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Kirk M. Endicott and Karen L. Endicott have just published an exciting new book on the egalitarian gender relationships among the Batek. As an added bonus, they have included a 37 minute DVD by Kirk showing life in a Batek band in 1990.

The authors define gender equal societies as ones where neither sex controls the other or has greater prestige. By this definition, the Batek enjoy one of the few gender equal societies on earth—at least they did in 1975 when the Endicotts did most of their field work. Much of the book is based on Karen Endicott’s research that year, supplemented by their joint visit in 1990 and Kirk’s visit in 2004.

When they arrived at the Batek settlement in 1975, the authors discovered that the people did not follow the patterns of other hunting and gathering societies, with men doing the hunting and women doing the gathering. Batek society was different. The men and women sometimes worked together on hunting or gathering tasks, at times each sex separately hunted or gathered, and frequently they assisted each other with child care.

The “headman” of the band, after whom they named the book, was Tanyogn, a born leader of her community. A middle-aged, energetic individual, at times she had to strenuously advocate for her people by confronting outsiders. For instance, one day outside traders tried to blame the Batek because some cut rattan had floated away on a flood. She shouted at them that they were the fools who had piled the harvest on the bank of the river. The Batek, she said, would have the common sense to pile products like that safely in the forest. Another time, some Malays took corn from a Batek garden. The head lady confronted them and demanded that they pay the victims two jugs of rice or she would report them to the government. They paid.

Tanyogn was constantly involved in the affairs of the community and she led by example, pitching in to work with others on many projects. She got the two anthropologists involved by having them weigh produce for the community, in order to help keep outside traders honest. She was a hands-on leader, a strong personality, and an expert on many subjects. The Batek were under no obligation to follow her recommendations, but they normally did.

The authors noted that the Batek do recognize physiological differences between the sexes other than the obvious reproductive functions. Men have a stronger breath than women, they believe, which explains why they can use blowpipes more effectively to hit monkeys higher in the trees than women can. They also think that men have greater strength for climbing tall trees, though young women also climb reasonably well. One of the scenes in the DVD shows some girls playing happily in a small tree.

The book includes some interesting information about the frequent movements of the bands to gain access to fresh sources of forest foods. Abandoning one camp and moving to another location, which they tended to do every week to 10 days, was an adventure. The DVD opens with some footage of a woman preparing the palm fronds and binding them onto the roofing framework of a new hut, which the men had prepared. In a few days, the seemingly haphazard locations of the new huts would be linked together with paths, then a central clearing might be opened up.

The basic ethical principle in Batek social life is cooperative autonomy, which emphasizes personal freedom as well as a responsibility to help others. Their daily activities, social norms and religious values all reinforce this principle. In the authors’ experiences, people sometimes had to confront clashes between values—personal autonomy might conflict with a duty to help other people, depending on the specific situations.

The Batek do have prohibitions—against incest, against some foods, and against mocking animals—but the rules are enforced by the superhumans, which give force to their values. The authors conclude that “the Batek had strong social consciences,” which usually conform to their ideals (p.43).

The Batek considered all forms of aggression, physical coercion, and violence to be completely unacceptable. Hurting someone was strongly proscribed by the superhumans Tohan, Gobar and Ya. The superhumans would not take the shadow souls of violent individuals on to the afterworld when they died, they believed. Their souls would wander forever in the forest as malevolent ghosts.

While these sanctions might normally work, the anthropologists asked what the people would do if faced with a persistently violent person. They answered that they would flee if necessary. “Except for occasional scuffles between small children and the odd swat from a frustrated parent, we never saw any Batek commit violent acts,” the authors write (p.50).

The Endicotts explain how the Batek avoid competition, how they raise their children to be nonviolent, and how they teach them to respect others. In the sixth chapter, the authors describe how the people still retained their values in 1990, despite the devastation of their forest home due to logging.

The DVD that accompanies the book shows many interesting scenes of Batek life in 1990. Footage of men climbing the bole of a large tree using just their bare hands and feet on the trunk will fascinate anyone who appreciates incredible skill and bravery. Ethnographic text and video at its best, this is a wonderful package that covers a wide range of very important, practical information. The book is written in a careful, scholarly style, but without a lot of technical jargon. It would make an effective text for an introductory anthropology course, a fine work to include in a peace studies curriculum, or a compelling volume for general readers.

Endicott, Kirk M. and Karen L. Endicott. 2008. The Headman Was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia. Long Grove, ILL: Waveland. The volume is accompanied by a 37 minute DVD titled “The Batek: Rainforest Foragers of Kelantan, Malaysia”