Gender over the Life Cycle

The Orang Suku Laut recognize four major distinctions in the life cycle: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. However, the genesis of human life starts with pregnancy.

The Orang Suku Laut are aware that pregnancy starts with conception but, in their view, one becomes a human person only during the fifth month of the mother's pregnancy. At that time, the sex of the child can be ascertained by touching the embryo's position which, if it is preponderantly on the left-hand side in the mother's abdomen, will become a boy, and otherwise a girl. However, there is no sexual preference for children.

Determination of the unborn child's sex is the task of the midwife (always a female)—an expert in naturopathy as well as in magical knowledge—who has "to open" the female for birth and then "to lock" her again. Between the fifth and seventh months of pregnancy, the expectant mother and her husband will "court" the midwife like a bride (cf. "Courtship and Marriage"), and then she is obliged to care for mother and child until the sixth week after birth.

From the seventh month onwards, numerous behavioral taboos must be observed by the woman and her husband in order not to harm their unborn child; for instance, during those hours of the day "when the spirits are walking around" (late afternoon and sunset), they are not allowed to tie the boat or anything else, as otherwise the umbilical cord could strangle the child inside the uterus. Additionally, the future mother has to adhere to several food taboos.

The genesis of human life culminates in the act of giving birth, which becomes a social event, because it is attended by the woman's closest relatives as well as by many other members of the social group to which the woman belongs, and does not end until the 44th day after delivery. Persons who accompany the entire process, or parts of it, are the pregnant female and her husband, the midwife, the mother of the pregnant female and her mother-in-law (if both live in the same residential group), middle-aged and elderly women with experience in the medical and spiritual care of pregnant and childbearing women, and other female and male relatives and neighbors. All these people are urged to attend the event of birth, and often the healer and shaman is consulted as well. Some of these people provide practical assistance; others are simply present and support the expectant mother and her assistants psychologically. The husband holds his wife's head during contractions, a process that is assisted by massage, conducted by the midwife or other experienced women, or in case of complications and need of greater physical strength, even by males.

Delivery is regarded as dangerous because of the possibility of physical complications, but also because blood-sucking and other bad spirits and witches, and also the spirits of the ancestors, threaten both mother and child. Furthermore, a woman who dies in childbirth can herself transform and become a bad spirit threatening males.

During the first 3 days after birth, the parturient is cared for by her husband and her mother. On the third day, a purification ritual, called "the cleaning of planks," is held, which includes washing the newborn, cleaning the place of birth which had been exposed to blood and amniotic fluid, and purification of the midwife. Until the 44th day after delivery, the mother has to observe certain dietary prescriptions and abstain from sexual intercourse because she is still in a weak condition and further endangered by the bad spirits.

Socialization of Boys and Girls

In Orang Suku Laut society there are only few obvious differences in gender-specific socialization.

Boys and girls are valued equally. They are reared and educated by their parents, and also by older siblings, grandparents, and other members of the jointly travelling or settling group of close kinsmen to which they belong. These socializing agents expect them to become good fishermen and fisherwomen, to have their own families, to bear numerous descendants, and to look after their parents in their old age and provide them with economic security. Formal education in public schools has only recently become part of the way of life of those Orang Suku Laut who live in resettlement sites.

Orang Suku Laut education can be characterized as nonauthoritarian (see "Parental and Other Caretaker Roles"). Children learn by listening, observation, and experience. They imitate the activities of the adults in play—for instance by making miniature fish spears to hunt the little fish—and are meanwhile instructed by the grown-ups who do not put pressure on them. Irrespective of their sex, they learn how to handle boats and fish, and also start to do some housework, for instance, fetching drinking water, collecting firewood, or cooking. As they become older, a slight shift can be observed in girls' tasks as they are gradually obliged to care for their younger siblings, while their mothers do fisherwomen's work. By about age 5 or even earlier, Orang Suku Laut children are able to obtain as much fish or other kinds of marine products as necessary for their own nourishment, and consequently already take some load off their parents.

Transitions between infancy and childhood are not the object of any particular attention. Nonetheless, there are some customs and rituals, most of them for both sexes—naming, keeping and "drinking" the umbilical cord, circumcision, piercing earlobes, and shaving children's heads.

Naming a male or a female child is done shortly after birth and often spontaneously by reference to natural phenomena occuring at the time of birth (e.g., Kilat, "lightning," or Rih, "storm"). Naming is not an outstanding event, because often one does not carry the same name throughout life. Names are changed in case of serious illnesses, because a name itself might be "too heavy" and therefore causes illness, or because the change is regarded as an act of anonymization of sick persons who are consequently difficult to identify by the bad spirits or by those humans who caused the evil.

Among some subgroups of the Orang Suku Laut it is a common practice to dry the umbilical cord of a newborn and keep it for years. When there are younger siblings, small pieces of all siblings' umbilical cords are watered for some hours. Then, the siblings have to drink the water; this is said to safeguard them against ever quarreling with one another.

The circumcision of girls and boys—a common practice among Malay Muslims—is also practiced by some subtribal divisions of the Orang Suku Laut, irrespective of whether their members have converted to Islam or are keeping to Orang Suku Laut traditions. If girls are circumcized—this involves a small cut in the vulva and seems to be a symbolic act, rather than genital mutilation—this is done by the midwife 1 or 2 months after birth, and is accompanied by a minor ceremony attended by close relatives only. Circumcision of boys is conducted at the beginning of adolescence (see "Puberty and Adolescence").

Piercing of earlobes is a common practice. During babyhood and for reasons of beauty, the girls' earlobes are pricked and, if there is money, adorned with golden earrings. Sometimes, during childhood, one of the earlobes of a boy may be pierced for the following reasons: to fight illness and also to increase the similarity between the fathers' and sons' faces and voices which guarantees a good relationship. Older boys also like to wear earrings.

The shaving of male or female children's heads is sometimes practiced in order to protect them against illness, prevent relapses, and to improve their physique.

Puberty and Adolescence

Adolescent boys and girls are fully integrated in domestic and economic activities, and now a change takes place in gender relationships. The members of the nuclear family and the kin group try to ensure that unmarried adolescents of opposite sex cannot meet on their own. On the other hand, there are no reservations against young males and females meeting, if older persons are present, and even developing flirtatious relationships. These may sometimes result in premarital sexual contacts. Although these contacts are not appreciated, there are no grave sanctions, but the couple are often urged to marry soon, especially if the girl has become pregnant.

Boys are circumcised shortly before the beginning of puberty, at the age of about 10-12, by an expert, often a Malay Muslim. Circumcision is accompanied by a ceremonial feast attended by relatives. This marks the beginning of adolescence for a boy.

The transition from girlhood to womanhood is indicated by a girl's first menstruation, but it is unmarked by any ritual. A woman's menstruation is not only called "the coming of the month" (datang bulan), but also "becoming dirty" (dapat kotor). However, this term is the only indication of potential impurity associated with females. Furthermore, a woman's menstruation is known among her immediate neighbors, because females talk about it. The materials which absorb women's menstrual discharges are strictly taboo and are hidden.

Attainment of Adulthood

The stages of adolescence and adulthood are not clear cut, especially for a boy, but the transition from one to the other takes place gradually. This applies even to one of the most important aims of life for the Orang Suku Laut, namely setting up a separate family as a precondition for having many children. In former times, close relatives (preferably cousins—see "Gender-Related Social Groups") were married during infancy, and today engagement and marriage take place at approximately the time of sexual maturation, that is, at the age of about 13-17 (see also "Courtship and Marriage").

Middle Age and Old Age

Middle and old age in no way imply retirement. Owing to their accumulated experience and wisdom, elderly males and females are treated with respect, and their status and authority in the context of their family and the jointly traveling or residing group increases continuously. They are the custodians of historical and religious knowledge, are important advisors in decision-making processes, and enjoy the position of experts (e.g., as healers or midwives). The eldest male represents his community vis-à-vis other Orang Suku Laut groups and the surrounding non-Orang Suku Laut society (cf. "Gender-Related Social Groups" and "Leadership in Public Arenas"). Furthermore, as long as they are physically and mentally strong, they continue to work and stay economically independent of their children and grandchildren. Even widows and widowers try to maintain their own household for as long as possible.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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