Indonesia's matriarchal Minangkabau offer an alternative social system

May 09, 2002

For the last century, historians, anthropologists and other scholars have searched both human history and the continents to find a matriarchy--a society where the power was in the hands of women, not men. Most have concluded that a genuine matriarchy does not exist, perhaps may never have existed.

Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday disagrees. After years of research among the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, she has accepted that group's own self-labeling, as a "matriarchate," or matriarchy. The problem, she asserts, lies in Western cultural notions of what a matriarchy "should" look like--patriarchy's female-twin.

"Too many anthropologists have been looking for a society where women rule the affairs of everyday life, including government," she said. "That template--and a singular, Western perspective on power--doesn't fit very well when you're looking at non-Western cultures like the Minangkabau. In West Sumatra, males and females relate more like partners for the common good than like competitors ruled by egocentric self-interest. Social prestige accrues to those who promote good relations by following the dictates of custom and religion."

Dr. Sanday decided to propose a new definition of matriarchy after living for an extended period with the Minangkabau. The R. Jean Brownlee Endowed Term Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Consulting Curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (UPM), she has spent most of the last 21 summers and some sabbaticals living in a Minangkabau village, conducting research supported in part by the Museum. In 1997, she curated a UPM photography exhibition, "Eggi's Village: Life Among the Minangkabau of Indonesia." She's followed that public exploration with a provocative new book, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (Cornell University Press, May 2002).

Who are the matriarchal Minangkabau and why should we care? Dr. Sanday comes to her research as an expert on gender issues, violence and sexual politics in American society. (She's the author of A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial [Doubleday, 1996], and Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus [New York University Press, 1990].) For her, it's a question to be passionate about, because the answer helps to broaden our understanding of the range of social possibility.

Today, four million Minangkabau, one of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia, live in the highlands of the province of West Sumatra. Their society, Dr. Sanday discovered, is founded on the coexistence of matrilineal custom and a nature-based philosophy called adat. More recently, Islam was incorporated into the foundation. Despite the recent outbreak of violence associated with Islamist ideologies in many parts of the world, Dr. Sanday describes a peaceable, almost violence-free Minangkabau society.

Adat, the Nature Based Philosophy

The key to Minangkabau matriarchy, according to Dr. Sanday, is found in the ever-present adat idea expressed in the proverb "growth in nature must be a teacher."

"One must nurture growth in humans, animals, and plants so that society will be strong," people told her.

The emphasis on nurturing growth, she asserts, yields a unique emphasis on the maternal in daily life. "While we in the West glorify male dominance and competition, the Minangkabau glorify their mythical Queen Mother and cooperation," said Dr. Sanday. In village social relations women are likened to "the center where the fish net meets." Senior women are associated with the central pillar of the traditional house, which is the oldest pillar because it is the first erected. The oldest village in a group of villages is referred to as the "mother village." When they stage ceremonies in their full ceremonial regalia, women are addressed by the same term reserved for the mythical Queen. Such practices suggest that matriarchy in this society is about making the maternal the center, origin, and foundation, not just of life but of the social order as well.

The power of Minangkabau women extends to the economic and social realms. Women control land inheritance and husbands move into the households of their wives. Unlike many other societies in which anthropologists say women are exchanged between families at marriage, in this society men are exchanged. During the wedding ceremony the wife collects her husband from his household and, with her female relatives, brings him back to her household to live. In the event of a divorce the husband collects his clothes and leaves. Yet, despite the special position women are accorded in the society, the Minangkabau matriarchy is not the equivalent of female rule.

"Neither male nor female rule is possible because of the Minangkabau belief that decision-making should be by consensus," Dr. Sanday said. "In answer to my persistent questions about 'who rules,' I was often told that I was asking the wrong question. Neither sex rules, it was explained to me, because males and females complement one another. As with everything else, the Minangkabau have a proverb to describe the partnership relationship between the sexes: 'Like the skin and nail of the fingertip.'"

Islam and the Minangkabau

Today, according to Dr. Sanday, while the Minangkabau matriarchy is based largely on adat, Islam also plays a role--but not in the way one might expect. Islam arrived in West Sumatra sometime in the 16th century, long after adat customs and philosophy had been established. At first there was an uneasy relationship between adat and Islam and, in the l9th century, a war between adherents of adat customs and fundamentalist beliefs imported from Mecca. The conflict was resolved by both sides making accommodations. Today, matrilineal adat and Islam are accepted as equally sacred and inviolate, handed down from the godhead. "At a time when consumerism is more prevalent in Indonesia than ever before, these sacred principles of Minangkabau culture and society act to support one another," she noted.

Resurgent Islamic fundamentalism, nationalism, and expanding capitalism--all are realities that Dr. Sanday acknowledges can erode the Minangkabau's nature-based matriarchal culture and the adat that infuses meaning into their lives. She remains optimistic that their culture has the innate flexibility to adapt to a changing world. "Had the Minangkabau chosen to fight rather than to accommodate the numerous influences that impinged on their world over the centuries, had they chosen to assert cultural purity, no doubt their 'adat' would have long ago succumbed. The moral of the Minangkabau story is that accommodating differences can preserve a world" (from Women in the Center).
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Women in the Center (288 pages, 31 halftones, $29.95) is available through the University of Pennsylvania Museum Shop. For more information and to order call toll free 1-877-359-4695.

University of Pennsylvania

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