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Are The Minangkabau A Modern Matriarchy?

In 2002 Peggy Sanday revived controversies about the anthropological use of the term matriarchy by titling her study of Minagkabau gender relations Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Well aware that the term had been rejected by serious scholars for about a century, she provocatively decided to challenge this usage with an argument that matriarchy should be redefined to correspond to the usage of a Dutch-Indonesian term (adat matriarchaal) used by roughly 8 million Minangkabau to describe their own customs. The Minangkabau are one of the world's largest matrilineal societies, and they are also almost all committed Muslims in the nation with the largest Islamic population in the world. While Sanday describes the term as an "indigenous category," its early-twenty-first-century use is obviously the hybrid result of several centuries of dialogue with European traders, scholars, and administrators, who have long been intrigued by the mixture of matriliny and Muslim piety found in the Minang homeland in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Sanday argues that

the definition of matriarchy as the control of political power by women should be abandoned in favor of a definition emphasizing the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance. The focus should be on the structure and content of dominant gender symbols, not just the linked relationship between the sexes as Eisler suggests. The partnership is important, but it alone does not define matriarchy because there are at least three types of symbolic structures representing gender in partnership societies: egalitarian, diarchic and matiarchic. Egalitarian structures are those in which gender differences are not symbolically marked, although sex differences may play a role in the division of labor. Diarchic societies are marked by a pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms, Matriarchic structures, like those of the Minangkabau, are based on a maternal model. In all three, although the content of the symbols differ, male and female function as two equal halves of the larger whole and neither dominates the other. (p. 236)

The Minangkabau have been the focus of many anthropological and historical studies, but no other contemporary scholar has chosen to describe them as matriarchic. While Sanday's claims are based on long-term ethnographic research, her colleagues have not for the most part been convinced that such a change in terminology is needed or helpful.

Sanday notes that her usage is in some ways a return to the original Greek meaning of the term. The root matri, from the Latin mater, means "mother, nurse, origin, source," while the suffix archy, from the Greek arche, refers to "beginning, foundation, source of action, first principle," and also the idea of "political power, rule, control of the state" (p. 237). Sanday says Mingkabau customs correspond to the first meaning, while they do not fulfill the conditions of the second. She calls for a new cross-cultural definition of matriarchy as "cultural symbols and practices associating the maternal with origin and center of the growth processes necessary for social and individual life" (p. 237). According to this definition, many of the societies studied by gender researchers—the Trobriand Islanders, the Vanatinai of Sudest Island, the Crow Indians, the Lahu and Na of southern China, and the Tetum of Vicenque, Timor—might qualify as matriarchies, since they do emphasize maternal symbols and nurturance, although in many other ways they are quite different from each other.

The use of matriarchy as an umbrella term for societies that value women's reproductive and nurturing powers seems too broad to be of much use for comparative purposes. What Sanday wants to call matriarchic has been described by Annette Weiner as "woman focused" (1976), by Sherry Ortner as an "egalitarian hegemony," by Karen Sacks as a "sister-based society," and by Eleanor Leacock as a "precapitalist form of sexual equality." It is also close to the sacred ideals of the Okinawans of Japan (Sered), the dualistic Kodi of Sumba (Hoskins, 1993, 1998), and the highland Wana and Meratus of the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Kalimantan (Atkinson; Tsing). All of these examples provide evidence for diversity of gender relations that cannot be reduced to a simple stereotype of male supremacy, but which are also stubbornly idiosyncratic and unlike each other in important ways. Anthropology has long been a celebration of difference, and while it does need a comparative vocabulary, this vocabulary is only helpful if it is very rigorously defined. Expanding the notion of matriarchy beyond its largely discredited nineteenth-century significance does not seem to advance this process.


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Janet Hoskins

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMatriarchy - Nineteenth-century Evolutionary Theory, Twentieth-century Gender And Kinship Studies, Alternatives To Matriarchy: Matrism, Gender Egalitarianism, And Diarchy