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1st World Congress on Matriarchal Studies
Luxembourg 2003
Selected Papers


Center for the Study of the Gift Economy

International Academy Hagia

Peggy Reeves Sanday

Matriarchal Values and World Peace:
The Case of the Minangkabau

One of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia, numbering some four million in their homeland province of West Sumatra, the Minangkabau are famous in Indonesia for their matrilineal social system, matriarchal values  and dedication to Islam.   They are also known for their business acumen and literary flair.  Banks, bookstores, and institutions of higher education in the cities, satellite dishes and schools in the villages make this modern society all the more interesting for its matriarchal values in a world torn by conflict, strife, and male dominance. 

From 1981 to 1999 I  visited West Sumatra nearly every year to study what the Minangkabau refer to as adat matriarchaat, the term they use for their matriarchal customs.    In this paper I examine the relationship between these customs and  the Minangkabau  commitment to peaceful  social relations.   My goal is to demonstrate that matriarchal values grow out of a social philosophy in which the emphasis is on cooperation.   Viewed from the Minangkabau perspective,  matriarchy is not about "female rule," but about social principles and values rooted in maternal meanings in which both sexes work together to promote human well being.   Just as they nourish the vulnerable rice seeds in the rice nurseries before planting them in the fields and then keep the young shoots carefully watered and weeded so that they will grow strong, the Minangkabau nourish the weak and vulnerable so that society will be strong. 

The following analysis is based on participant-observation of  life in the rural villages and cities of the highland heartland of Minangkabau culture and on interviews with intellectuals and religious officials in the coastal capital city.  These sources provide a unique vision of a society in which matriarchal values are expressed at the level of natural philosophy and social reality. 


Nature is our Teacher

The social philosophy of the Minangkabau  differs dramatically from Western ideals stressing competition and  "survival of the fittest."   Growth in nature is the model on which the Minangkabau construct their social contract. From this model they derive the principle that nurture is the primordial foundation for the social order.  This principle is expressed in a well known proverb.   

Take the small knife used for carving

Make a staff from the lintabuang tree

The cover of pinang flowers becomes a winnow

A drop of water becomes the sea

A fist becomes a mountain

Growth in nature is our teacher.

This proverb introduces the animistic foundation for both  the Minangkabau matriarchaat and matrilineal law.   When I asked people for an exegesis of the proverb they usually answered by saying that people derive the rules of culture by observing the benign aspects of nature.    Ibu Idar, a female leader and my hostess in the village where I lived,  explained that the imitation of nature means that people learn not just from what supports life but from what destroys it as well.   "Our adat teaches us to take the good from nature (alam) and throw away the bad," she said. 

According to the above proverb, what grows in nature provides the wherewithal for rudimentary implements for food and shelter (first three lines.) Social well being is found in natural growth and fertility (second three lines) according to the dictum that the unfurling, blooming, and expansion of growth in nature provides a lesson for social relations.   As plants grow from seedlings, trees from transplanted branches, the sea from a trickle of water, and mountains from a clump of earth so do people. Like the seedlings of nature, people and emotions must be patiently fed so that they will flower and grow to their fullness and strength.  Thus  nurture  is the natural law which humans should follow in devising social rules.(1)  

Many adat leaders and intellectuals in the urban and rural areas of West Sumatra write about the role of nature in adat social philosophy.   According to Pak Idrus Hakimy,  a religious and social leader whose books of proverbs are widely read in the villages and the cities, nature is the source for adat rules and beliefs.

We study everything around us: human life, animals, plants, mountains, hills, and rivers.  Nature surrounds us in all the events of our lives.  We learn from the good in nature and throw away the bad.  The rules of adat are based in nature.  Like nature, adat surrounds us.

 Taufik Abdullah, a well known Minangakbau social scientist,  cites a proverb which goes one step further to suggest that adat is sacred because it is a primordial aspect of nature.

When nothing was existent, the universe did not exist

Neither earth nor sky existed

Adat had already existed.(2)

The principle of matrilineal descent is a corollary of the logic making adat imminent in nature.   In another interview, Pak Hakimy  had this to say:

Matrilineal adat is in accordance with the flora and fauna of nature in which it can be seen that it is the mother who bears the next generation and it is the mother who suckles the young and raises the child.   As we all know, Minangkabau adat comes from nature according to the proverb Alam takambang jadi guru (growth in nature is our teacher.)  In nature all that is born into the world is born from the mother, not from the father.  Fathers are only known by a confession from the mother.  Adat knows that the mother is the closest to her children and is therefore more dominant than the father in establishing the character of the generations.  Thus, we must protect women and their offspring because they are also weaker than men.  Just as the weak becomes the strong in nature, we must make the weaker the stronger in human life.  If the mother abandons or doesn't recognize her own child, adat exists to recognize the child's descent line and to ensure the child's worldly welfare.(3)

Similar sentiments were expressed by an adat leader in the village I lived for many years.  In l985, Dt. Nago Besar, who was then at the apex of the male adat ladder,  explained to me that the matrilineal system was originally devised so that children would always have a family, food, and ancestral land.  Speaking rhetorically he asked,  "If a child is born without a father, or we don't know who the father is, where can the child find pusaka (land, titles,  and ancestral house) and food?  Like growth in nature, we always know from whom the child descends: the mother."

Such sentiments should not be taken as support for the claim made by 19th century evolutionists in Europe and the U.S. that matriliny derives from ignorance about the father's role in conception.    The l9th century was a time when there was considerable speculation about a period in cultural evolution when women ruled.   Whether this period was labeled the time of mother-right or matriarchy there was wide agreement that female rule was prior to patriarchy and was based on ignorance about paternity.(4)  

I doubt that ignorance of the father's role in conception explains matriarchal values in any society past or present.    One can't help but wonder why Western social scientists seem unable to understand the meaning of women-centeredness in anything other than male terms.    The Minangkabau are aware of the father's biological role, but chose to ignore it in favor of the social well-being of the mother-child bond.   They think that males can fend for themselves, but mothers and their children need social support.  As Pak Hakimy told me:

Here we elevate the weak instead of the strong.  Women must be given rights because they are weak.  Young men must be sent away from the village to prove their manhood so that there will be no competition between them and their sisters.(5)

This is not to say that there is no role for the father, only that it is not tied to the transmission of ancestral property rights.   True to their tendency to emphasize growth rather than competition and aggression, ideas about the role of the father is designed on the model of nurture in nature.   Once again a proverb communicates the message.

Fern leaf tendril, balimbing nuts

Shake the shell of a coconut

Plant pepper with the roots

Seat your child and guide your nephew

Think about your village people

Prevent your village from destruction

And keep up the tradition.

The lines of this proverb describe expectations for the roles of father and uncle.  Like the inward folding of the fern tendril, wrapped around itself, a father should wrap himself around his family, custom, and the affairs of the village.  Like the outward curve of the stem of the tendril the uncle acts as a  leader and guides his nephews and nieces.   As a father a man is expected to "seat" his children (i.e. love them) and as an uncle he must lead his nephews (educate them). 

"The uncle comes when he is called by his sister to discipline her children," Pak Hakimy informed me.   "A mother will say to a naughty child: 'Look your uncle is coming.  Please be good.'  Fathers and uncles are expected to work together to help provide financial support to the families of their sisters and wives," he concluded.(6) 

The Importance of Negotiation in Resolving Differences

The Minangkabau place great value on accommodation and consensus in handling conflict.  A prime example of how accommodation works is illustrated by the story the Minangkabau tell about how matrilineal adat came to be wedded to patrilineal Islam in the course of their history.  

The story often begins with a proverb: Adat came down; Islam came up.   This means that adat originated in the interior mountainous heartland of Minangkabau culture long ago, some say before the time of Christ, and went down to the coast.  Islam came much later, brought by traders to the coastal regions, sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries, and went up to the mountains.   The two achieved an accommodation  and lived in peaceful coexistence until a few well known Islamic officials who were educated  in Mecca sought to purge Minangkabau culture of adat customs such as matrilineal descent by force.   Those supporting the accommodation of adat and Islam stood their ground by forming an alliance in order to defend their sacred adat traditions against the purist tendencies of  the local Islamist assault. 

The struggle brought on the Padri war in the late l8th and early l9th centuries.    The moderate wing won the struggle with the help of the Dutch.  The accommodation of adat and Islam involved the purging of some adat practices (like gambling)  and the strengthening of others.  Matrilineal descent, the lynch pin of adat Minangkabau,  was placed in the most sacred of adat categories on a par with Islam.   This is the only adat category which is considered so sacred that, like Islam, it cannot be changed.   Because both are handed down from the godhead neither contradicts nor competes with the other. 

The accommodation of adat and Islam in this case is a prime example of the distinction often drawn  between cultural and political Islam in the Islamic world.   Political Islam (also called Islamism) refers to the wholesale destruction of local culture in the interest of ruling by the laws of the Holy Book.  Political Islam did not take hold in West Sumatra due to the outcome of the Padri War and the accommodation of adat  (local custom) and Islam.  The accommodation meant that cultural Islam prevailed instead.  Cultural Islam  is found in those parts of the Islamic world where communities subscribing to the "five pillars" of Islamic practice live in syncretism with traditions that can be traced to centuries-old pre-Islamic traditions.  

The  importance  of cultural Islam in West Sumatra became more apparent to me in the aftermath of  the 9/11 disaster in New York.   During a visit in August of 2002 the subject of Bin Laden came up a number of times.  Although for some he was the Islamic David who confronted the American Goliath, he was not a leader to be followed.   The people I talked to said that the Islam they were taught prohibits violence and the use of force.    They emphasized the Minangkabau practice of achieving social goals through negotiation and discussion, not through force.    One man said that his Islamic education stressed the importance of thinking about others.  Do unto others as you would have others  do unto you, he said in so many words.  

The subject of Bin Laden and 9/11 sparked many comments about the perils of globalization.  It was clear that people in West Sumatra felt that 9/11 was a cry against globalization in the form it was taking in the world.   However, they didn't agree with the Islamist solution.  There were two kinds of globalization Minangkabau intellectuals worried about: Western capitalism and anti-Western Islamism.   Urban professionals and intellectuals reject both forms of globalization as "a clash between two politicized universalisms."    They  expressed a longing for a more humane model of globalization for their country and the world based on cultural  and spiritual values in the context of "democracy building and creating good governance."    Minangkabau intellectuals proudly say that the social ideology and practices of adat represent the first true democracy in the world, going back millennium.   Among other things, today democracy means protecting local culture from the onslaught of Western materialism and the imposition of militant Islamism. 


Respect for Senior Women

The Minangkabau system of values interweaving accommodation, consensus decision making, and nurture is upheld by the dominant symbol of adat matriarchaat  in village life, Bundo Kanduang.   This symbol has mythic, historical, sacred, and deeply personal meanings.  Bundo Kanduang means "my own mother."  It is both a royal title reserved for the mythical Queen Mother of the Minangkabau and a title applied to senior women  in their ceremonial roles.    The emphasis on "my own mother" also reflects the deep emotional attachment the Minangkabau feel for the mother who raised them.

The role and meaning of Bundo Kanduang is expressed in the following proverb:

Bundo Kanduang is the butterfly of the traditional house

She is the one who owns the key of the clothes chest and the jewelry box

She is the center where the threads of the fish net meet

She is the finery of the village

She is sovereign through her dignity

The one who is greatly honored

The one to whom we take all our problems

The one who receives our last wishes when we die.

The butterfly metaphor in this proverb has aesthetic and social meanings.  In Minangkabau weaving and house carving,  the butterfly symbolizes the senior woman in full adat regalia -- finely dressed, laden with gifts, the conveyor of good fortune, and good will.  In this guise she is Bundo Kanduang, our own mother who is the dominant symbol of the common good.  The butterfly is also associated with the central pillar of the traditional house, which is the oldest pillar because it is the first erected.  Thus center, origin, and maternal symbol are joined, an association frequently found in Minangkabau symbology.

           Owning the key to the clothes chest and the jewelry box, as mentioned in the second line of the proverb, also carries aesthetic and social meanings.  This is a subject which many women discussed with me because it has material implications for the lives of their daughters.  In addition to the implication of finery, the clothes and jewelry are part of the sacred pusaka (ancestral) objects so important in ceremonial displays and safeguarded for passing from mother to daughter.   The jewelry represents a woman's economic acumen in her ability to translate rice and garden surpluses into gold jewelry as an investment for a daughter's future.  The jewelry is money in the bank for cashing in when funds are needed to stage a ceremony, especially a wedding ceremony.  The savings may also be called upon for buying livestock  as a form of investment. 

The clothes in the chest are the adat costumes of fine gold or silver weaving handed down from mother to daughter in the wealthier families to don for special adat ceremonies.  The chest is also the place where the ancestral dagger (kris) is stored for use by the males who inherit the ancestral title on ceremonial occasions.  Thus, the chest represents the material repository of adat as it is passed from one generation to the next.

The idea that the senior woman of the household is  "the center where the threads of the fish net meet," evokes the image of this woman as hostess to the many guests that flow into her house for the life cycle ceremonies she and the women of her lineage organize. Because the ceremonies are so public, sometimes with most of the village attending, it is easy to see how through ceremonial activities women knit the threads of the village social tapestry.  Women do this on a regular basis, not just in staging their own ceremonies but through helping one another.     

Finally, there is the personal tie to the mother expressed in the last lines of the proverb.   The emotional meaning of this tie is evident not just in this proverb but in the many lamentations for the mother sung on the village stage by female bards during the entertainment part of village ceremonies.   One that is particularly moving in the mournful cadence of the music and voice of the female singer is about coming home from far away and finding one's mother gone and the ancestral house of one's birth boarded up.  It ends with these verses:

--If my dear mother is at home

My worries are over.

When I am sad, she soothes my heart.

When I need her, she gives advice.

--Without her I am nothing.

With whom will I talk?

I feel so lost, I can only cry.

It is late,  I must hurry home….Oh, Mother.

The Role of the Mother's Brother

In l896, E.B. Tylor wrote an article entitled "The Matriarchal Family System" in which he concludes that because the mother's brother holds household authority in matrilineal societies like the Minangkabau, we cannot speak of matriarchy.(7)   In my book, Women at the Center, I argue that Tylor's conclusion was based on the misleading definition of matriarchy as female rule --misleading, because the definition was devised with patriarchy in mind rather than being based on observing behavior and world view in societies like the Minangkabau in which the dominant social symbols and ceremonies are women-centered. 

Matriarchal values  in societies like the Minangkabau constitute a system of social interaction in which no one social group holds final power over another.  The Minangkabau fit what Riane Eisler calls a "partnership" society.(8)   Final power rests in adat , not in people.    Matrilineal adat is considered sacred and cannot be changed.    Uncles have authority, but so does Bundo Kanduang.  The authority shared between the Mamak  (mother's brother) and Bundo Kanduang is interdependent.  One cannot operate without the other; both show mutual respect.  This is the Minangkabau way based on their system of tali budi  (good relations.)

The Minangkabau way holds  adat up as the final arbiter, the law to which all are subservient.    When the  Mamak  meet in the village council house to settle disputes, the titled male leaders refer to the body of law codified by the original adat lawgivers, sons of the first Bundo Kanduang.   This body of law establishes a procedure for the resolution of disputes according to "mupakat,'' consensus decision-making in search of the truth.  Mutual agreement is the ultimate sovereign in Minangkabau life.  Any one who stands in the way of truth by acting discourteously or resorting to the use of force is exiled from the community or shunned. 

The primary function of the Mamak is to resolve disputes, negotiate marriage with their sisters, confer titles on new candidates, and engage males from other lineages in an official exchange of speeches at adat ceremonies.  In addition to his role along with senior women in negotiating marriage, theoretically it is the responsibility of the Mamak to look after the young people of his clan by helping them find spouses.  In practice, this job falls to the mothers involved in a potential union. 

In dispute settlement, the Mamak of a village resolve competing claims over land which can lead to harsh words and outright conflict in the village.  The process is very careful and deliberate for the proceedings must follow consensus decision making in searching for  the truth according to the saying:

Loosen that which is tight

So that the sound is like a tinkle rather than a crash.

With respect to the members of his own immediate extended family, the man who inherits the Mamak title oversees the management and use of ancestral land in conjunction with his sisters.    Because this puts him in a position where he could abuse clan interests for his own profit, the man chosen to receive a title must display more than the correct genealogical link.  He must be deemed honest, truthful, straightforward, and strong enough to uphold the rules of adat. 

A man who breaks these rules by selling land without the appropriate agreement from his female relatives suffers the consequences of the curse of the ancestors.  The symbolism of the curse seems to have been devised with the Mamak in mind.  On the one hand the Mamak is likened to a tree; on the other the curse of the ancestor refers to the illness which afflicts those who break the oath of the ancestors to respect matrilineal rights to property.  The fate of the man who breaks this oath is likened to the decay and slow death of a tree bored in the middle by bees  


Based on observing adat matriarchaat in Minangkabau village life, I object to the Western definition of matriarchy as female rule.  Defining matriarchy as the mirror image of patriarchy is based on two faulty assumptions.   The first assumption is that women  must be like men to occupy a central position in society.   The second is that social prominence for either sex is founded only in social power as we know it, which always means power over people.    Neither assumption is compatible with the role that democratic values and maternal meanings play in Minangkabau daily life. 

Defining matriarchy either in terms of female rule or by reference solely to mother goddesses blinds us to the social complexities of women's actual and symbolic role in partnership societies.    Not finding cases in which women are rulers in society or in heaven, mainstream scholars looked no further and proclaimed universal  male dominance.  This is a mistake because it underrates the vital role that maternal meanings play in upholding the social fabric and human well being in many societies. 

If we think of Minangkaau social meanings as forming an intricately woven tapestry of values, the mutually supportive role played by adat matriarchaat and Islam stands out as a major theme.   One provides a defense against the destructive consequences of Western capitalism and the other guards against falling lockstep into a simplistic anti-Western Islamism.   The synergy of the connection acts as a hedge against the decline of either.   Backed by religion, adat is better able to withstand the global capitalist formations sweeping Indonesia.  With solid roots in adat practice,  cultural Islam is better able to withstand militant Islamist trends .  The adat ceremonies organized by women play an essential role in this struggle by reminding young men, who might otherwise be guided by the seductive pull of political Islam,  of their cultural roots and responsibilities.    In a world where young men in many countries seem to have lost their cultural bearings in turning to indiscriminate violence,  it is a relief to know there are  societies like the Minangkabau.  

Although I went to West Sumatra looking for female power, I came home many years later with a more nuanced understanding of what matriarchal values  can do in the world.  It is not female power per se that counts.  Values are the key.  If competitive, combative values rule – such as the cowboy mentality which suffuses North America's presentation of its national self in today's world – it doesn't matter which sex rules because the end result will be the same: assertiveness, violence, and preemptive warfare.  On the other hand, if working on behalf of equality, human rights, children, the world's poor, and against environmental depletion are the values that drive social thought, it also doesn't' matter who is at the helm for we all know, male and female alike, that this is the only way to protect a gradually disintegrating world for future generations.   Our concern should not be with who rules, but with protecting the vulnerable in the interest of peace and social well being for all.  If this goal were one of the world's priorities, we would enjoy an unparallel era of peace.

1. This is my interpretation of the proverb based on discussions with many adat experts.

2. Quoted by Abdullah, Taufik  "Modernization in the Minangkabau World: West Sumatra in the Early Decades of the Twentieth Century."   In Culture and Politics in Indonesia, ed. Claire Holt, Benedict Anderson, and James Siegel, 179-249.  Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, l972, p.231.

3. Interview,  l985.

4. J. J. Bachofen and Lewis Henry Morgan presented strong arguments for sovereign female authority in the mid-l9th century.  Bachofen introduced the notion of maternal law which he defined as government of the family and of the state in his l861 book Das Mutterecht (see Bachofen l967.)   Morgan described mother right among the matrilineal Iroquois and, like Bachofen, spoke of gynecocracy in early human society.  Although, this might seem to credit Bachofen and Morgan as the discovers of matriarchy defined as female rule, neither actually used this term. 

According to the classicist Stella Georgoudi (l992:450-451), although matriarchy is considered to have been Bachofen's great discovery, compared by French feminists in the early 20th century with Columbus' discovery of America, the term does not appear in his work.  Rather, Georgoudi points out, matriarchy was forged later in the l9th century by analogy with patriarchy.  As far as I can surmise E. B. Tylor (l896) is the first to use this term in the context of anthropological analysis.

Although Bachofen and Morgan didn't actually use the term matriarchy they can be credited with the association of matriarchy with female rule because of the degree to which both conflated gynecocracy and mother-right.  As Georgoudi notes, Bachofen used these terms side by side as if to say these were inextricable characteristics.  Thus, where he found matrilineal kinship, Bachofen assumed gynecocracy.

Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of American anthropology, can be credited with the most extensive and earliest examination of the social meaning of matrilineal descent.  His famous League of the Iroquois was first published in l851, ten years before Bachofen published Das Mutterrecht.    In his later work however Morgan seems to have been influenced by Bachofen when he spoke of Iroquoian mother-power and claimed that mother-right and gynecocracy among the Iroquois...is not overdrawn (l965[l881]:66.)

The notion that mother-power represents an ancient phase of human life, illustrates the second most important attribute that came to be associated with matriarchy: its evolutionary priority to patriarchy.  For example, Bachofen associated mother-right with the pre-Hellenic peoples and patriarchal forms with the more advanced Greek culture (1967:71.) His preference for one over the other is seen in his conclusion regarding the triumph of paternity, which he said liberates the spirit from nature and sublimates human existence over the laws of material life (l967:109.)

5. Interview, l985.

6. Interview, 1985.

7. Tylor (l896.)

8. Eisler (1987.)


(Including Selected Works on the Minangkabau)

- Abdullah, Taufik, l972,  "Modernization in the Minangkabau world: West Sumatra in the   early decades of the twentieth century",  in Culture and Politics in Indonesia, ed.   Claire Holt, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, pp. 179-249.           

- Bachofen, J.J., 1967,  Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J.J.Bachofen.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

- Eisler, Riane, 1987, The Chalice and the Blade, San Francisco: HarperCollins.

- Georgoudi, Stella, 1992, "Creating a Myth of Matriarchy", in:  A History of Women:I, From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints,  Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Editor, pp. 449-463, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

- Morgan, Lewis Henry,  1851,  League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois.  Rochester : Sage & Brother, 1965 [1881].  Houses and house life of the American Aborigines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

- Tylor, Edward Burnett, 1896,  "The Matriarchal Family System", in:  Nineteenth Century, Vol. 40:81-96 (l896).