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Discover the importance of the mother/child bond

Among the smouldering volcanic peaks and crater lakes of Indonesia’s West Sumatra province lives one of the world’s few remaining matrilineal societies. A staunchly Muslim society that traces its lines of descent through the female line, the Minangkabu is the largest continuous matriarchy in the world.

Ancient worship of the Earth Goddess and reverence for the womb underpinned the belief system of the early Minangkabu. When Islam swept over West Sumatra in about the 14th century, it was the flexible and mystical branch known as Tarekat that dominated. Tarekat encouraged believers to embark on their own spiritual journey rather than blindly follow a prescribed faith, and was more concerned about people’s hearts than their religious piety.

Many scholars believe the dominant image of Tarekat, the buraq, an image of Muhammad being transported by a creature with a mule’s body and woman’s face, eased the path for the integration of Islam with Earth Goddess worship and the matrilineal society. The Prophet Mohammed’s phrase, “Paradise is located beneath the soles of the feet of the mother”, was interpreted as an endorsement of the matrilineal society and the virtue of respecting women.


Ancient laws of Adat

Today, Minangkabu society is governed by the ancient law of Adat, or customary law, which outlines the philosophy of life of the Minangkabu people. Adat forms the bedrock on which this society has been built and has proven remarkably resilient to change. The saying, “The ancient Adat: it neither rots in the rain or cracks in the sun”, permeates many discussions about heritage.

Most Minangkabu don’t see the matriarchal system of descent and Islam as being contradictory. They will argue that Adat is based on matrilineal principles and, as such, does not recognise the father/child basis of Islamic law. Because Adat and Islamic law have different origins, they are held to be mutually independent and are therefore believed not to impinge on each other.


Earth Goddess wisdom

The earthly embodiment of the Earth Goddess is the Bundo Kanduang, believed to be the descendent of a Minangkabu queen of that name. This woman is credited with supernatural powers, which are believed to have been inherited from a similarly gifted ancestor on their death. She is tutored in Adat, religious matters and ancient rituals until she is skilled to act as a healer and counsellor for the village people.

The Bundo Kanduang’s house has a status akin to that of a sacred site. People will travel far to seek her blessing and wisdom and sometimes to try to secure divine intervention in resolving troubling issues. Newborn children are brought to her for blessing and the symbolic placement of protective amulets. She has a pivotal role in ceremonies and is often asked to bless the food and water given to sick people. Even if she is young and inexperienced, she has the power of veto over village council decisions, as she is believed to have divine wisdom.


Matriarchal lineage

Under the auspices of the matrilineal system the mother/child bond forms the basis of society. Consequently, the economic position of women and their attachment to the clan group, or suku, and to the land is very strong. Land, houses, antiques, jewellery and other valuables are owned by female members of a puriuk (‘womb descendants’), a common lineage stemming from the one maternal grandmother. In tandem with her brother (the namak), the oldest woman of each house controls a communally owned plot of land that she passes on to her daughter when she dies or becomes too old to farm it.

There is a marked tendency among the Minangkabu people to identify most strongly with their mother’s descent group. People typically refer to their home as “my mother’s house”. The perception that the house belongs to the female members is tangible, for the nameplate at the entrance to the house is that of a female elder. Children inherit their mother’s suku (clan) name and a woman does not change her name on marriage.

The bond between sisters is very important. They share the rights to use fields and houses, and their children belong to the same descent group. Even if they are not living in the same house, as is increasingly the case, sisters will usually try to live close to each other to maintain their claim to the ancestral land.


Living arrangements

Traditionally, a married daughter remained in her mother’s house, while a married son was relegated to the role of ‘visiting husband’, spending the night at his wife’s house but returning to his mother’s house at dawn, in time to help with the farming of his mother’s land. Economically, socially and filially, a man remained a part of his own matrikin.

When I stayed with a local family I was surprised to discover from my hostess, Elma, that her father sleeps in a dangau, a small hut built at the edge of the fields for guarding crops.

Many aspects of men’s lives seem transitory and precarious. Most villages have a surau, or communal ‘men’s house’, where young men receive their Islamic education. This is regarded as their ‘second home’. From about the age of six or seven, boys are expected to start sleeping at the surau rather than at their mother’s house.


Men on merantua

As I cycled through the lush terraced ricefields, I noticed that women visibly outnumber men, a rare sight in Asia, especially in a Muslim region. This might have a lot to do with the custom of merantua, whereby men are encouraged to travel to seek wealth and experience.

Few women choose to accompany their husbands on their merantua while their economic interests are centred around their village. Many remain in the highlands to run households and fields by themselves, while their husbands and sons live elsewhere. These arrangements can endure for many years, but if a woman receives no news or money from her husband for a long time, she may request and be granted a divorce.

The practice of merantau has visibly shaped the values and ideas of the Minangkabu people. Without exception, they come across as very open-minded, intelligent and hardworking. Almost every young person I spoke with was a university graduate and showed a keen interest in, and knowledge of, international affairs. Not surprisingly, Minangkabu women are better educated than their counterparts elsewhere in Indonesia. Education is prized for its own sake and also because it’s likely to attract an educated husband.


Status of women

These proud and independent women display a confidence that echoes their status within the community. It was refreshing not to be besieged by questions like “Are you married?” or “Do you have children?” They were much more curious about my travels.

Power and authority within Minangkabu society is extremely complex and intertwined. While descent is traced through the women, in practice the power is vested in both sexes. Women hold strong trump cards in the form of matrilineal descent and inheritance, and the domestic day-to-day affairs are still quite firmly in their hands. Neither the external or internal sphere of influence is held to be superior to the other.

Control of assets undoubtedly gives these women a greater authority than their sisters in other parts of Indonesia have. Senior women, in particular, are held in great respect, have a relatively strong position of power and are economically protected. The strong position of Minangkabu women within their kin group gives them a lot of clout to profit within the public domain, and it’s expected that they will be consulted and listened to.


Pengulu and namak

Men hold positions of power by virtue of the women to whom they are related. An esteemed male member of the clan may be nominated to become a pengulu, or ‘headman’, a position that can make him responsible for the management of communal property and the arbitration of disputes. Another important post held by men is that of namak, the eldest brother of the eldest woman of the clan; he is responsible for the external affairs of the clan. The namak once acted as an assistant and advisor to his sister and exercised the final authority over her children, but these days he is more likely to represent the family on the village council and in other external matters.

Even though men in the position of pengulu and namak might make decisions together at the village council meetings, none of these can be implemented without the consent of the women.


Marriage proceedings

Until the 1950s, arranged marriages were the norm, with the namak being the main player and the couple being almost peripheral to the decision-making process. These days, kin groups and, in particular, the mother are still very instrumental, though she usually takes her daughter’s wishes into consideration.

For both boys and girls, status and adulthood are acquired through marriage. Unmarried people are expected to be very modest, as both boys and girls will have their reputation scrutinised by the family of their prospective mate. Girls once led a very secluded existence, but now it’s becoming increasingly common for a girl to have a boyfriend and to discuss her choice of husband with her mother. Although there is still considerable pressure to marry, the average age of marriage for Minangkabu women has risen to 25 years.

Minangkabu society is very conservative and guarded about pre-marital sex. If a couple is ‘found out’, they are forced to marry. In the case of adultery, both partners are held equally accountable and are usually forced to divorce and leave the village.

Marriage consists of two ceremonies: the Adat ceremony and the Nikah-Islamic one. The Adat ceremony is the more elaborate and expensive, but it must be preceded by the Islamic ceremony. The groom is, in effect, ‘pledged by’ his own matrikin, even though his foothold in this group is strengthened with his marriage, and he is once again welcomed into his mother’s house.

The girl’s parents usually visit the boy’s family to instigate marriage proceedings. To persuade his family, they might bring money, a gold ring and even a wedding costume for the boy. Some modern-day Adat ceremonies involve a mock kidnapping of the prospective groom by the bride’s female relatives. After the wedding has taken place, the couple might have to stay up and chat all night in the presence of family chaperones!


Roles within marriage

Unlike in many other Asian societies, women are not perceived as belonging to their husbands and are not expected to be submissive. A woman maintains the support of her family when she marries. Violence against women is not accepted. If a woman is mistreated by her husband, her clan members will quickly eject him from the house, without compromising her status or reputation.

In her role as wife, a woman forms the link between her husband’s matrikin and her own kin group. Although a husband is to be treated respectfully (akin to an honoured guest) at his wife’s house, he essentially remains an outsider. Relations between the daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law can become very regimented and formalised, as a result of conflicting interests.

In West Sumatra it is considered very important to give birth to a girl so the property can stay within the immediate family. However, sons are valued as well because they can assume economic and social responsibilities and share authority with the senior women. In the case of a mixed marriage, a child born to a Minangkabu mother will be considered Minangkabu.

Minangkabu women have very high expectations of marriage; divorce rates are among the highest in Indonesia. It’s quite easy to obtain a divorce, and divorced people are free to remarry. Women are not at all stigmatised by divorce or serial marriages. A divorced woman can safely retreat to her own matrikin, where she is likely to act as a guardian for her nieces and nephews. Men, on the other hand, don’t have this safety net.


Invitation to the ‘large house’

It’s difficult to resist the continuous invitations to have coffee on the shady balconies of the huge decorative houses. Any hopes of making up time were dashed when a group of brightly clad women carrying offerings on their heads invited me to join them. On this occasion I was ushered into the massive front room of a ‘large house’ where rows of elegant, resplendently dressed women sat cross-legged on the floor waiting for the food to be served. Outside, the men waited patiently; only when the women had finished could they go inside, hold their own ceremony in honour of their friend who had died and then finally feast!

The design, shape and size of a house can give many clues about the social standing of a family. Only people who can trace their ancestry to the original settlers are meant to inhabit the massive, decorative Rumbah Gadang, or ‘large house’. This distinction between matrilineal descendants of original settlers and later migrants forms the basis of social stratification in the area and governs many relationships, such as marriage.

These exotic houses form the nexus of Minangkabu matriarchy; they are the basic economic unit and the focus of everyday life. The building of a house is sometimes announced by a special procession comprising the woman of the house, who wears her bridal costume, and escorts playing traditional musical instruments.

The large open area at the front of the house functions as a living room, a gathering place for clan meetings and ceremonies, and, if space is limited, a sleeping area for children, elderly women and guests. The back of the house is partitioned into small compartments called ‘bilik’, which are the domain of the married and marriageable women of the house. When she marries, a girl is given her own bilik, which is often marked by a photo of her over the door. If necessary, her namak is expected to extend the house to accommodate the new bilik or, alternatively, to build her an additional Adat house.

Like many of the massive houses that were once at the heart of large land holdings, the Rumbah Gadang I visited functions now as a holiday house for its Jakarta-based family. House and grounds are kept in immaculate order by an army of caretakers. Although most of the family had moved away from West Sumatra decades ago and only returned occasionally, this house is always referred to as their ancestral home.


Minangkabu identity

In spite of many threats, the foundations of the matrilineal system have remained unshaken in West Sumatra, while it has crumbled in other parts of the world. The unique culture of this region has helped ensure its survival, bending but never breaking with the ancient laws of Adat.

The first to try to chip away at the liberal interpretation of Islam and the matrilineal social structure were the successive waves of assault by the Padri movement. This movement was led by holy men who were inspired by returned pilgrims from Mecca and who demanded stricter observance of Islamic law and objected to the matrilineal system.

The Padri movement succeeded in instigating class and economic reform by placing new sources of income, such as coffee, salt and textiles, firmly in the grasp of the Muslim male traders, and also through adherence to a stricter form of Islam. However, the basic tenets of Adat-Minangkabu customary law proved immutable. As a result of the Padri attacks, some families started to allocate earned wealth according to Islamic law, whereby the sons gained a disproportionate share. However, this trend did not attract a mass following.

Nuclear families are becoming common; a husband is now quite likely to live in his wife’s house and assume greater responsibly for their children. The role of the namak has been greatly diluted and, in many cases, superseded by the husband. Yet, throughout all these changes, the woman’s position remains strong.

Ancestral land no longer has the same importance and is being split up among the nuclear families, but it is still transmitted along the female line. Individually earned property is also influenced by matrilineal inheritance patterns — most property is still left to daughters.

Many people believe the habit of merantau has helped perpetuate the matrilineal system, because the women who have stayed behind have become more dominant in number and authority. As these women lead lives that are quite autonomous from their husbands, their power within the matrikin and the community is consolidated.

The tradition of matrilineal descent has great importance as an ideology and as a means of identity for the Minangkabu. It serves to perpetuate the image of the Minangkabu as a separate and distinct ethnic group. This pride and consciousness of ethnic identity was heightened after a rebellion against the government in 1958. So far, all proposals made by Islamic leaders trying to overhaul the matrilineal Adat have been rejected or ignored.

Despite rapid social and economic changes, the Minangkabu have stayed true to their ancient culture and proved impervious to the onslaught of modernisation, religious fervour and economic changes. If history is anything to go by, the spectacular landscape, with its lush forests, tranquil lakes and smoking volcanoes, the imposing architecture and, of course, the dignified and fascinating Minangkabu people will remain virtually unchanged.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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