A Question about “Egalitarian Matriarchy” in West Sumatra by Carol P. Christ

Following up on my recent blogs on the roles of women in the Neolithic revolution and on “egalitarian matriarchy,” I have been re-reading Peggy Reeves Sanday’s ground-breaking book, Women at the Center, about the survival of the “adat matriarchaat” (the principles of matriarchy) among the more than four million Minangkabau people of Indonesia.

According to Sanday, the customs of the matriarchaat (the Dutch word has been adopted by the Minangkabau people)—including matrilineal descent, matrilocal marriage, and ownership of the land by the mother clan—have survived accommodation with Islam. This is in no small part due to the fact that one of the principle values of the matriachaat is to conjugate (to come together) rather than to dominate. Rather than viewing Islam as an opposing force, the Minangkabau emphasize the aspects of Islam–such as love and compassion for the weak–that are compatible with their traditional worldview. Through this clever maneuver, the Minangkabau manage to practice Islam while maintaining their traditional egalitarian matriarchy.

In the current cultural situation of the Minangkabau, councils of elder men have become the interpreters of both Islam and the traditional adat: one of their primary roles is to find ways to reconcile the two worldviews and to settle disputes between them. At the same time, women continue to perform the primary rituals of the adat, in celebrations of birth and marriage.

Because the ritual roles of the women were less obvious to Sanday’s western eye than the legal and spiritual roles of the men, Sanday at first failed to recognize them. It took her a while to realize that without official leaders (priestesses) or councils of female leaders (parallel to those of the men), the women were celebrating and passing on the values of the matriarchaat through elaborate rituals involving the preparation of specific foods with precise symbolic meanings. The food that is prepared is offered and shared according to carefully calculated degrees of relationship intended to insure that the vulnerable—mothers and children—will be cared for by all of their relatives and by the community as a whole. These rituals involve carrying the food that has been prepared in processions from home to home and back again, emphasizing the principles of sharing and giving and receiving that are fundamental in the adat.

After reading Sanday’s description of these rituals, I gained a new admiration of the roles of women’s rituals of food preparation for the Jewish Sabbath and Passover, for the Christian Orthodox Clean Monday and Easter, and for Sunday lunch and Thanksgiving dinner at Grandmama’s house. These customs may have come down to us from a time when women were at the center of communal, social, and spiritual life.

Sanday devotes a separate chapter to the songs and singing that accompany the rituals of marriage. She writes that families hire professional female singers, usually two, who are accompanied by at least one male musician. According to Sanday, the songs articulate female-centered worldview in which mother love is primary and express the desire, longing, and disappointment that women experience in their love affairs with men from a woman’s point of view. Sanday notes that while the singing goes on throughout the night, the women generally leave early, perhaps, she speculates, because they have work to do in the morning.

Reading this chapter, I wondered: do the women leave early only because they have work to do? Or do Islamic ideas about female modesty require that they not stay out late? Another question formed in my mind. In Greece where I live and in other traditional cultures that I have studied, singing is not reserved to the professionals and dancing always accompanies it. In Greece and elsewhere women’s circle dances ground the community in the body and in the earth, while expressing the joy and grace of life. As I have written, “When I Dance, I Am Greek,” and I find great joy in dancing and singing with others. Singing and dancing are also an integral part of the egalitarian matriarchal culture of the Mosuo of the Himalayas. Do women sing and dance in the Minangkabau culture? If not, why not?

I imagine that singing and dancing were central aspects of rituals in the pre-Islamic matriarchaat, as they are in almost all traditional cultures. I suspect that if the Minangkabau do not sing or dance as part of their rituals now, this is a concession to Islamic ideas about modesty and that if women do not sit with the men into the early hours morning, this is because of Islamic ideas about female modesty.

So I ask: what was lost when the Mingankabau “conjugated” with Islam? Through the principle of accommodation, the Mingankabau were able to maintain many aspects of their traditional culture, but it is also possible that they lost the ability to find joy in their bodies and to knit their communities together through song and dance. If so, this is a great loss indeed.

I have a further question about singing and dancing in the Minangkabau culture. When she was a girl, Marija Gimbutas collected over 5000 folk songs in her native Lithuania. She stated that most of these songs had to do with planting and harvesting and with birth and marriage. The insight she gained through this early work became the basis of her later theories about the celebration of the processes of birth, death, and regeneration in the rituals and worldview of Neolithic Old Europe.

Though she discussed rituals concerned with birth and marriage, Sanday does not devote a similar chapter to rituals associated with planting and harvesting in the Minangkabau culture. I imagine that women are major actors in the cultivation and harvesting of rice (see Sanday, “The Rice Cycle“) and perhaps also in the cultivation and harvesting of bananas and other staple foods. Do the Minangkabau women sing as they work? Do their songs express the values of the matriarchaat? Or do women no longer sing while they work? If not, is this another accommodation to Islamic notions of female modesty? And is the result the loss of a principle means of transmitting cultural values?

I invite Peggy Reeves Sanday, who has written for FAR in the past, to respond, for I am very interested in her answers to the questions I am raising here. (And I hope she will be able to tell me I am wrong!)

PS After writing this blog, I found links about and photos of traditional dance in the Minangkabau culture, but it is not clear in what context these dances are still performed: as art performances or for tourists or are they still part of village celebrations? Peggy?

Related image


Also see How “Egalitarian Matriarchy” Works among the Minangkabau of West Sumatra and Women and Men in “Egalitarian Matriarchy”


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 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

11 thoughts on “A Question about “Egalitarian Matriarchy” in West Sumatra by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Wow, what an article… Your questions are my own.

    “So I ask: what was lost when the Mingankabau “conjugated” with Islam? Through the principle of accommodation, the Mingankabau were able to maintain many aspects of their traditional culture, but it is also possible that they lost the ability to find joy in their bodies and to knit their communities together through song and dance. If so, this is a great loss indeed.”

    The loss of the ability to feel joy in our female bodies seems to be a central root of female oppression. So I am really interested to hear what Sandy has to say about this point.

    One thing I have noticed regarding the study of other cultures is how routinely the rituals created by women that foster love, communion and community are seen as less important than those of men.

    I have learned/ am learning that it is critical to look beneath the surface when it comes to interpreting the damage that occurs when two cultures are assimilated into one – as occurs here with the Indigenous Tewa peoples who were colonized by the Spaniards/ Catholicism. The Tewa survived but at a cost.

    Today, many of the dances are done only by men.


  2. I like that phrase “conjugated with” Islam. I hope the women remain successful. Thanks for writing this post.


  3. Carol, allow me to add my thanks for your excellent blog. Your discussion of this topic is riveting. I’m really interested in helping to restore the important role of women in transmitting culture.

    I hope Ms. Sanday accepts your invitation!


  4. Sanday as an anthropologist is not claiming that nothing has been lost in accommodation with Islam, nor that the Minangkabau culture is a pure matriarchy. It is a culture that is evolving in a particular historical context which, because of assimilation and accommodation, has actually been able to retain some of its key matriarchal elements. Resistance would have led to their annihilation. It does appear, however, as your article points out, Carol, that women and women’s traditions may have been the greatest losers in this accommodation with patriarchal Islam and the growing incursions of the state. Which makes sense. It has happened in many places. All traditional societies organized in clans and tribes are generally less hierarchical and have less rigid gender roles and less sexist social structure. Once they are conquered or assimilated or evolved into more complex societies, they generally become more inegalitarian in all ways, not just gender. Chances are that Minangkabau women once had more public roles rather than mainly domestic roles in creating and keeping adat–i.e. not just food sharing roles. It is the genius of the Minangkabau culture that it has been able to retain so much of its matriarchal essence in spite of centuries of pressure to lose it all.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes that makes sense, though this is not discussed by Sanday in any detail. Sanday does call the society matriarchal, though she does not use the word pure. She does discuss whether women or men are the main pillar of the house at the end of the book and reports varying responses to this question. The fact that the adat matriarchaat continues to survive is amazing.


  5. Sara makes an excellent point. In addition to women retreating from public dance, there is also the introduction of female genital excision, which first entered Java with the Yemenite traders, and has expanded into Minangkabau. I suspect their adoption of excision is late, like the wearing of hijab in this hot tropical country. It looks to me like patriarchal ideas continue to encroach as the prestige of Islamic theologians increases over that of Adat Ibu, the “mother law.” The Qur’an mandates patrilineage, after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Max. Sanday does not mention female genital excision, but here is some information on it: https://www.persee.fr/doc/arch_0044-8613_1998_num_56_1_3495. Often it is merely a small symbolic cut, but still!!

      A custom of the Minangkabau that really upset me was the custom that the mother arranges the first marriage of a her young teenage daughter to a much older man, usually in the mother’s paternal line. I found this to be disgusting. Why would a young girl want to marry an old man! Sanday mentions that these marriages are increasingly being rejected by daughters. Contrast this with the Mosuo who do not have marriage and where the women choose their own lovers. Sanday also mentions that some men have more than one wife, again without extensive commentary.


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