It’s difficult to imagine the husband being the underdog in a Muslim society, but that is exactly how it is in the Minangkabau culture of West Sumatra.
On our journey into the lush green hills of the Minang Heartlands I see men ploughing the land with water buffalo and women busily harvesting or planting rice in paddy fields. My girlfriend Katerina is convinced that this is exactly the kind of place where women rule!
I laugh off the idea and remind myself that this is a Muslim society, so how can that be possible!
If we look back into the history of the Minangkabau culture, however, we see they have developed some quite extraordinary customs that defy the normal rules of Islam.
Traditionally, Minangkabau husbands were not expected to spend much time in their wife’s or mother’s house – men should be working outside in the fields or socialising in the mosque or lapau (coffee house).
The custom of the men being separated from their families was instigated at an early age. Boys of six or seven had to move away from home and sleep in the village surau (a boarding house for young bachelor men). They would stay there until they went abroad on merantau (the tradition of the man working away from home) or got married.
If for any reason the wife decided to divorce her husband, which she was free to do, he would have to move back into the surau with the younger men. This would be often be extremely humiliating for the man, and would to lead him becoming the subject of intense ridicule within the community.
So, from an early age Minangkabau men were conditioned to believe their place was outside the home, and that they should always obey their wives.
On the outskirts of the village of Rao Rao, we find a young man ploughing the field with a water buffalo. I watch and listen how he skilfully directs the beast with clever one syllable yelps.
The really odd thing about water buffalo is that they don’t moo or make any noise similar to a cow. They just produce an occasional high pitch squeak, like you get from inadvertently stepping on a baby’s toy, which makes them deceivingly adorable creatures.
With a swift turn of the head I get my arm smacked aggressively out of the way by one of the buffalo’s horns. The ploughman immediately warns me not to touch his animal again, because he doesn’t know me. I back away and leave him to park his irritable beast a safe distance away.
The ploughman’s name is Zul, and he tells us that he studied English at university in Jakarta and then taught at a primary school there for five years.
“I saved some money and came back to West Sumatra. My village is Cubadak on the other side of Batusangkar, but I married a girl from Rao Rao, so I live here with our two children now,” Zul explains sympathetically, as he lights a handmade roll-up.
“Why don’t you get a teaching job here in Rao Rao?” I ask in an obvious manner.
“There are no jobs here, so I only work in the fields. It is not so bad, with a buffalo I can earn about fifty thousand rupiahs a day (£3). I want to go back to Jakarta as soon as possible, but I would like to take my wife and children with me,” he says with a sigh.
“My wife, however, has her family and duties here in the village, so I don’t know,” he admits, and looks across at his trusty water buffalo, as if they were in this pickle together.
It seems a far cry from teacher in Jakarta to ploughman in his wife’s village, but this is apparently a common story and says a lot about how men are still powerless to their wives’ and in-laws’ wishes.
Zul’s growing dissatisfaction is also an example of how the role of the man is changing in Minangkabau society. Before it would have been normal for him to leave and work away from home, but in today’s society men increasingly want to be with the wives and children – they want to have more nuclear families.
Later, waiting for the bus back to the nearby town of Batusangkar, I suggest to Katerina that the structure of Minangkabau society can be a little unfair for the men.
But she vehemently disagrees: “These traditions make women equal in a Muslim society, and the husband knows very well what he’s getting himself into when he marries a traditional Minang girl.”
“I would expect my wife to be at least a little bit flexible, though, this is the twenty-first century after all,” I argue.
“Obviously they are not!” Katerina answers, and shrugs her shoulders smugly.
Today the Minangkabau is the largest matrilineal society on the planet, numbering 4.2 million in West Sumatra, and 1.8 million elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Here is a list of matriarchal features of the culture:
- Inheritance goes to daughters. (Matrilineal inheritance.)
- Children take the mother’s clan name. (Matrilineal name.)
- The man moves to the wife’s family home. (Matrilocal residence.)
- The husband often works away, leaving the wife in charge of the house and family. (Matrifocal family.)
- Women receive a good education and often find work in professional careers.
In an age when all we hear about are the extreme measures being brought against women in the Muslim world, the Minangkabau culture of West Sumatra is a complete breath of fresh air. The society dispels all prejudice you normally associate with Islam, so much so that I feel we can all learn from their progressive and tolerant attitude.
In the next blog post I will be delving into how Minangkabau traditions merged with Islam to create a culture with unexpected privileges women…
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