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Minangkabau: a matriarchal society

Written by Rachel Hand, 2 years ago, 3 Comments
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The Minangkabau, a matriarchal society in Indonesia, makes us think differently about traditional gender family roles. Rachel Hand explains how the culture works and gives insight into a world when women run the household. 

Traveling through West Sumatra, the striking rooftops of traditional Minangkabau houses with gables that point upwards to the sky represent a strong tradition amidst the constant development of modern Indonesia. This region is home to the world’s largest matrilineal people, the Minangkabau or Minang.

Read More: Indonesia: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

A women-centered society 

Although some anthropologists regard this society as matrilineal, where assets such as land and property are passed down through the women of the family, many people consider the Minangkabau to be a matriarchal society, where women are seen as head of the family. The culture describes ethnic animism-based customs as matriarchaat, a term derived from Dutchnd whether or not this is defined as a matriarchy, there is no doubt that the traditions are women centered.

“While my aunts are all breadwinners, three of my four uncles have committed much of their lives to support, ‘serve and protect’ my grandmother, the family’s indisputable matriarch”, is how Hana Miller described her Minangkabau family in an article in The Jakarta Post.

Mixing Islam with a matriarchal society

The Minangkabau hold strong Islamic beliefs, but combine them with their matrilineal traditions. Many women wear the hijab headscarf, but as in many parts of Indonesia, it is not necessarily worn all the time, with some women choosing to wear it only for certain occasions, and others leaving their heads uncovered. While there are points of conflict between the Minang matriarchaat and Islam, efforts have historically been made to reconcile the differences, allowing the two belief systems to exist side by side.

Although a woman is expected to be a virgin at the time of her first marriage, courting and dating are allowed. A mother will hope her daughter chooses a husband with suitable clan affiliations and status. Divorce is fairly common among the Minangkabau, a society where women are economically independent.

Minang gender roles

The Minangkabau are well known throughout Indonesia for their cuisine, often referred to as Padang food, after the region’s main city. This has developed from a tradition of rantau, where young males are encouraged to leave their family home and seek education and their fortune in the world. As young boys, the Minangkabau leave their mother’s house to sleep in shared accommodation with other boys at the local mosque, thus leaving the family home to their sisters.

The traditional Minangkabau long houses, called rumah gadang, are owned by the women of the family who live there, passing from mother to daughter. The construction, decor and architecture, with distinctive upswept gables, represent the traditional culture of the Minangkabau people. Husbands are only tolerated in the house under certain conditions, and return to their sister’s house to sleep. When men return from their rantau travels, they are expected to contribute financially to the construction and maintenance of the house. Traditionally, the women’s maternal uncle is responsible for ensuring that every marriageable woman in the family has a sleeping space, with new homes or annexes constructed to meet demand.

The Minangkabau have a unique tradition, combining a matrilineal or matriarchal system with Islamic beliefs and increasing modern influences, where the women enjoy a position rarely held by women from other ethnic groups or cultures. Perhaps we can learn something from the fascinating way the Minangkabau society continues to thrive in modern Indonesia.

READ MORE: Being a Woman in Saudi Arabia

Does the Minangkabau culture fascinate you? Have you heard about any other communities that puts women in charge? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Rachel Hand

A native Londoner, Rachel has been captivated by Southeast Asia since her first visit back in 2000. She lived in Indonesia for four years before moving to Singapore where she is studying for a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies. Rachel loves travelling in the region, indulging in music, culture and spicy food. Check out her blog at www.anysomewhere.com

  1. Robyn PattonMarch 7, 2014, 12:28 pm

    The Mosuo culture in China is also a matriarchy or matrilineal society too. Women from the Mosuo tribe do not marry and have as many lovers as they wish and have no word for “father” or “husband. Women pick the mates, have control over their homes and pass on their family names as well as all properties and monies are passed on through females only.

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  2. Robyn PattonMarch 7, 2014, 12:39 pm

    Can you speak the native languages of all the places you visit? Have you ever been treated with hostility when arriving at these places so far from modern cities? I often feel like such places would result in sure death or dismemberment to an American . I am not sure why I feel that way because I do not know of these people to be cruel or hostile maybe it is just not knowing that makes my defenses ready to fight. You seem to have a beautiful understanding of parts of the world that many are not even aware exists. Happy travels to you and may you learn all you can from visiting cultures with a true understanding of a richer more fulfilling life.

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