The Batek of Malaysia
The Batek people of Malaysia are a part of the last Orang Asli, Malay for original people, existing on peninsular Malaysia. They are peaceful people, with little to no conflict engagement. They are encountering encroachment from the outside world, through deforestation, but have not allowed that to change their ways of life…Yet. These people have lived, loved, foraged, transitioned, sustained, and withstood through generations, holding to their cultural ideals. The Batek are a nomadic people that rely on the earth to sustain them. Their culture is entirely egalitarian. Their leaders are not chosen, but ascend.
They do not fight the environment, but bend to its whims. Gender, social and kinship equality are the threadwork of their culture. Many cultures view the sexes in many different ways. Gender roles, marriage roles, and societal roles between the sexes can be very different across cultures. Nowak & Laird (2010) outline a few cultures. American society purports to strive for equality for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, or race. We do not always achieve this goal, and we can still see many inequalities in our society, particularly between men and women.
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Endicott (1984) stated the Batek have always enjoyed equality between the sexes. In fact they do not see much difference between the two genders, besides a few physiological differences. Men and women perform day to day activities side by side. Men do most of the hunting, but that is not because women are not allowed, or encouraged to hunt. The same holds true for foraging. The women do most of the gathering of tubers and other plant materials, but men are not restricted from this activity. Men and women engage in child-rearing and interaction equally.
The Batek have very few distinctions between the sexes. One such distinction is in their creation story. It suggests that men and women are created from the same elements but have a slightly different shape. It gives no order of importance to either gender. The Batek do consider some differences between men and women. They acknowledge that men are intrinsically physically stronger; their muscles are bigger and their breath is stronger than that of the women. This is why men are better hunters, because they can reach their prey higher up in the trees and climb higher to etrieve it. For this reason the young boys are the focus of the hunting training. The Batek hunt by blowing poison darts through a blowpipe, using their mouths to blow air through the pipe. This does not limit the women to foraging fruits and forest vegetation. Women hunt prey closer to the ground and are not afraid to climb, or swing in the trees. The women hunt on a recreational basis, as do the younger male and female children, and the group does not rely on their efforts to sustain them, but that is not because it is prohibited.
Because protein, obtained from meat, and plant materials are equally important in a person’s diet, the food gathering of women is viewed with as importance to the group. If a day’s hunt does not yield any meat, the group must rely on the food gathered by the women to feed its people. According to Endicott, K. (1991). , after hunting monkeys and other meats in the forest, the Batek take advantage of what they can, with emphasis put on whatever food staples consist of the most caloric intake.
This includes wild fruit and honey, traded foods, and tubers. Hunting takes skill and training, as does plant gathering. Just as hunters must track and kill prey, foragers must have the knowledge to locate the vegetation, and how to harvest it. As in many hunter-gathering societies, the women may take babies in slings on their gathering ventures. Elderly members and slightly older children also help to watch the babies while the adults gather food. (Nowak & Laird, 2010) There are obvious differences between women and men.
Women menstruate, give birth, and breast feed the children, but this is not mentioned in any of the research as giving importance to, or taking away importance from females. Men engage in all other aspects of child-rearing. One other slight difference that we may encounter in the Batek is in their adornments. Men and women both wear flowers in their hair or on their bodies; women often place flowers in their pierced ears. Men do not pierce their ears. Women add paint to their adornments. Men do not. Women also wear bracelets and necklaces when men do not.
Women wear their hair slightly longer and more stylish than men. When the Batek perform rituals to the gods they make the same adornments across the sexes. They believe that these adornments please the gods. The only time they adorn differently for the gods is in death. Flowers and paint are placed on different parts of the male’s body from the female’s body. They believe that their supreme being will be upset if the wrong gender adornments are made upon death. Egalitarianism in the Batek culture is ubiquitous across gender as well as age and community.
Batek groups are transitory and usually consist of close family members or friends. The groups grow and shrink according to surplus of food, and necessity, as well as whim. The groups are constantly moving around the forest, so a group of a few families may decide to leave the large group at any time, and return at any time. But equality is of the utmost importance to every individual and group. No matter what the group consists of, everybody enjoys the spoils of the whole. Hunters share their meat from the day’s hunt, and women share all food gathering from the day.
There is an order of consumption, with the immediate family (parents and young children) eating first, then the extended family, and finally neighbors. If there is an overabundance of food, the group may share with groups around them. Grown children that are no longer living within their parent’s hut will often eat with their parents. Elderly parents are included in the line of consumption, also partaking in their children’s meals. While some animosity towards the group was noted by Endicott & Endicott (2008), it was only in the larger groups, and very sparse.
Any possessions that enter the group are shared in this same way. Since most groups consist of kin and close friends, it is easy to understand that sharing would disseminate to them wholeheartedly. Batek possess very few non-consumables, so inheritance or jealousies are limited. In fact, jealousy along with any other ill-willed emotion is limited, because the Batek are a peaceful society. They do not believe in harming people. They rarely discipline their children, and would not harm another person, even if harm is done to them.
They take this so far as to accept and overlook the shortcomings of fellow Batek, simply because they are Batek. They are one people, and their survival is an indication of their success as a people. Leadership among the Batek is no exception to the rule when it comes to their attitude of equality. They live lives of autonomous governance. Authority is rarely observed among them. People make decisions mostly for themselves, spouses being equal partners in the decisions. The leadership that is observed is minimal, and men and women alike are welcome to enter into these roles of leadership.
Age is also not a factor, although many leaders are chosen for their intelligence, and capability, of which age is beneficial. If a person is persuasive enough they are recognized in a position of leadership. This is transient, as is most things for the Batek. If a leader makes a decision that the group does not agree with the group will not follow, and thus their power is weakened. At that time a new leader may ascend. These leaders have been called “natural leaders”, as they ascend naturally through respect, hard work, intelligence, and good decision-making. Headmen” have been named by the Malay government, in order to have a spokesman between the tribe and the government, but this position is stressful, and though it brings with it a small salary the Batek do not cherish this position. There is importance put on the shaman, because they are the link between the people and their superhuman beings. Leadership and authority is hard to establish simply because of the nature of the Batek society. They are nomadic, and groups break down and emerge as needed, so any leadership would be mute once the group was disbanded.
The fact that each individual is not wholly reliant on any group or person makes it hard to establish authority. Marriage and divorce is also very transient. In the life of a Batek person they may enjoy many marriages. There are no formal ceremonies to specify marriage or divorce, and if a person is no longer happy in a marriage they are welcome to divorce. Because Batek society embraces teaching and interacting with all the young children of the group and because there are very few possessions a divorce is little more than the parents moving into separate huts.
Age is also not a factor in marriage. Beyond marriage of close relatives, the Batek have no limitations on marriage partners. In fact, there is very little interference in the marriages of individuals. A parent may voice their opinion of their children’s potential partner, but the child may choose to ignore them and there will be no repercussions. Marriage is transient throughout their lives, but it is also an equal partnership between the spouses. Each spouse participates in the decision making, and as outlines is an equal participant in both child-rearing and food gathering.
Often times if one spouse is being lazy, it is overlooked by the group because their spouse will work a bit harder to make up where their spouse is lacking. Genders are so equal that there is no separation among the gender groups. While men and women naturally form friendships while gathering food, there is a lot of time left for interacting across the sexes. It is not frowned upon to form and continue close relationships between the sexes, even after marriage. The Batek are one with each other and the forest.
They maintain peace and harmony along with survival. They have no desire for possessions, choosing to subsist and exist in a world of no stress, ill-will, or violence. The Batek culture is being threatened by the outside, capitalist world. The forest in which they live and rely on for all their needs is being decimated. They do not hold “rights” to any of the land that they live on. The Batek are continually being pushed further and further into the depths of the forest, in an attempt to stay away from modern society, and the farmers surrounding the forest.
They have been traders with the Malaysian farmers around the forest, trading rattan and other goods for tobacco and rice. But this is has been the extent of their interactions up until the Malaysian government attempted to integrate them into modern society. They set up farming projects through the Malaysian Department of Aboriginal Affairs, known as the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli. The Batek participated in these projects, until the provisions were depleted, and then they returned to the forest and their hunting ways. Even these ventures of integration did not hamper their egalitarian ways.
The Batek brought all trade materials, and farming resources back to the group, and shared, just as they have for the entirety of their history. The Malay people have also tried to introduce arbitrary gender roles into Batek society. Malaysian women are seen in subordinate positions in their culture, and so the Malaysian interactions have reflected this. They will not interact with the female leaders and will wait for a male that may have no position the group. The Batek have not been affected by this. But the Batek people may be facing further encroachment on their lives by deforestation.
The Orang Asli of Malaysia, as a whole, which include roughly 15 other groups may all be forced into the modern world. The Batek tribes have retreated further and further into the forest, but as it disappears, so will the Batek way of life. They will be forced to take the opportunities given to them by the Malaysian government, and eventually they will be lost into the melting pot of modern society. Their values of equality and respect for the earth and its people may disappear as they assimilate into the modern world.
Endicott, K. (1991). Property, Power and Conflict among the Batek of Malaysia. In T. Ingold, D. Riches, J. Woodburn, B. Bender, B. Morris, A. Barnard (Eds.) , Hunters and Gatherers, I: History, Evolution and Social Change; II: Property, Power and Ideology (p. 110). Oxford, England: Berg. Retrieved from: http://ww.peacefulsocieties.org/Archtext/Endic88.pdf Endicott, K. L (1984). The Batek De’ of Malaysia. Cultural Survival, Quartely 8(summer)
Endicott, K.M & Endicott, K.L (2008). The headsman was a woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia. Nowak, B., Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology. (Ashford University ed.) Retrieved from: https://content.ashford.edu/books/AUANT101.10.2