Can the Partnership Last?


Btsisi' marital partners and development

The penetration of capitalism and planned development into subsistence economies usually lowers women's status. Women rind themselves locked in the household, economically dependent upon an individual man or perhaps doing wage labor along with their household tasks. Thus far, Btsisi', an indigenous people (Orang Asli) of the west coast of Selangor, Malaysia, are an exception to this rule.

Married couples are the basic units of Btsisi' society. The husband and wife form a cooperative, self-sufficient team. When a young couple marry, their elders instruct them in the cooperative nature of matrimony. Btsisi' notions of a non-hierarchical, cooperative marriage are best illustrated by the concept of odo'. Odo' is the name, different from either of their birth names, which a male elder bestows upon the couple. The couple address and refer to each other by their odo' name, and the community also addresses and refers to them individually and jointly by this name. Symbolically, the married couple changes from two separate individuals to a unit. When for national security reasons, British colonials issued identification cards, they followed the Malay system of naming: individuals were identified as daughters/sons of their fathers. Traditionally, however, Btsisi' are referred to as the children of their parents or the parents as the mothers/fathers of their children. Thus, when Btsisi' are dealing with outsiders their Malay patronyms project male predominance.

During the wedding ceremony the couple are instructed about their proper roles and duties as husband and wife. A woman should care for the household and children while a man provides for his family's financial well-being. Although Btsisi' regard certain tasks as woman's or man's work, the ideal couple learns to assist one another. For a woman to have the time to work with her husband, he must assist her in household maintenance and child care.

Btsisi' prefer not to form work teams with people outside of the household. Working with someone from another household requires dividing the produce and profits between the two households. Since earnings are very small, sharing the profits of joint work leaves each household with a share too small to maintain the household. Consequently, Btsisi' realize that both members of a couple must work in order to survive. Men and women work together, either on different phases of a task or jointly on the same phase, in tasks such as fishing, rice cultivation and harvesting oil palm. Drag net fishing requires the labor of two people; although rice cultivation can be done alone, two people working together make the task easier; and in order for palm oil harvesting to support a family, the labor of at least two people, and ideally a whole family including children, is necessary.

Wages for oil palm harvesting are paid on a piecework basis with adjustment for the season and average yield of a particular area. A single harvester cannot make enough money to support a family. Consequently, throughout Malaysia, the family is the typical plantation work unit. Btsisi' women are unsure of the advantages of officially registering as harvesters along with their husbands. If they are absent from work the plantation deducts money for that day, even though wages are determined on a piecework basis. However, if a woman registers officially for work she can receive paid maternity leave. If a woman becomes pregnant on the plantation, her husband must find alternative work until she can return to work.

A couple working together on the plantation receive one salary in the man's name even if his wife is an official worker. But Btsisi' customary law, still followed today, requires a husband to hand over his wages to his wife, since she manages all household finances. Thus, Btsisi' women are not only primary wage earners; they maintain control over their own wages and those of their husbands.

At the turn of the century, traditional lands which Btsisi' used for hunting, gathering, fishing and swidden cultivation were purchased by commercial agricultural companies. On Carey Island, records kept by the Harissons and Crossfield Plantation show that Btsisi' received M$30,000 in compensation for their land. By 1980, Btsisi' titled elders could not recall what became of the money. The impact of the plantation on Btsisi' life was immediate. Btsisi' were the original estate workers. Men cleared the forests while women worked in the plantation nursery and weeded the ground around young rubber trees. Hunting diminished in importance with the destruction of the forests. By the 1950s enough forests were cleared on the plantation to hinder even dry rice cultivation. As a result, Btsisi' became increasingly dependent upon store-bought rice and other commercially manufactured items which they bought using their wages and the income from cash crops and fishing.

In the late 1950s and 1960s Btsisi' on Carey Island attempted to secure a small portion of their traditional land. They went directly to the plantation manager and requested that the plantation return some land to Btsisi'. With the help of the Malaysian Department of Aborigines (known as Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli or the JOA), the Malaysian government established small aboriginal reserves ranging in size from under 100 to slightly under 400 acres of land. On Carey Island, where half of all Btsisi' live, the plantation today owns 22,000 acres while only 1,000 acres form an aboriginal reserve and another 5,000 acres are forest reserve and mangrove.

The traditional Btsisi' concept of land does not encompass the Western concept of land as alienable or exclusive property. Technically, all reservation land is communal, administered by the traditional council made up of male officials who inherit their positions. Btsisi' say that women were previously officials also, but are no longer represented because the last official had no daughter. The Council of Elders gives land to those who ask for it and excludes outsiders from ownership. Btsisi' are becoming aware of the problem their children will have without access to land. As a result, almost all reserve land is distributed; the little land left is of poor quality, bordering on the mangrove swamps and often flooded by salt water. In the early 1980s land was distributed solely to men. Although women could have requested land, none did. Women's lack of interest in requesting land might be attributed to the traditional sexual division of labor in which men were primarily responsible for clearing and burning new fields.

For Btsisi', women are as likely to "own" land as men. If a woman assists her husband in clearing and planting the land she is considered an equal owner. Women also may inherit land from their parents. In 1980, the JOA assigned each lot on the reserve a number and owner. On every lot there is a sign posting the lot's number and owner's name. In all cases, the designated owner is a man, even if Btsisi' recognize a woman as owner. What effect the JOA action may have on women's economic position vis-a-vis land ownership is not yet clear. So far, the JOA rule of male ownership has had little effect on Btsisi' concept of land ownership.

The Malaysian government's goal for Orang Asli is to "upgrade the socio-economic well-being of [the] Orang Asli community and to accelerate their integration into the mainstream of society." Mainstreaming includes Orang Asli acceptance of Islam and their blending into Malay rural life. Presently, most Orang Asli are unwilling to assimilate and accept Islam. Conversion to Islam means changing dietary patterns, abandoning traditional religious beliefs, and for women, an acceptance of a subordinate position in relation to men, a notion inherent in Islam and Malay customary law.

Directed development sponsored by the JOA focuses on providing all Orang Asli with medical and educational assistance, along with "planned economic development." The JOA runs a hospital specifically for Orang Asli as well as small facilities located around the country which provide free medical care. Most Btsisi' women use the hospital facilities at least once for childbirth. Hospital delivery exempts a woman and her husband from an expensive traditional cleansing ceremony. However, women generally prefer home births and only deliver in hospitals if they cannot afford the bathing ritual. JOA medical care also provides women with birth control pills which male Orang Asli medics dispense. Btsisi' women do not have any sort of gynecological examination either before or during their use of the pill. Most women do not use birth control until they have three or four children, usually spaced about two years apart. The decision to take the pill is a woman's, giving her the freedom to plan her family.

The JOA also provides primary schools on Btsisi' reservations. Most teachers are Malays, and all are men. Many of the teachers look down on Orang Asli. They sometimes call Btsisi' "stupid savages" and claim that they have "low IQs." Both boys and girls attend primary schools in the villages, but fewer girls than boys go on to the next level. Secondary schools are not located in the villages, requiring children to live away from home in dormitories. Some girls' parents persuade their daughters to remain home and take over the daily running of the household, freeing their mothers to work. So far, the difference in education between girls and boys is insignificant, but mass education for Orang Asli is still relatively new; if and when Btsisi' children begin to attend the university this differential will probably have an effect on the relationship between the sexes.

The JOA also provides adult education. Adult education classes emphasize Malay notions of women's domestic role. In one Btsisi' village, the JOA established a class for women, teaching them domestic skills such as cooking and sewing. Btsisi' women have little time and energy at the end of a working day in the fields or on the plantation to spend a large amount of time preparing meals. Although the ideal sexual division of labor charges women with household maintenance and child care, women are aware that they play a primary role as economic providers.

The planned economic development administered by the JOA focuses solely on men. For example, the JOA is attempting to improve Btsisi' economic position through agricultural development programs. At no cost to Btsisi', the government provides young coffee and oil palm saplings. While the saplings go only to men, as long as women help their husbands with the clearing and planting, they too enjoy the profits from this government aid.

As recently as the late 1960s, at least 60 percent of all Orang Asli still lived in deep jungle, following a traditional way of life. The remaining 40 percent resided in areas accessible from urban centers, forced, to varying degrees, to give up their traditional way of life. Btsisi' fall into the second group. Dependent upon a cash economy, Btsisi' work on the plantations or they obtain cash by marketing marine resources and cash crops. Plantation labor has not altered Btsisi' patterns of work since the conjugal pair harvests oil palm as a team, the same work pattern Btsisi' follow when they plant a swidden or fish. Btsisi' concept of odo', the interdependence and cooperation of husband and wife, remains intact. However, as pressure on the land increases, and as the Malaysian government continues to treat Btsisi' women as subsidiary and subordinate to their husbands, it is unclear how long Btsisi' women can maintain their positions as their husbands' equal partners.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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