Does a Muslim matriarchy really exist?

Continuing our quest for matriarchy we head to West Sumatra in Indonesia, where the Muslim society of Minangkabau dispels all prejudice you normally associate with Islam.

To begin with, though, I feel a little overwhelmed, because 86% of Indonesia’s 250 million population follow the Islamic faith, making it the most populous Muslim country in the world!

I see girls dressed in tight tops and calf length shorts, some wearing the jilbab (Indonesian for headscarf), some not. But when I spot a couple of women majestically floating along in full veil, I suddenly stop and stare, not sure whether to pity them or respect them.

My girlfriend is quick to suggest that I too have been manipulated by western propaganda against the Islamic way of life. I immediately disagree, but then think for a moment and decide that perhaps she is right.

Everything we hear in the news these days about the Islamic world is usually not good. I kick myself for not being more open-minded and judging a culture I do not fully understand. The Islamic faith must be tolerant and flexible to allow the matrilineal culture of the Minangkabau to exist at all.


Here’s a bit of research and some anthropological notes to help work out if the Minangkabau really are matriarchal…

Around AD500 the ancestors of the Minangkabau migrated from Southeast Asia and settled in the rich fertile valleys of the western Sumatran highlands.

They soon discovered their home was rich in gold and precious metals, and began trading with sailors from as far afield as India, Arabia and China. It became customary for the men to spend extended periods of time away from home trading, leaving the women in charge of the house and family. This allowed a matrilineal system to form, whereby the name is passed down through the female line, and the property is inherited by daughters.


In 1347, gold attracted the Javanese and Prince Adityawarman conquered the region, and introduced Tantric Buddhism and established the first Minangkabau Kingdom.

In the sixteenth century the sultanate from the north Sumatran Kingdom of Aceh invaded the coastal strip to take control of the trade in gold. The Acehnese spread the Islamic faith to the Minangkabau people, but somehow the matrilineal system was preserve.

In 1651, the Dutch East India Company began to buy gold at the port of Pariaman and agreed to liberate the Minangkabau from the Acehnese in return for a trading monopoly.


When early Dutch anthropologists explored the region they were drawn to the matrilineal structure of Minangkabau, and in the late nineteenth century George Alexander Wilken tagged the culture a matriarchaat (Dutch for matriarchy).

Shortly afterwards the renowned English ethnographer Edward Burnett Tylor wrote one of the first articles on the subject of matriarchy The Matriarchal Family System (1896). In his paper he uses the Minangkabau culture as a model example of matrilineal family structure:

tylorBuilt on posts, adorned with carved and coloured woodwork, and heavily thatched, these houses duplicate themselves into barrack-like rows of dwellings occupied … by over a hundred people, forming a sa-mandei or motherhood, consisting of the old house-mother and her descendants in the female line, sons and daughters, daughter’s children, and so on.

If the visitor, mounting the ladder-steps, looks in at one of the doors of the separate dwellings, he may see seated beyond the family hearth the mother and her children eating the middle meal and very likely the father, who may have been doing a turn of work in his wife’s rice-plot. If he is a kindly husband he is much there as a friendly visitor, though his real home remains in the house where he was born.

By the early twentieth century West Sumatra was experiencing rapid economic development and Padang was at its centre. This made it easier for anthropologists, intellectuals and feminists to travel to this otherwise remote region.

Carrie Chapman Catt is a prominent American suffragette who visited Minangkabau in 1912. During her stay she created a detailed article for Harper’s Magazine in which she doesn’t hesitate to put the men down:


Along the roads they [men] may be seen, also marching to and from the pasar (market), but with no baskets on their heads or burdens on their backs. With a payung (Chinese umbrella) under one arm, a little bird-cage covered with a tasselled square of velvet in the other hand, and a big cigar in the mouth, they seem the embodiment of irresponsible idleness.

Although the men in the culture were sometimes ridiculed, Minangkabau scholars – both men and women – were convinced the tag of matriarchaat was the best thing that had happened to the culture.

Even the local communists during the 1920s tried to mould it to fit their cause. They believed matriarchaat matched perfectly the descriptions of Friedrich Engels’s prehistoric matriarchy, and came to the eccentric conclusion that Minangkabau society must be the purest form of communism on the planet!


Today, the Minangkabau people still like to use the name matriarchaat to describe their culture, but the international anthropological establishment remains adamant that matriarchy does not exist anywhere on the planet.

Some feminist intellectuals, however, beg to differ.

peggyOne of the most controversial of them is the American anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday. In her book Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (2002) she attempts to redefine the meaning of the word matriarchy using the Minangkabau culture to underpin her theory.

Peggy argues that rather than being an exact mirror image of patriarchy, matriarchy should be seen more as a society that identifies itself with a founding goddess or queen, where women play a central role in the family and have equal authority alongside the men within the community.

This softer redefinition of the word, however, has been mostly rejected by the academic world. But Peggy’s detailed and sensitively written experiences within the Minangkabau culture have gained many an admirer, including my girlfriend Katerina.


The latest developments to the region comes in the form of the modern commercial world. Fortunately, the Minangkabau have always been good traders, so have adapted well to the changes and can now be found running shops, restaurants and businesses – not just in West Sumatra, but all over Southeast Asia.

Today, Minangkabau women are free to receive a good education, and can also work in whichever job they please. They are traditional family leaders, play joint roles alongside the men within the community and take charge of business and finance.

And … although the culture is married to the Islamic faith, the Minangkabau matrilineal traditions are still continuing, which means, contrary to normal Muslim practice, the children take the mother’s name and only daughters inherit the family property – sons get nothing!

So, are they matriarchal?

Well! It’s a YES and NO answer, for some they are matriarchal, but for others they are not!

For me … I’m going to have to post some of my own experiences first before I can decide…

Thank you for your interest in our project.

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