How “Egalitarian Matriarchy” Works among the Minangkabau of West Sumatra by Carol P. Christ


Currently I am reading Peggy Reeves Sanday’s a-mazing book Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy for the third time. In it Sanday describes the living egalitarian matriarchal culture of four million people of the Minangkabau culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia. Sanday spent parts of two decades living among the Minangkabau before publishing her book. I can understand why it took her so long to come to terms with a culture so different from our own.

The Minangkabau are matrilineal, defining family relationships through the mother line. They are also matrilocal: extended families live in big houses traditionally crowned by symbolic buffalo horns reaching to the sky; husbands, affectionately called “roosters” come to live in the “chicken coop” of their wives. The big houses and surrounding farmlands are held in common by the maternal clan. This much is relatively easy to understand, once we are willing to accept that not all societies are patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal.

Minangkabau house reflecting the horns of the water buffalo

It is more difficult to grasp the subtle ways in which culture can be shaped to honor women, protect mothers and children, and forbid all forms of egotism and domination.

Like other egalitarian matriarchal peoples, such as the Mosuo of the Himalayas, the Minangkabau practice small scale agriculture. Rice, bananas, coconuts, and hot peppers are among the staple foods. The philosophy underlying the Minangkabau culture is derived from observing nature, particularly from understanding how to sprout, nurture, and grow rice. This suggests that the Minangkabau culture may have roots in the secrets of agriculture discovered by women at the beginning of the Neolithic.

When, more than twenty years ago, I began to study the culture of ancient Crete, which I believe was an egalitarian matriarchy with roots in the Neolithc, I was struck by the contrast between the absence of violence in the art of ancient Crete in comparison to the celebration of violence in the art of classical Greece. In ancient Cretan art, there are no images of lions killing lambs, no images of animal sacrifice, no images of soldiers killing each other, no Gods or Goddesses slaying giants, no severed heads of Medusa.

Minangkabau ritual headdress connects women to the water buffalo horns that adorn the matrilineal big house

At first I wanted to believe that the ancient Cretans saw nature as it is, while the Greeks reconstructed nature to focus on violence. But I soon recognized that both the ancient Cretans and the Greeks were engaged in “constructing” their own visions of nature. The ancient Cretans not only “observed” the joy of life in plants, animals, and human beings: they also “chose” to focus on life and growth and not to focus on the violence and killing that also occur in nature. The Greeks, on the other hand, chose to focus on violence and killing within nature in order to justify their own wars of conquest and domination.

A similar decision is made by the Minangkabau people. While they say that “nature is our teacher,” they also say that they “take the good” in nature and “throw away the bad.” For the Minangkabau people, “the good” in nature is the principle of “growth in nature.” As rice farmers, the Minangkabau understand that the rice cycle is a delicate one in which the tender shoots of sprouted rice must be protected and nurtured for the rice cycle to come to completion at harvest time.

Minangkabau women carry food from house to house in ritual processions

From nature the Minangkabau people learn that the weak must be protected. They say that women and children are weak—we might prefer to say vulnerable—and they organize their whole society around protecting women and children. Imagine that! Imagine that!!! It is very difficult for us to imagine that. The central rituals of the Minangkabau culture surrounding birth and marriage involve elaborate exchanges of food among kin that emphasize the importance of sharing and the need for the child or the couple to be cared for not only by the maternal family but also by paternal kin and the community as a whole.

According to Heide Goettner-Abendroth egalitarian matriarchal societies promote equality within their communities through well-established practices of gift-giving in which those who have more share what they have with others. Turning again to ancient Crete, I had another a-ha moment when I realized that the large number of offering tables, bowls, and pitchers on display in the museum could be interpreted to mean that many of the most important rituals in ancient Crete centered around offering the first fruits of every harvest to the Goddess or Source of Life and sharing food and drink in communal celebrations. The rituals of ancient Crete, like the birth and marriage rituals of the Minangkabau, “construct” the cultural values of sharing and giving.

Though rice is a “bland” food, the Minangkabau sweeten it with bananas and coconut milk and spice it up with red hot peppers. As Sanday explains, nature for the Minangkabau encompasses diversity and difference: like food, people can be soft, sweet, and red hot, at different times and in different places.

Sanday uses the French loan word “politesse” to describe the Minangkabau understanding of good manners and etiquette. The Minangkabau cultural mores do not support egotism, individualism, or competition. They do not celebrate the strong, but rather, the wise. As Sanday puts it the Minangkabau celebrate “conjugation” or coming together, not “domination.” The wisdom of women as mothers is the ability nurture life and to create harmony in the family. The men in the councils are deemed wise when they demonstrate the ability to protect life and to create harmony between families and clans and between the three value systems of government, Islam, and the traditional egalitarian matriarchy.

I grew up in a family in which children were expected to be seen and not heard, and in which women and children were expected to respect paternal authority. In my family, rebellion against the father was punished with the belt. Being “polite” meant that women and children had to suppress any and all feelings of resentment or anger at the ways we were treated by our fathers. Thus it became important for me and for many others to learn to express our repressed feelings, including our anger.

It is crucial to understand that the Minangkabau understanding of “politesse” is rooted in a very different cultural context: one in which the strong are encouraged to protect the weak, one in which violence of any kind, including sexual violence, simply is not tolerated. In a society where everyone is expected to protect the weak, no one needs to respond to violence with violence, as so often seems to be the only alternative in dominator societies. For the Minangkabau politesse means always thinking of others and trying to find ways of promoting harmony in families and in communities.

We could say that thinking of others and promoting harmony in the family is the expected role of mothers in patriarchal families, and this would be correct. But then we would need to add that in patriarchal families, mothers are expected to accept the dominating behavior of males and to find ways to soften its impact. Politesse has a very different meaning in a society that is culturally constructed to encourage everyone—not just women—to think about others and to promote harmony.

It goes without saying such a cultural context is not easy for us to imagine. But if we can begin to do so, then perhaps we can also begin to see that politesse in the Minangkabau culture does not mean suppressing individuality or feelings, but rather finding ways to get needs met without hurting others. Having heard my fair share of yelling over the years, I can testify that it creates trauma in the body and the brain. I am happy to learn that there are other ways of constructing life

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator currently living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on sale $3.71 kindle on Amazon in May 2018. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale $12.39 kindle on Amazon. Carol  has been leading educational tours based on the religion and culture of ancient Crete for over twenty years. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.

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Categories: Egalitarian Matriarchy, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics

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21 replies

  1. This is absolutely riveting, Carol. Years ago a friend gave me “Leaving Mother Lake,” a book that fascinated me because the society described in it was woman-centered. Your essay has opened my eyes to the fact that another matrifocal society can and does exist in this world.

    The water buffalo horns: the Minoans revered bulls and their horns. I wonder why, unless someone, in the mists of time, noticed that a woman’s reproductive system of the uterus and the fallopian tubes leading off it resembles a bull’s head with horns. It’s an interesting subject to contemplate, especially as horns are probably the very last thing I’d ever choose as a focus of reverence for myself.

    Thanks for writing the post and for telling us about Sanday’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I made the connection with the Minoans too. Cows have horns too unless they are bred out or burned off.Today I looked up the behavior of cows and learned that wild or semi-wild they live in mother-daughter pairs in herds of 15 to 20 unrelated individuals. That is matrilineal community found in nature. The shape of the uterus and fallopian tubes always seemed a bit abstract to me, though I have heard Gimbutas propound that theory.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. A thrilling post, Carol, both to know that egalitarian matriarchy still exists today and to be challenged to imagine it for ourselves. Thanks for the information about the wild and semi-wild matrilineal cows. I noticed in India that the wandering bovines, including bulls, are gentle.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Carol, for this fascinating post, absolutely delightful. Also fascinated to say the least looking at the illustration you included and where you mention the “Minangkabau house reflecting the horns of the water buffalo.” The tree nearby the buffalo looks like it is trying to imitate the horns also.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. An extremely interesting and informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is my fond hope that Trump, in the extremity of his words and actions, will turn people toward the opposite values of community, cooperation, mutual respect and peace. The way we are going is not life-giving or even reasonable.
    Thank you for another example of lived possibilities for our future.

    Like

  6. Minangkabau ritual headdress, love it, and wish I could wear one myself, today, with everyone staring at me I guess, but anyway what fun it would be.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Carol, I really enjoyed this essay a lot. And like you, having suffered through lots of yelling in my life I do know that it creates trauma in mind and body…so I am drawn to Peoples who have found other ways to construct their lives.

    I think you make an excellent point when you say:

    “But I soon recognized that both the ancient Cretans and the Greeks were engaged in “constructing” their own visions of nature. The ancient Cretans not only “observed” the joy of life in plants, animals, and human beings: they also “chose” to focus on life and growth and not to focus on the violence and killing that also occur in nature.”

    The bottom line here is choice making… If we focus on violence we will create more violence.

    It’s that simple.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sanday’s work with this Indonesian nation very much mirrors the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and many other, Indigenous nations on Turtle Island/America that were, and still ARE, matrilineal/matrifocal and gynocentric nations. We Americans do not have to look far for our role models about what an egalitarian, woman-centered culture looks like…it is the historic reality of the First Nations and can be America’s future, with great effort and faith, I believe.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks, Carol, for this post about the Minangkabau people. I heard Peggy Sanday speak about this culture at an Association for the Study of Women and Mythology symposium, and found her work fascinating.

    In the 1990s I spent quite a bit of time studying and writing about communal cultures, i.e. cultures that teach that “thinking of others and promoting harmony” are major virtues. One of the cultures I looked at was Japan. There are two sayings that encapsulate this major difference between Japan and the United States. We say “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The Japanese say, “The nail that sticks out will be pounded down.” Having just returned from Japan, I discovered that that the people we met took good care of us, went out of their way to help us (even missing a bus at one point to give US directions), and tried to create harmony whenever possible. In fact, “wa” (harmony in Japanese) is one of their highest virtues. BUT this is an extremely sexist/patriarchal culture. And incipient #MeToo movement was met with outrage that the women who testified against sexual harassment would so disrupt the fabric of society, disrupt “harmony” by telling the truth about their harassers. So it’s important to note that communal cultures are not necessarily egalitarian. What the Minangkabau propagate that differentiates them from the Japanese is their honor and respect for women, and specifically mothers, and the fact that the entire culture teaches (both men and women) the maternal values of nurturance and care.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes what you are saying about Japan being polite but not egalitarian is exactly what I was getting at when I discussed the American white middle class concept of politeness. If the context is a dominator society then politeness means that the dominated are expected to swallow their hurt and anger.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. What a rich, rich experience to read your post and this comment thread. I feel more deeply blessed than I can say. “Imagine that! Imagine that!” I cannot. I cannot imagine it. I can write it into my stories, and I can dream, but actually to imagine it… I struggle mightily. But unless we can imagine it, how can we create it? It occurs to me that one of our most important tasks is to learn to imagine this reality as fully as possible. The better we can imagine it, the better we can birth it, and the more powerful it will become. Thank you so very much.

    Liked by 1 person

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