The Stalk That Supports the Flower: Orang Rimba Kinship, Marriage and Gender in Jambi Sumatra

By Sager, Steven | Oceania, March 2017 | Go to article overview

The Stalk That Supports the Flower: Orang Rimba Kinship, Marriage and Gender in Jambi Sumatra


Sager, Steven, Oceania


The Orang Rimba ('People of the forest') are a Malay-speaking ethnic group (pop. -3-400) who live throughout the upstream regions of Southeast Sumatra. Together with the Penan of Borneo, they are the other example of the Austronesians adaptation to a mobile, hunter-gatherer way of life in the lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia. They have a unique and flexible economy that traditionally shifts in and out of periods of swidden gardening and a nomadic life based on digging for wild yams. This is combined with hunting, gathering, and collecting forest products for trade. In Bukit Duabelas, there is a high concern for their system of customary law (adat), which is largely concerned with arranging marriages and regulating appropriate interactions with females and their rights to forest resources, and results in very rigid gender relations. They are also unique for their traditional religious beliefs, a variant of Malay animism, and a multitude of religious prohibitions that serve to maintain cultural and religious purity by restricting interactions with the outside world.

Orang Rimba social relations draw from a broader Malay system of terms and concepts that are adapted to fit their small and fluid camp structures, uxorilocal residence patterns, and egalitarian social relations that are based around a system of sharing. Some of the broader patterns of their social relations are similar to other bride service societies, with the primary organizational features arranged according to gender, age, adulthood, and relations of affinity, with adult males achieving an additional amount of status and authority in the domains of law and religion (Collier 1981; Marshall 1959; Rosaldo 1980; Turnbull 1961). This paper examines some of these issues in the context of their primary kinship relations, gender and power relations, marriage and divorce, leadership and law, how some of these ideas are reflected in terms for the home. Throughout the paper I explore how Orang Rimba social relations are conceptualized according to botanic metaphor, and the intellect-passion contrast, a key conceptual category upon which Orang Rimba gender relations are arranged.

Structural analysis can provide insight into how people arrange and organize their social relations, religious beliefs and their worldview. One of the most basic manners in which conceptual domains are organized is upon dualisms, around which relational and symbolic categories are arranged (Needham 1973; Turner 1967). James Fox combines this type of analysis with the notion of precedence, in which one side of an asymmetrical opposition, or plurality of oppositions, is given primacy or value over the others (Fox 1990: 7). Fox has described some of the more prominent ways that precedence can be linguistically constructed and expressed in different Austronesian societies, through recourse to a variety of common metaphors and complementary categories such as botanic metaphor, spatial coordinates, male/female, elder/younger, first-born/ last-born, prior/later, trunk/tip, hot/cold, and intellect/passion (Fox 1971; Fox 1980). As Fox points out, the use of these terms and other cognate terms to denote significant cognate categories may be evidence of close cultural relationships amongst Austronesian peoples. Thus, 'despite the intricacies of their patterns of alliance, these peoples seem to share common ideas about the nature of life, of society, and of the human person' (Fox 1980: 14).

The Arabic and Islamic influenced intellect (akal) and passion (nafsu) contrast are key concepts and symbols that run through many domains of life in Malay, Javanese, and Islamic cultures, and are frequently invoked in discussions surrounding the similarities and differences between males and females. According to this concept, men are believed to be innately associated with more intellect and have more balance and control over their emotions, while females are innately associated with their emotions, passions, and desires. …

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