including more than one dozen types of epic, myth, and chant. Women weave intricate fabrics and men produce a variety of wood-carvings.

Medicine. Though they have a limited ethnopharmacology, Iban have developed an elaborate series of psychotherapeutic rituals.

Death and Afterlife. Life and health are dependent upon the condition of the soul (samengat ). Some illnesses are attributed to the wandering of one of an Iban's seven souls, and the shaman undertakes a magical flight to retrieve and return the patient's soul. Boundaries between life and death are vague, and at death the soul must be informed by a shaman that it must move on to Sebayan. Crossing "The Bridge of Anxiety," the soul is treated to all imaginable pleasures, many of which are proscribed for the living. After an undetermined period of revelry, the soul is transformed into spirit, then into dew, in which form it reenters the realm of the living by nourishing the growing rice. As rice is ingested, the cycle of the soul is completed by its return to human form. Gawai Antu, the Festival of the Dead, may be held from a few years to 50 years after the death of a member of the community. The main part of the festival occurs over a three-day period, but takes months or even years to plan. The primary purpose of the festival is to honor all the community's dead, who are invited to join in the ritual acts. The festival dramatizes the dependence of the living and dead upon each other.

See also Kalimantan Dayaks


Freeman, Derek (1970). Report on the Iban. Monographs on Social Anthropology, no. 41. London: London School of Economics. [Issued in 1955]

Jensen, Erik (1974). Iban Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sutlive, Vinson H. (1978). The Iban of Sarawak. Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM Publishing Corp. Reprint. 1988. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.


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