MINANGKABAU: WORLD’S LARGEST MATRIARCHAL SOCIETY

MINANGKABAU

The Minangkabau live in West Sumatra. Also known as the Menangkabau or the Minang for short, they are a Muslim people and regarded as culturally similar to their neighbors, the Malays, except that they mark descent through the female line and are really into water buffalo. They are also known as being hospitable and clever, and celebrate colorful festivals. Minangkabau means “water buffalo victory.” [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Minangkabau are the largest matrilineal culture in the world and the fourth largest ethnic group in Indonesia. Tribe, clan (or suku) titles, properties and names are all handed down through the female line. The grandmother is the ultimate matriarch and a power figure. Although the Minangkabau are Muslim, their customs are unique and unusual in a state with a predominantly Muslim culture. Most such matriarchal customs are justified by tradition, although they are sometimes supported by examples from the sira of the Prophet Muhammad, especially stories revolving around the centrality of Muhammad's first employer and subsequent wife, Khadija. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Minangkabau make up 2.7 percent of the population of Indonesia. They are the predominate group in West Sumatra, which has traditionally had the highest education and literacy rates in Indonesia, in part because of the Minangkabau’s strong family support system and emphasis on education. The Minangkabau have produced many prominent Indonesian figures in politics, literature and religious leadership. There are about 9 million Minangkabau, with about half of them in West Sumatra. They are well represented in Indonesian cities and several hundred thousand of them live in Malaysia. ~

The Minangkabau sometimes describe West Sumatra as the land of the V. The name V means triumphant buffalo. Their traditional homes are called V houses. The V name is said to have resulted from a fight between a Minangkabau bull and a massive Javanese bull. Realizing his people could never find a bull as large as the Javanese, one clever Minangkabau fielded a baby bull with V-shaped knives attached to its horns. When the fight started the baby bull perceived its opponent as its mother and rushed to suckle the Javanese bull, in the process ripping out the bull’s belly. ~

The Minangkabau predominate in the coastal areas of Sumatera Utara Province, Sumatera Barat Province, the interior of Riau Province, and northern Bengkulu Province. Like the Batak, they have large corporate descent groups, but unlike the Batak, the Minangkabau traditionally reckon descent matrilineally. Minangkabau were prominent among the intellectual figures in the Indonesian independence movement. Not only were they strongly Islamic, they spoke a language closely related to Bahasa Indonesia, which was considerably freer of hierarchical connotations than Javanese. Partly because of their tradition of merantau, Minangkabau developed a cosmopolitan bourgeoisie that readily adopted and promoted the ideas of an emerging nation- state. [Source: Library of Congress]

Minangkabau History

The Minangkabau have a strong cultural link to the Malays and are believed to have arrived in Sumatra from the Malaysian peninsula around1000 B.C.. In the Minangkabau creation myth the first two people were two Malays who emerged from the volcanic peak Marapi. The ancestors of one followed a paternal line of descent and they became Malays. The ancestors of the other followed a maternal line of descent and became Minangkabau. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Minangkabau have traditionally been a coastal people, who dominated trade on the west coast of Sumatra along with the Acehnese and Batak. The Malays dominated trade in the Malacca Straits on the eastern side of Sumatra. Minangkabau culture was influenced by a series of 5th to 15th century Malay and Javanese kingdoms (the Melayu, Sri Vijaya, Majapahit and Malacca). ~

Minangkabau culture reached its zenith in the 15th century under the Pagarruyong-based Minangkabau king. According to legend, the first king was a descendant of Alexander the Great but historical evidence seems to suggests that he was a Javanese prince or aristocrat that arrived in the area in 15th century. ~

Islam arrived in the form of cults on the coast in the mid 16th century, mostly from the Acehnese, but did not really take hold in the interior until later. The Paderi Wars in the early 19th century began as conflict between traditionalists and Wahabi-influenced Islamic fundamentalists and expanded into an anti–Dutch war, which in turn lead to the emplacement of stronger colonial administration in the area and the development of coffee plantations in the highlands. ~

The Minangkabau were involved in a brief rebellion in the 1950s over the unfair distribution of wealth and development under the Sukarno government. The event left them traumatized and generally they have gone out of their way to avoid conflict with the government. ~

Minangkabau Matriarchal Society

The Minangkabau represent one of the last remaining matrilineal societies in the world. Property is inherited down the female line and women pick their marriage partners and do the proposing. The only thing that a man can ask of his wife is that she remain faithful to him. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Because women own all the property, men travel the far corners of Indonesia and try to make their fortunes. The Minangkabau are sometimes called the Gypsies of Indonesia. Men are known for their wanderlust. Traveling is considered a mark of success. The Minangkabau are known throughout Southeast Asia as active traders and are among the most economically successful groups in Indonesia. Many Minangkabau villages in West Sumatra are dominated by women and the elderly while those in their communities elsewhere in Indonesia are dominated by young men and men in general. ~

A young boy has his primary responsibility to his mother’s and sisters’ clans. It is considered “customary” and ideal for married sisters to remain in their parental home, with their husbands having a sort of visiting status. Not everyone lives up to this ideal, however. In the 1990s, anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood studied a relatively conservative village in Sumatera Barat where only about 22 percent of the households were “matrihouses,” consisting of a mother and a married daughter or daughters. Nonetheless, there is a shared ideal among Minangkabau in which sisters and unmarried lineage members try to live close to one another or even in the same house. [Library of Congress]

The Minangkabau are organized in accordance with a unique administrative system called nagari that was established along village lines and follows a set of traditional customs and rules ( adat bsandi syarak, syarak bsandi Kitabullah) that are in turn are based on the Koran and Islamic law. Each nagari has a mayor elected by the village council and an approved government-pointed official for a year. In recent years there has been a movement to strengthen the nagari system, and make it more independent from Jakarta. ~

Minangkabau Matriarchal Groups and Organization

Matriarchal descent groups called suku play an important role in Minangkabau society. Varying in size depending in their history, they are made up of clans and subclans and fit into the nagari system. Each sub clan is made up of genealogically-linked units that are also the primarily land-owning units. They in turn are dived by sub units called sabuah parulik (“of one womb”), related kin that eat together, usually consisting of mother, grandchildren and son in law. Households are ruled by a senior matriarch who may have 70 people answering to her. Her judgment is regarded as final in all matters and everyone in her group is expected to defer to her. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Every Minangkabau belongs to his or her mother’s clan. Members of the same clan are not supposed to marry. Cross-cousin marriages are preferred, preferably between a woman and her sister’s son. The traditional domestic unit is a woman, her married and unmarried daughters, and her daughter’s children. Traditionally, fathers have little to do with raising the children. It is the uncle on the mother’s side that sees that the children are looked after and help arrange their marriage. But that is less the case today. Both mothers and fathers play a major role in childrearing. ~

Traditionally, married men slept as guests in the houses of their wives. Each married woman had a room where she could receive her husband. Unmarried boys used to live in sarau (communal buildings) where they learned silat (traditional martial arts) and memorized the Koran under the guidance of a religious teacher. ~

The matriarchal system is no longer as strong as it once was and many people now live in nuclear family units in which men are not just guests, and children go to regular schools. Increasingly, married couples go off on merantau; in such situations, the woman’s role tends to change. When married couples reside in urban areas or outside the Minangkabau region, women lose some of their social and economic rights in property. One apparent consequence is an increased likelihood of divorce.

Minangkabau Property and Law

Property is still largely handed down from wife to daughter. The inheritance system is somewhat complicated and involves: 1) earned property, which is passed down through households to either son or daughter often in line with Islamic law; and 2) ancestral property which is handed down from mother to daughter under the supervision of the clan. Most agriculture land is the latter. A man's children are not his clan's heirs. Instead, they are heirs of his wife's clan. When a man dies, he has to leave his possession of clan properties to the children of his sisters.~

Landholding is one of the crucial functions of the suku (female lineage unit). Because Minangkabau men, like Acehnese men, often migrate to seek experience, wealth, and commercial success, the women’s kin group is responsible for maintaining the continuity of the family and the distribution and cultivation of the land. These family groups, however, are typically led by a penghulu (headman), elected by groups of lineage leaders. With the agrarian base of the Minangkabau economy in decline, the suku—as a landholding unit—has also been declining somewhat in importance, especially in urban areas. Indeed, the position of penghulu is not always filled after the death of the incumbent, particularly if lineage members are not willing to bear the expense of the ceremony required to install a new penghulu. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The traditions of sharia—in which inheritance laws favor males— and indigenous female-oriented adat are often depicted as conflicting forces in Minangkabau society. The male-oriented sharia appears to offer young men something of a balance against the dominance of law in local villages, which forces a young man to wait passively for a marriage proposal from some young woman’s family. By acquiring property and education through merantau experience, a young man can attempt to influence his own destiny in positive ways. *

Minangkabau Life

Each nagari state or village is a self-sufficient community with agricultural lands, gardens, houses, prayer houses, a mosque, and a community meeting hall. Usually there is a central area with some scattered coffee shops. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Houses are organized along roads, are shaded by fruit trees and surrounded by wet-rice fields. Beyond them are dry fields that produce commercial crops such as coffee, cinnamon, rubber and fruit. The nature of economic activities varies with the location. Those on the coast are more into trade and fishing. Those in flat areas produce wet rice; in the mountains, commercial crops. ~

Traditional house have a great common room, where members of the household work and socialize. On either side of the room are bedrooms. These days these houses are outnumbered by small houses occupied by nuclear families. ~

Minangkabau Culture

Minangkabau marriage, education and religious practices and beliefs are generally in line with the Shafi school of Sunni Islam. During Minangkabau weddings the bride sometimes wears a battery powered headdress that looks like a bouquet of Christmas lights. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Minangkabau have a thing about water buffalos. The roofs of their houses—which bow down deeply at mid-length and turn up steeply to gabled ends— are shaped like buffalo horns, and their favorite sport is water buffalo fighting. The fights are between two bulls of around equals size. They lock horns and push one another. The bull that gives up loses. It is not unusual for a bull to run in the crowd and everyone runs for cover. Betting can be quite intense. The biggest bullfights are held in the villages of Kota Bari and Batagak. Bareback horse racing is also popular. ~

Randai the traditional folk theatre of the Minangkabau people is performed during ceremonies and festivals. Music, singing, dance, drama and the silat martial art are all incorporated together and are based on the traditional stories and legends. Traditional Minangkabau crafts include making hand-loomed songket cloth with elaborate designs made from geometric patterns and floral designs; needle weaving, a labor-intensive process in which patters are made by removing threads and stitching the remaining threads together; and silver filigree jewelry. ~

Minangkabau Arts

Among the lively and colorful Minangkabau dances are the umbrella dance, in which men express their love to their girlfriends; the plate dance, involving dancing and leaping barefoot onto broken plates; and the candle dance, in which female dancers juggle plates with burning candles on them. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Randai is a form of dance drama performed at weddings and other big events that features martial-arts-like pencak silat moves. This form of dances usually tells a story and is performed to gamelan music. Every Minangkabau boy learns it when he is growing up. The Mudo is form of mock battle that is learned by young men and sometimes performed. It too features pencak silat moves. ~

Other Minangkabau arts include saluang (flute playing), pepatah petitih (wise sayings), kaba (narrative poems), pantun (Malay-like rhymed couplets). The Minangkabau also have a rich oral culture and are known among other Indonesians for their love of talking and discussing politics and issues of the day in coffee shops ~

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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