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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Borneo's Tattooed Women 'Warriors' – Weavers of the Skrang Iban

Article © 2006 Lars Krutak

"As far north as Brunei and as far south as Pontianak in Kalimantan, the effect was that people learned to run away on merely seeing these Iban…otherwise the result would surely be decapitation. Even children all along the coast expressed great fear when the name of the Skrang Iban was heard. Embroideries were made on the headhunters’ reputations, and such customs as hauling people with hooks attached to poles and then cutting their throats were attributed to them."
(European official, Kuching, 1855)

In traditional Iban belief, headhunting served to maintain the ritual prosperity of the longhouse by ensuring agricultural and community fertility. In an Iban allegory, trophy heads are described as containers of seed, which have the object of enhancing the fertility of the hill rice, the Iban’s staple food. "This 'seed' [head], explains Shaman Guyak, says it is angry and crying, as it wants to be planted like young banana plants. This 'seed', explains Shaman Lambong, wants to be harvested as are the yams that are planted deep in the soil."

Although severed heads were construed as phallic in nature, it was the flowing blood that represented the life-giving symbol.

In the eyes of the Iban gods and deified ancestors, the taking of fresh heads was not only pleasing; it was also rewarded with many gifts. In response to headhunting, for example, the divine indicated locations in the forest where rice fields should be cleared and planted; they protected the rice fields against crop failure; they lent their diagnosis in times of illness; and they accompanied men in war or on the headhunt to insure success.

For the Skrang Iban, headhunting was an institution believed to maintain balance and harmony in the cosmos. And oftentimes a man’s status was not established until he had proven success in headhunting itself. Such proof not only came in the form of a severed head that would hang from the rafters of the longhouse, but later from the completed tattoos (pantang) that were lasting symbols of his participation in the human hunt.

But just as a great warrior was tattooed to mark his achievements in headhunting, Iban women were tattooed as proof of their accomplishments in weaving. Although many Skrang Iban women were accomplished weavers, gaining prestige and enhanced status through their labor-intensive work, only a few were truly experts, able to produce the sacred pua kumbu' blanket that contained the most powerful and intricate designs and colors.


65-year-old Iban woman of the Skrang River. The pincher-like motif that terminates at the mid-forearm is kala or scorpion. The zigzagging band that circles the arm is the kemebai or centipede. Both are protective symbols widely used in Iban art. Pala tumpa', meaning "head of bracelets", refers to the traditional practice of Iban women wearing bangle bracelets from the wrists to the elbows. © 2002-2006 Lars Krutak


80-year-old Iban woman of the Skrang River with pala tumpa' tattoo. © 2002-2006 Lars Krutak


75-year-old woman of the Skrang River with enkadu (caterpillar) tattoos. These designs are simply beauty marks, inked on her arms by her boyfriend around 1945.
© 2002-2006 Lars Krutak


Young Iban woman weaving a ceremonial headband to be worn by an elder Iban man. Note that she is using commercial, ready-dyed fabrics & wears no tattoo. © 2002-2006 Lars Krutak

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