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.
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.
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.
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.