For the past few weeks, Dartmouth College has been publicizing the Batek people of Peninsular Malaysia and the faculty couple, Kirk and Karen Endicott, who have done extensive research about them.
The Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs issued a press release to announce a new book by the Endicotts, The Headman Was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia. Published this year and reviewed a few months ago, the book highlights the changing lifestyle of the Batek over the past 37 years. In 1971 they were nomadic hunter gatherers when Kirk Endicott first visited them as part of his doctoral research at Harvard. The couple visited them for a lengthy stay in 1975-76, and went back for another visit in 1990. He returned again in 2004.
Despite the widespread logging of the Malaysian forests in the 1980s and the changing economic conditions of the Batek, they have been able to retain a lot of their fundamental values. They share their food with everyone else in the community, they experience little if any violence, and they acquire few possessions, since their nomadic lifestyle makes it difficult to carry stuff around from camp to camp.
The central tenet of the book, discussed effectively in the press release, is that Batek society is completely gender equal, a social condition that has persisted despite the disruptions to their forest homeland. Both fathers and mothers help raise the children. Though men generally do the hunting and women the gathering of tubers, they attach no particular prestige to either activity. Even leadership roles can be assumed by women, as was the case in the camp they lived in from 1975 to 1976, when the head of the band was a woman.
The press release is graced with a couple of wonderful photos, one a contemporary shot of Kirk and Karen, the other a 1976 picture taken by Karen of her husband blowing bubbles. He has an intense expression on his face and a group of Batek children, looking on curiously, are gathered around.
The press release discusses Karen’s discovery of the absence of gender distinctions in this society. She was sitting in their tent bemoaning the fact that her preconceived ideas about gender relations among hunting and gathering societies were not working out. The literature on those societies indicated that they place a higher value on male hunting prowess than on the gathering skills of women. That did not seem to be true among the Batek. What was she going to write about? “And then I realized that was the point—that there actually was no big difference.” She calls her realization that the Batek had a truly egalitarian society “amazing.”
Kirk joined the faculty of Dartmouth in 1981, about the time the Malaysian government began the widespread logging of the rainforests. Fortunately for the Batek, their territory included Malaysia’s Taman Nagara National Park, which was preserved from the devastation. Since that time, the Batek have been able to adapt to life in the park and the economic conditions of the stripped lands outside of it.
Karen indicates that they had expected, when they returned in 1990, to find that everything had changed. The Batek must have settled down into permanent villages. They also assumed that the equal gender relations they had seen in the 1970s would be gone. Instead, they found the Batek “were managing to do a mix of economic activities, but they weren’t abandoning their approach to life and their core values.” Gender equality still seems to thrive.
The Endicotts urge readers of their new book to avoid the temptation to idealize the Batek. They do not live in a utopia. They “have few of the creature comforts Americans take for granted, and they suffer from numerous tropical diseases,” said Kirk. “It’s a utopia only in the sense that it is what people in a society with high stress wish their lives were like.”
A few days after the press release was issued, an article in the campus newspaper, The Dartmouth, also examined their ideas. Karen told the reporter how she had worried one day about a tiger prowling in the forest near the camp. The Batek told her not to worry. They would use some of their spells to repel the big cat, which evidently worked.
Karen also warned against thinking of the Batek in utopian terms. “They’re wonderful people and they are making this choice to maintain a way of life that has been around a long time,” she said. “They could just as easily make some other choice.”