Women and Culture

Historical Status of Women

The cultural life for the people of the Marshall Islands has always been in a state of transition since culture, traditions, and concepts change according to circumstances and need. It is most likely that before foreign contact the change was very slow and gradual. With initial contact on a more or less regular basis beginning in the mid-1800’s what would be considered traditional confronted head-on the historical events that have occurred ever since in our islands. Mainly as a result of foreign contact and influence, the culture of the Marshall Islands has gone through many stresses and strains over the last 150 years or so. The prevalence of wars and battles fought among the Irooj (Chiefs) for dominance over land, which has always been matrilineally controlled by the women, ended with the impact of Christianity. With this one major change the priorities and concepts of life were greatly altered. Since the greater part of the wars mainly concerned the men, with support and help from the women, many of the major duties and responsibilities of the men were drastically changed in a short period of time. As for the women, their main role as the nurturer, provider and caretaker for their families, did not as rapidly change.

Today the oldest memories of the elders reflect the culture at the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when the traditions had already been greatly influenced by outside contact and especially Christian missionaries.

Traditional Roles of Women

Major traditional roles of women in the Marshall Islands are still recognized even if not fully practiced. This sheds light on the importance of these roles played in the society of the past and reflects the sustaining significance of identity these roles may still give to women today.

In the traditional way of life the status of women in the Marshall Islands was always one of great respect. The recognition of the woman as the foundation of one’s family, lineage and clan placed her in a position of great importance and potential influence. The following are the five widely acknowledged traditional roles of women that are still recognized today.

Preparing A Meal
Preparing A Meal
  1. “Jined ilo Kobo” – Nurturer –
    Women are still recognized as the giver and sustainer of life, especially in relationship to children. The women are considered the nurturers of all peoples, as women in the traditional stories were the ones who established new clans (jowi) and new lineages (bwij). “Jined ilo Kobo” literally means that a woman holds her child close to her breasts for warmth and protection. It was believed that if a mother held her child close and guided every aspect of its development, the child would grow up with good qualities and be an upright and good person. The child would receive strength, love, and happiness if the mother kept her child close to her breast and gave it warmth and love.

    The “Jined Ilo Kobo” was the highest position in the traditional culture, and all women attained it who had children and raised her children correctly. Women who were unable to have their own children always adopted and raised these children as their own. Also, a woman would be considered a mother to her sisters and brothers children thus every woman in the Marshall Islands could attain the status of “Jined Ilo Kobo.”“Jined” means our mother, and “Kobo” refers to the idea of preserving, preparing, shaping, safekeeping, protecting, as well as warmth from the mother’s breast. “Jined Ilo Kobo” means the very root of the family – your caretaker, your nurse, your doctor, your teacher, your social worker…she is always there and available when you need her. She shapes your future.

  2. “Lejmanjuri” – Peacemaker –
    This woman was usually the oldest women of her lineage or within the immediate family. In dealing with family problems it would be the oldest daughter (manje) who would be the “Lejmanjuri”. During times of warfare, when one Irooj (Chief) would fight another Irooj for power, land and prestige, the Irooj’s oldest sister (either older or younger than he), or oldest female parallel cousin from his mother’s lineage could stop the warring by telling her brother to stop. The Irooj had to listen and obey this sister because she was “Lejmanjuri”. Also in times of warring, if the Irooj of the losing side came to the “Lemanjuri” of the winning side and asked her to stop the fighting she would then tell her brother who would be the Irooj of the winning side to stop and he would obey her request. Both Irooj would have sisters who could be “Lejmanjuri” and these sisters of the two opposing Irooj could also decide to end the warring. It is assumed that the “Lejmanjuri” exercised this right when the fighting became overly destructive and bloody, thus the woman was protecting, and holding her people together. Today since there is no longer warring the “Lejmanjuri” possibly acts as the final decision maker for her family or lineage, especially in circumstances concerning land that is passed matrilineally.

    The word “Lejmanjuri” comes from two words – “lejman” and “juri”. “Lejman” means the woman who was born ahead of all the rest of the children in a family, especially born ahead of the men. “Juri” literally means to step on. So in general, the term “Lejmanjuri” refers to the power invested in this first-born female that enables her to stop any quarrels, fights, or even battles that occur between brothers, their families, and their clans. The word “lejman” can be further broken down into two words – “lej” and “man”. The word “lej” means strong, aggressive, physically domineering, and the word “man” means first or before or ahead. So a woman who is the “lejmanjuri” is looked to for strength and wisdom in making decisions.

  3. “Kora Menunak” – Benefactress –
    The word “kora” means woman. “Menunak” is a word used for specific types of birds particularly the frigate bird. “Menunak” refers to the feeding pattern of birds – they fly out, fish and fly back to their nests and their young with good things. Usually when a woman marries, the family gains a son, and does not lose a daughter. Wherever she goes, within her atoll, within or outside the Marshalls, she is always going to reap benefits for her family because she will always be concerned for her family – parents, brothers, sisters, etc. Many Marshallese women have married outside the Marshalls and this brings benefits to the islands because these women will always be concerned for their family and relatives and will help them in any way they can. This traditional woman’s role infers that the woman will always care for and never forget her family. She has to care; she is the foundation of her family.
  4. “Limaro Bikbikir Kolo eo” – Encourager –
    “Limaro” means those women, “Bikbikir” means to shake, to beat, to vibrate, and “Kolo eo” means the spirit, the enthusiasm, and the charisma. Long ago when the men went to their battles, the women would be in the boats accompanying them and beating the battle drums. Also after the completion of carving and the building of an outrigger canoe when the initial launch was made the women would chant their incantations to move the men or to condition their minds and bodies for the difficult task of rolling the canoe to the water. Today when baseball or other sport events occur, the women and girls are prominently encouraging and recognizing the successful accomplishments of a game by singing, dancing around, yelling, and beating on any available object. The pictorial illustration of the word “bikbikir” is that of shaking a piece of cloth. If you shake one end it will move forward. To these days, during political campaigns especially, men have come to rely on women’s organizations and groups for the planning and implementation of their campaign platforms and rallies. This expression also infers the idea of women challenging any discouraging agent present in their men and encouraging the men at the same time to over come the difficult task they are confronting.
  5. “Kora Jelton Bwij” – Unifier of a Lineage –
    As stated before “Kora” means women,  “jelton” means to untie or tear apart, and “bwij” means lineage. The “kora jelton bwij” has the power to hold together her family lineage. Usually this woman is the oldest woman of her lineage and if someone in her lineage does something against the wishes of the Irooj (Chief) or Lerooj (Chieftess), she would be the only person from whom the Irooj would accept an explanation or apology. Also if there is disruption in a lineage she makes the final decisions in order to solve the problems of dissension. In times past it was believed that the “Kora Jelton Bwij” had the power, knowledge, and ability to perform certain acts of sorcery or magic which could weaken the influence of and harmony among the people of her husband’s lineage if she thought her husband was not caring enough for his own children, but carrying more for the children of his sisters. Although acts of “magic” are still performed today, the belief in power of such acts is questioned by many.

Traditional Restrictions on Women

Lutok Koban - Returning from the race
Lutok Koban – Returning from the race

Along with the above highly respected traditional positions of women in Marshallese culture, there have also been great restrictions placed on them. At the turn of the century most women were still confined to their home and immediate surroundings. Often they were not allowed to visit other households nor become involved in community decisions and discussions. As stated in the chapter on land, anyone who was the oldest member of his or her lineage could be the alap, but the woman who was alap usually designated her younger brother or possibly son to exercise this power. In the same instance a woman who was Lerooj (Chieftess) would pass the real power and decision-making to her younger brother or possibly son. Therefore, even with acknowledged high birth or position, the women’s role was most likely secondary to the men’s. It may be assumed, however, that at least some women exercised their power of alap and Lerooj, and authority over the matrilineal land base.

Today it is often acknowledged that women are not supposed to be canoe builders, navigators, or fishermen. But in light of oral literature available, there were women navigators, canoe builders, and fisherwomen of the past. Their names are still often known along with their lineages. It is possible that the restrictions and gender role divisions were more sharply defined after the domineering influence of Christianity, which taught and propagated the role of the woman which prevailed in late 19th century Europe.

It has also been expressed by some older women of today that the Marshallese woman became more subordinate during the Japanese occupation of these islands, due to the expectations reflected by the Japanese men and particularly the manners and behavior displayed by the few Japanese women who resided in the Marshalls.

With this brief overview we may conclude that the culture evident today has maintained major characteristics of what we know existed over a hundred years ago, but numerous influences and changes occurred before the extremely rapid changes since the end of World War II.

Written by Carol Curtis

Material used for making handicrafts


IEP : Baskets and purses & other woven articles

Handicraft - Detail
Handicraft – Detail


Although kimej as used in hand-crafts was only introduced during the Japanese period, it is very widely used in almost all bowls, trays, basins, plates, wall decorations, purses, jewelry and many other products of today. Kimej is very white and thin, much like strips of a semi-transparent paper. Any hand-craft article that is woven (excluding mats) and has a white color or has been dyed by commercial dyes (such as all blues, greens, yellows, etc.) will have been made with kimej.


Kimej is made from the juubub (new shoot of a coconut frond) which appears at the center of the tree. The juubub is cut before it starts to open. The nok (midrib of a coconut leaf) is torn off and two long thin leaves appear. The inside sides of these leaves (the sides that had been facing each other before the nok was removed) are scraped with a knife. This is done by placing the leaf under the knife, then holding the knife blade at an angle to the leaf and pressing down on the knife and pulling the leaf under the edge of the knife. This scrapes off the skin of the leaf which is about one half inch wide, very thin and almost transparent. This skin is then boiled in water until it turns white. It is hung to dry and while drying the strips are straightened by running the skin between the fingers. When the kimej is dried it is split into thinner strips as desired for weaving. All colored kimej is dyed with commercial dyes.


The use of mālwe in hand-crafts was brought to the Marshalls during the Japanese times from other areas in Micronesia. All woven products (baskets, trays, hot plates, wall decorations, etc.) except mats, and purses that are not rounded in shape, are made with mālwe. Mālwe is made by stripping the pāp (coconut frond midrib). The soft white inner part is scraped off and just the hard smooth skin part is left. It is very flexible when dry or moist, thus it can be easily bent to the desired shape. Mālwe gives the article its shape and makes it sturdy, and provides the hard material that the maan̄ or kimej can be wrapped around.

Weaving with Mālwe

The weaving of the article begins in the middle. A long piece of mālwe is gradually bent in a circular, spiral shape as kimej or maan̄ is wrapped around it, with each succeeding circle becoming larger. Shells are sewn on to the covered mālwe at different intervals to make various designs. Kimej or other pieces of maan̄ are used to tie and hold the circular strips of mālwe together. Basically all hand-crafts made with mālwe are made in this same way, with variations as to shapes, sizes, patterns, and colors. The basic combinations of mālwe, kimej and maan̄ are:

(1) Mālwe — covered and tied together only with white (undyed) kimej.

(2) Mālwe — covered and tied together with different colors of kimej which can create numerous patterns.

(3) Mālwe — covered and tied together only with maan̄bil (tannish-brown color) or maan̄rar (off-white color).

(4) Mālwe — covered with maan̄ but tied together with kimej (colored or white) which also creates various patterns.

All trays, bowls, basins, wall decorations, hot plates, round-shaped purses, and sewing baskets are made from mālwe using the four possible combinations of kimej and maan̄. New patterns and designs are continually being created by the individual weavers. A tape, following the contour of the article, measured between the two farthest points, determines the size and price of these articles. In this way the depth of a bowl, tray, or basket is included in the total measurement.

Written by Carol Curtis

Material used for weaving Mats (Jaki)

Dalnon & Drekinin

A Jaki (a traditional mat) can be made of various natural fibers prepared following ancestral methods.


Pandanus Tree
Pandanus Tree

Maan̄ is the long thin leaf of the pandanus tree. All mats, traditional clothing, many types of baskets, thatch for housing, and more recently, many types of hand-crafts are made with maan̄. There are several types of pandanus trees in the Marshalls and only the leaves from certain types are used for making maan̄. Basically two ways of preparing the maan̄ for weaving can be commonly seen in the Marshalls today.


This type of maan̄ is made from the dry leaves that are still hanging from the tree. They are gathered, and both ends of the leaves, plus the thorns on the edges and down the middle of the back of each leaf are cut off. Then each individual leaf is smoothed and straightened out by pulling it between the fingers. Next each leaf is softened by rolling the leaf back and forth into a circular shape and pressing down on it with the hands until it is pliable. This is called jāljel. If the leaf is still stiff it can be pounded with a dekenin until softer. If desired the leaf is then cut into strips for the desired width, and is ready for weaving. Maan̄bil is almost always used to make the tōlao (sitting mat) and today is becoming very popular for making hand-crafts. This leaf is a tannish-brown shade.


This type is made from the green leaves of the pandanus tree. The leaves are cut from the tree, and then the ends of the leaves and thorns are cut off from each leaf. There are two ways of drying the leaf. They can be simply left in the sun to dry, turning the leaves often. This may take several days and the leaves will turn a light tan shade (lighter than maan̄bil), or they can be held over the coals of a fire. When cooking the leaves, each is placed across the coals on a pāp (midrib of a coconut frond) and constantly moved back and forth until it is very soft. This process of cooking the leaf is called erar. Then the leaves are placed in the sun and turned over often to continue the drying process. When they are dry they will be an off-white shade. This process produces the lightest color of maan̄. Then each leaf is straightened and rolled and pounded as mentioned for maan̄bil.

Storage — Daln̄on — Roll of Pandanus Leaves

After each leaf has been jāljel it can be stored. Beginning with one leaf it is rolled around the former leaf until a large circle of leaves has been rolled together. This is called a daln̄on or jāljel in maan̄ and is used as a means of storing and protecting the maan̄. Maan̄ can be stored for a very long time this way, for as long as it is protected from insects and moisture. The daln̄on are often put in the sun to make sure the leaves are dry and do not mildew.

Preparing the Maan̄ for Weaving

Dekenin – pounder

As mentioned before, the leaves are pounded with a dekenin to soften them and make them pliable. This is done by placing a large smooth rock slightly in the ground (so it won’t move) covering it with a piece of cloth or mat, placing two or three leaves on the mat and pounding them with a dekenin. The leaves are folded over and pounded on all sides. All leaves are very thoroughly pounded. Maan̄ which has not been pounded is called maan̄ pinju, but only the tōlao and recent hand-crafts such as baskets, are made from this type. The jan̄in̄i, jepko, and other types of jakis (mats) are always made from maan̄ which has been thoroughly pounded with a dekenin.

Next, each leaf is cut into long strips of the desired width. This is called iie. The instrument used today is called ar and is made from wood with metal spikes attached to cut the leaf. This instrument can cut one leaf into several strips with one stroke the length of the leaf. Before metal was introduced to the Marshalls the remaining skeleton of the jebar (sea animal) was used. The word ar comes from the name of the lines in each leaf. The ar (lines) are used to determine the width of the strips. For Example the nieded (traditional mat clothing) was woven only from maan̄ that was three ar wide. Thus it was a very small weave. These lines can be easily seen in any maan̄.


Weaving a floor mat
Weaving a floor mat

Today most women weave on the ground using a piece of plywood underneath or in a house with a wood or hard smooth floor. This enables the weaver to keep the weaving straight and the ends of the mat even. Before there were large flat pieces of wood in the Marshalls, women began the weaving of a mat by placing a mōnakjān in wōjlā on their laps and then weaving on top of it. In starting a mat the mōnakjān helped keep the weaving even. Then it was removed and the women would simply weave on their laps. The women of today who only know how to weave on the ground say that the women of long ago were better weavers for they could weave evenly while weaving on their laps.


This is one of the most important possessions of a Marshallese. Usually the dekenin is passed down from one generation to the next. Most of the ones being used today are already three or four generations old. They are used to pound the maan̄ to make it pliable and soft for weaving. Although they are seldom made any more, the older people still know how to make them and they are still commonly used on all islands. There are basically two kinds: one type made from a hard type of rock, and the other made from the kapwor (giant clam shell). The first type is made from bar which is a hard coral rock found on the reef. The bar can only be found on certain islands, so, often Marshallese would have to sail to other atolls to obtain it. It is carved, shaped and smoothed into the dekenin by using a coral rock that is found in the ocean. This coral animal is red and its skeleton turns black and very hard when dead. It is called limlim. The tilaan (pumice rock) is used for the final smoothing of the dekenin. This type of dekenin is common but is not as heavy, strong, or effective as the type made from kapwor. Kapwor is also only found on certain islands. The kapwor is broken up by hitting it with rocks until the desired size of a piece of it is obtained. The thick part of the kapwor where the two bivalves are connected is the part needed to make a dekenin. It is also carved and shaped with the use of a limlim and the surface smoothed with a tilaan. This type of dekenin is very heavy and strong, and lasts for a much longer time than the bar type. Many older people of today still know how to make these, although they would be made with the use of more modern tools than have been described above. The jan̄in̄i, jepko, new jejaki and nieded are always made from pounded maan̄ whether it be maan̄bil or maan̄rar. The tōlao is usually made from maan̄bil that has not been pounded.


Detail of a belt to tie the clothing mats around the body
Detail of a belt to tie the clothing mats around the body; The outer layer of the belt is weaved from hibiscus fiber.

This is a material used for weaving to add color to mats. Originally the in (grass skirt) was made from this. Jab is made from the tree called lo which is a hibiscus type plant. It is made from the small, new trunks of trees. A trunk is found which has no side branches and is cut down. Next the outside layer of the skin is scraped off (brownish-green part) until the wood is white in color. Then this trunk is buried in the sand near the high water mark in the lagoon where water will wash over it, and is left for about a week. The washing loosens the skin, and makes it easy to remove from the inside bark. When the trunk is removed from the sand, the sand is washed off and the skin is pulled off and dried in the sun. It is usually a whitish or tan color. This process produces long, very thick strands of jab. When jab is woven in a mat or other products it is almost always woven with maan̄ underneath it to protect it, for it can tear easily.

Dyeing the Jab

To dye the jab first mālle in bweo coals (burned coconut shells) are mixed in water and stirred until the color is even. To seal the black coloring, so it won’t rub off, jon̄ is added to the water. This is made from the fruit of the jon̄ tree (a type of mangrove tree). To make this, the fruit is cut into very small pieces, and a small amount of water is added and mixed with the fruit. The resulting juice of the mixture is strained off and added to the black mixture. Next a piece of inpel (coconut cloth) is dipped into the mixture and is used for painting the color on to the jab. Then the blackened jab is dried and ready for weaving. The coloring will be permanent because of the jon̄. The original type in was usually made from blackened jab, and in almost all nieded the border design was produced by using jab.


Another weaving product used by the Marshallese traditionally is made from the skin of a vine plant. To make this, first long stems of the vine are cut off. All leaves are removed from the stems. Next the thick skin of the stem is peeled off. Then the thin transparent skin is peeled from the thicker part of the skin. The very thin whitish color skin is the atat. This is dried in the sun and will become a reddish-brown color when dry. To store atat, one long strip is folded, and then another is added around it until all are folded in this matter. This is called dridrib. The jab is also stored in the same manner. Atat is woven with maan̄ or kimej underneath it because it is very thin and easily torn. It is seldom dyed, but is used in weaving mats, the in, and many recent hand-crafts of today when a reddish-brown color is desired.

Written by Carol Curtis

Jaki – Mats

Jaki - detail
Jaki – detail

Several types of jakis are commonly used by the Marshallese people for various purposes. They are used for sitting and sleeping, for protection against cool weather and rain, for protecting boats, for making several types of baskets (traditional types), for making nieded (traditional clothing) and for decoration.

All mats are made from maan̄ either maan̄rar or maan̄bil. Most mats are made from maan̄ which has been pounded with a dekenin. The weaving is basically one type, although various patterns and designs can be woven into the jaki. Jakis are very important and there are many cultural restrictions and traditions observed regarding them. Jakis are very convenient and can be easily washed and dried in the sun and are continually used until very worn out. They are also easily repaired if torn or damaged.

Jan̄in̄i — Sleeping Mat

This is the common sleeping mat. It is woven from double strips of either maan̄bil or maan̄rar, depending on the color desired. Often times both types are used to weave a crisscross type of pattern. Also either jab or atat can be added for additional decoration. The width of the strips for this type of jaki is usually about one fourth inch or slightly more. A true jan̄in̄i always has a fold down the center and folds open so it consists of two halves. When weaving this type of mat first one half is woven, beginning at one corner of the center part where the fold will be. The desired length is determined at the beginning when a strip of weaving is begun which consists of several rows. At the completion of the first set of rows the length will be determined. From this point on further rows are added until the desired width is reached. This half is then finished by further splitting the maan̄ and weaving the border pattern. Then the other half is woven by going back to the center and placing more strips of maan̄ in between the double strips exposed from the first half and weaving across the length and adding more strips of rows until the second half is the same width as the first half. Then this half is finished with the same type of border pattern. By having the fold down the center the jan̄in̄i can be used more versatilely. If more than one person will be using the same jan̄in̄i then it can be opened up. Also, a person, especially while traveling on boats, can sleep in between the two halves and use it both as a sleeping mat and a covering as protection from the wind and rain. In the homes, usually the jan̄in̄I mats are rolled up each morning and laid aside until the night.

Jepko — Floor Mat

This is a coarsely woven jaki made from either type of maan̄ that is placed under the jan̄in̄i on the floor of a house, or to cover over coral rocks in a work area. The maan̄ strips are usually from one half inch to three-fourths inch wide. It is made as one continuous jaki and its size is usually determined by the size of the room where it will be placed. Beginning at one corner several rows are woven across until the desired length is reached then new rows are added until the desired width is obtained. These jakis can be very large. When the jan̄in̄is are rolled up during the day time, the jepko is exposed and used as a sitting mat. Often this type of mat is used to protect boats.

New Jejaki — Decoration Mat

This is a new type of jaki that is used as a sleeping mat or for decoration. It is basically the same as one half of a jan̄in̄i. Often a separate border is woven from maan̄ with jab or atat added to create several types of patterns. The border is then sewn on to the mat part of the jaki. Also patterns of flowers or other designs are usually painted with dyes or woven on with yarn to the main part of the jaki. The new jejaki mats are mainly made on Namodrik and Mejit. The type from Namodrik was first created in the 1950s by a woman named Rutha. Each woman today makes her own designs with new designs being created all the time.

Tōlao — Sitting Mat

This is the sitting mat which is still commonly found today. It is most often made from maan̄bil pinju (unpounded maan̄) and the maan̄ is left its original width. This is the only type of jaki that is basically sewn together instead of woven. The maan̄ is sewn together with an iie (large needle which is metal today but was originally from a jebar — sea animal). There are two different ways of sewing the tōlao with many variations of these two ways. The first is called wewa. In this type three or so stitches are made on each leaf when sewing the leaves together. The number of stitches per leaf may vary from one tōlao to another but with the wewa type, the leaves are never sewn together in a continuous line. The two types of wewa tōlaos are wewa pinju, (wewa stitching with unpounded maan̄) and weamij (wewa stitching with pounded maan̄). The other common way is called wajer, where leaves that have been pounded with a dekenin are sewn together by continuous stitches. Kkwal (sennit) is used in making a tōlao. Long strips of maan̄, left their original width, are folded in half around a piece of kkwal that is as long as the tōlao will be long. As one leaf is put in place it is sewn together with a thin strip of maan̄ and this is called wewa or wajer depending on the type being made. Then another leaf is over-lapped on the original leaf and also sewn together. This process is continued until the desired length is reached. This first piece will be one half of the finished tōlao. Another half is made in the same manner. The two halves are sewn together with more maan̄, and this sewing together is called ekro. Then the loose ends of the folded over leaves, at each end of the tōlao, are sewn together with the use of more kkwal. By making two halves separately and sewing them together the tōlao can be folded down the middle for easier storing and other uses.

Nieded — Traditional Mat Clothing

Clothing mat - male
Clothing mat – male

This is the traditional mat clothing of the Marshallese. It is no longer worn today and seldom are they seen, although the old women still know how to make them. The maan̄ for the nieded is pounded very thoroughly to make it as soft and pliable as possible. It is usually woven from maan̄rar. It is woven the same as half of a jan̄in̄i from an extremely fine weave. The width of the maan̄ is less than one eighth inch or three ar (lines in the maan̄) wide. Three ar wide maan̄ is called jeledrik.

Clothing mat - female
Clothing mat – female

Usually very elaborate borders are woven separately using maan̄, jab, and atat, and then sewn on around the entire article. The very small weave makes the nieded flexible which enables it to be easily wrapped around the body. One nieded is placed at the front of the body just above the waist and tied together in the back, while another is placed at the back and overlaps the first and is tied together at the front. When these were commonly worn often a wide maan̄ woven belt was wrapped around the waist to help hold the nieded in place.

Written by Carol Curtis