WE continue in the series on customs and traditions of the Ibans who were recently offended by an article in the Asian Beacon magazine that said among other things that mothers had offered their daughters for sex in the hope that the men would marry them.
Gregory Nyanggau Mawar, an Iban, writing on the ‘Iban Way of Life’ says that the courting of girls at night is known as ngayap, a traditional method of dating and looking for suitable partner for young Iban bachelors to pave the way for future love.
This is his account on ngayap, the proper way of Iban courting and dating:
At the age of fourteen, a boy begins to attain his bachelorhood. His parents teach him to behave and speak politely to others. He also learns to court girls together with older bachelors.
Courting girls at night (ngayap) has been an Iban traditional dating method to look for suitable partner and pave the way for their future love. Hence, they must learn the polite manners in approaching the girl of their heart.
The bachelors must learn to establish and maintain their good reputation by paying due respect to the girls’ bed. They ought to be considerate with other people who are sleeping without disturbing them from their dreams.
In addition, they should walk quietly along the verandah, which was very difficult to do in the dark for the nervous and the inexperienced.
The wooden floors surfaces were mostly uneven with a lot of loose domestic items lying around the corners, or hanging from deer antlers tied to the posts or hanging on loose bamboo beams.
This courting activity is also a test of the young boys’ courage and maturity as they have to travel at night through forest, crossing rivers or swamps to reach the girls’ longhouse.
In the headhunting days, this kind of travel could be a very risky affair as they could fall upon a band of marauding enemies. So they are trained to exercise extreme caution to keep them on guard against untoward incident.
These include keeping themselves adequately armed, be alert of danger and are prepared for action at all time in their travel. They were also taught to properly identify themselves should they meet other people in their journey.
This nightly travel by the bachelors is also treated as an inter longhouse night security petrol by the community. Any sign of danger detected, these bachelors could give early warning to the community.
This would give them time to respond to these emergencies and quell any surprise attacks by enemies. For this reason, ngayap was encouraged as part of the Iban culture and treated as an important early learning and social interaction process for their children.
Though there is no set of established rules to this tradition, common understanding by the community at large have accepted this traditional courtship as part of the Iban way of life.
There has been no reported incident of property stolen or damaged and fatality incident in the history of the Saribas Iban society due to ngayap activities.
On the other hand, for the girls who aim high or those who have been properly counseled by their parents, they will automatically know how to recognise certain behavior of a suitor to be entertained.
The boys who have been ill-cultured and talked boisterously are to be avoided as the girls normally abhor boys who have been badly groomed.
In their conversation with girls whom they court, many boys say that they wish to marry them, or tell the spinsters that their arrivals are made through the requests of their parents to ask for their hands in marriage.
On hearing such proposals, the girls must think profoundly. Perhaps the declarations can turn to be mere tricks to induce the girls to offer themselves to the boys.
At this juncture, many girls like to test the boys by telling them that they have as yet, no intentions of getting married unless these lads have shown their manly qualities like participating in venturing abroad to search for fame and fortune.
In the old days, when there were many enemies around, spinsters usually declared their refusals to get married unless Iban bachelors had killed enemies and taken their heads.
Due to such encouragement on the part of the girls, the male Ibans in those days were rarely found not to have gone abroad or joining a war expeditions because they feared that they could not easily obtain suitable wives.
Any man who spent his entire life in his own longhouse was usually labeled as a coward who could, as the women termed it, “put on a woman’s sarong”.
Hence, they found it difficult to marry high profile (clever and skillful) girls, unless they are not aware of his true qualities.
Moreover, when a girl reaches maturity, and if there is a suitor, her parents will arrange for her to settle down. Normally, an Iban girl marries when she is seventeen years of age.
When a girl attains her spinsterhood, her mother teaches her the ways employed to protect her.
She must be taught to behave and speak courteously to boys who court her at night. She is aware that it has been a tradition for a boy to court a girl.
However, the question of getting her to offer herself to the boy depends very much on the girl herself, because he cannot force her to give consent unless they love each other through his kindness and winning ways.
These are secretly explained to her by her mother. The mother also emphasizes the methods in which her daughter can judge whether or not the boy is sincere enough to marry her.
– Gregory Nyanggau Mawar, author of this article on the ‘Iban Way of Life’ has his own website: http://gnmawar.wordpress.com/
Ibans: Headhunting days over