Mothers and Muezzins

Peggy Reeves Sanday

Known among anthropologists as the largest matriarchal society in the world, the Minangkabau are the fourth largest ethnic group in Indonesia. Four million Minangkabau are indigenous to West Sumatra. They are committed Muslims, who also follow ethnic traditions from before the arrival of Islam, the so-called adat - the unwritten rules and context of matrilineal customs, handed down from one generation to the next, which are central to the Minangkabau culture.

by Ssali Yusuf, Uganda

by Ssali Yusuf, Uganda

How does one imagine that? For example five times per day the Muezzin calls for prayers. Yet the entrances of the houses face Mount Merapi, the holy site of the Minangkabau since pre-Islamic times. This is to ensure the wellbeing of the families. Amidst the modern and traditional houses that, according to matrilineal traditions, daughters inherit from mothers, you will find the prayer house. There, young men are being initiated into the knowledge of the Qur’an by elder men and are taught the traditions and customs of the adat.

An old saying illustrates how Islam and adat got together: “The adat descended and Islam ascended,” as according to popular belief the adat customs are believed to be inherited from pre- Christian times, when the Minangkabau still lived atop their mountains. When Islam was established between the 14th and 16th century, the Minangkabau combined both practices. They declared the matrilineal inheritance to be sacred and placed it on par with Islam. As both are considered to be God-given, the two practices are not supposed to compete or to contradict and have to be brought into harmony with each other.

The fundamental importance placed upon the safeguarding of the Minangkabau culture is obvious when it comes to challenges posed by modernity. The adat ceremonies protect men from the temptations of fundamentalist Islam, by reminding them of the cultural roots and the legacy of maternal principles. On the other hand Islam with its religious practices helps to protect the adat from the influences of a secular modern age. Whereas Islam constitutes the spiritual foundation in the Minangkabau culture, the matrilineal customs and adat are justified by natural philosophy: the principles of nurture and care are considered the main pillars of the eternal cycle of nature. The connection to nature is reflected in the story of the origin of the Minangkabau.

Thus children are connected to the mother so that they are never dislodged from their natal home. Like seeds in soil, children too have to be nourished to grow strong and mature. It is in this tradition that the matrilineal inheritance is to be understood, which stipulates that men move into the house of the wife after the wedding. In this way both the mother and the child are guaranteed shelter in case of a divorce.

Men and women are granted the right to seek divorce. If a woman wants to separate from her husband, she would put his slippers in front of the door. If men leave their wives, they either return to their family to wait until both families find a solution for the problems of the couple – or they move on to start a new life in other parts of Sumatra. In case of a definitive separation both men and women are allowed to  remarry. Some older women I met have been married up to five times.

The privileging of the “mother” places senior women at the social, emotional, aesthetic, and economic center of daily and ceremonial life. The Minangkabau culture may appear as a system with a female rule, but the term ‘matriarchy’ doesn’t apply to the Minangkabau if it implies a society dominated by women – as an opposite to male domination given in patriarchy. Their culture is based on a balanced system of a community where men and women share their tasks, barring a few exceptions. For example, preparing of meals is a solely female task while sowing and ploughing is the responsibility of men. Important decisions are made by the male tribal leaders after having consulted the women. Males in the matrilineal line play an important legal and teaching role as uncles. The role of fathers is to help wives, mothers, and children.

Therefore, I suggest rethinking the definition of the term “matriarchy”. Because never in the history of human kind has there been a society in which women would have ruled according to patterns typical of male dominance. As the culture of the Minangkabau illustrates, a matriarchy is rather a culture based on principles and values of motherliness and not on dominance and power.

First published in Kulturaustausch 4/2007 - from Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)