Indai blues and bejalai tradition

Dr Lucy Sebli

Single mums do come in for a hard time. Society is incredibly judgmental. I know the true meaning of getting by… by the skin of my teeth… You have to carry on. And you can, because you have to.
– Kate Winslet, English actress

Indai blues? Who are they? Last month I was asked by the faculty to share my findings on a study that I conducted a few years back. I was anxious but at the same time, felt a little bit apprehensive about how the public (the Iban community) will receive it.

I was right to be comprehensive because a few days before I delivered my talk, the faculty received several requests from several individuals who were concerned that the community, from which many of my respondents are from, will be depicted negatively.

Few individuals had appealed to me to revise the title. Some even, lambasted me in social media accusing me of being insensitive.

Some even went further by accusing me of trying to use these women to further my academic career or for self-aggrandisement.

The irony is, none of them bothered to attend the talk!

The talk was picked up by a local newspaper. Unfortunately, the definitions of indai blues were slightly off. Not all women who are divorced or left by their husbands are indai blues.

The word ‘blues’ here refers to emotional loneliness. Not all indai blues have affairs with married men.

Additionally, indai blues is not uniquely confined to Iban women. The respondents of my study consisted of individuals from different ethnicity, religion, cultural, region, age and many more.

The focus of my talk was on the Iban community, emphasising the impacts of bejalai tradition, a cultural practice very dominant among the Iban community in Sarawak, and its socio-economic impacts on the Iban women particularly whose husbands have gone on bejalai.

The term indai blues is a socially constructed term by the Iban society. Such social constructionism does not suddenly spring out of nowhere. Social issues are often the outcome of historical epoch or sequential events over a long period.

The indai blues are a group of women that Iban society viewed as an outcast because the society presumed that they do not conform to societal norms and values.

Roughly about 84 per cent ended up in the dead-end of jobs, while the majority of them hold more than one job at a time to support their families as they do not receive any financial support from their ex-husbands.

This is because most of their ex-husbands who went on bejalai to foreign lands such as the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and South America to name a few, often ended up penniless after a year of or so upon their return.

As a result, many of them fail to pay a child’s financial support and alimonies.

Moreover, most of these women also make less than RM600 per month. Although many of them do receive financial aids (RM150 -RM400 at the time of this study), training and other forms of assistance from government agencies to ease their financial burdens, the money is barely enough to cover their monthly expenses, as many of them have a lot of children.

This is further compounded by the fact that many of them do not own a house.

The Indai blues ‘phenomenon’ as I have mentioned earlier, is a by-product of a modern economy, globalisation, and unbalanced rural-urban development in certain regions of Sarawak.

In a highly globalised economy, where economic activities are technologically driven, individuals who wish to participate and take advantage of the available opportunities, are required to equip themselves with skills and education needed by the industries.

Lack of required skills often resulted in the migration of people out from their areas, villages, towns or states or countries to other areas where economic opportunities are aplenty so that they can carve out a better life for themselves.

Bejalai, which translates as a contemporary internal or external migration by the Iban male, is a traditional custom of a voyage into the unknown, to accumulate wealth and earn a high prestige on homecoming.

But nowadays, this tradition is often undertaken by married young Iban men as a result of unemployment, low education, unskilled and lack of training.

In my study, bejalai is understood as a journeying of married men for months or years to work for wages in the cities or overseas mainly in the oil fields, plantations, timber companies, and seamen.

There is also empirical evidence that seems to suggest these men also took up a new wife while abroad. Some of their wives, reluctantly admitted that they must swallow the pain of having to share their husbands with someone else.

However, they also argued that if their husbands do not marry and bring their ‘foreign wives’ back home, they are willing to endure the emotional pain. Nonetheless, some were not willing to share their husbands.

A lot of people whom I talked to have expressed their sympathy or pity for the struggles that these women are facing, while others remain indifferent.

Some of Iban politicians also recognised and acknowledged their struggles but chose to remain on the sidelines.

Let us, come together as a community and resolve this issue because it will never go away until we address the root cause of the problem.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.

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