Leadership in Public Arenas

Orang Suku Laut society is characterized by a high degree of gender equality, only weak hierarchies (elders), and hardly any domination or subordination. Hence leadership is, to a large extent, informal.

There is no superordinate leader of society as a whole, nor of each subdivision, but political leadership positions today exist only at the level of those kin groups which actually share everyday life, and only in this realm is there an obvious gender asymmetry. The eldest of a jointly traveling/residing group who becomes the group's leader and advisor is always a male. His main task is to represent his community's interests vis-à-vis other groups and non-Orang Suku Laut, but he does not possess the authority to impose sanctions in case of deviant behavior (primus inter pares type). In former times, there existed the superordinate position of the batin/penghulu laut, who represented several such groups in a specific area. This position was also held by a male.

Although a group's leader is always a male, this does not mean that women have no influence in community matters. They give a frank opinion on boat- or house-dwellers' community affairs, and intervene actively in disputes and quarrels. In this respect, older women possess much authority.

Some other extraordinary positions of individual members of residential groups, for instance, healers with shamanistic experience or boat builders, seem to be dominated by men as well. In contrast, the midwife is always female. There are also female healers and experts in naturopathy. However, even in cases of exclusive male or female positions of power or authority, members of the opposite sex have a significant influence on the respective role performance—examples of this are the wife of the eldest or the wife of the healer who advise their husbands during community meetings, or in the course of healing ceremonies; the midwife is sometimes also assisted by males.

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