WEST SUMATRA, the Land of the Matriarchaat


Welcome today’s guest blogger, Liza Hadiz

West Sumatra is acknowledged for being culturally different from other parts of Indonesia, in fact, from most societies in the world. Many western anthropologists have come to West Sumatra to study the Minangkabau society and its social structure which differ from western societies. Some anthropologists have referred to West Sumatra as the largest existing matriarchal society. This is due to the important role the female members of the community play alongside their male peers.

Matriarchy: The Rule of Women?

The people of West Sumatra often use the term ‘matriarkat’ to describe their own society. The term most probably originated from the Dutch word matriarchaat, a term the colonial ruler used to describe West Sumatra’s distinct culture and social structure. Western scholars tend to interpret the term as meaning the opposite of patriarchy (the rule of the father), hence a society where women rule. However, this is not what was found in the Minangkabau society. Instead of domination over a group of people, the Minangkabau society was described by some researchers as a society founded on egalitarian social relations, especially between the sexes.

The above conclusion, however, may not be in accordance with conventional western perception of equality. The role of Minangkabau women is predominantly in the domestic domain, while the role of men mainly fall into the public domain. Women generally manage the household, prepare meals, and care for the children. Older men are involved in and lead public activities, such as religious gatherings and community decision-making; younger men leave the village to find new sources of livelihood.

However, inheritance is passed on through matrilineal lines. It is women who obtain ownership of the long houses, called the ‘rumah gadang’; they also own land and other assets. Traditionally, upon marriage, a man leaves his family’s house to live with his wife.

Besides attending to domestic affairs, senior women who are elected by community members to sit in the Bundo Kanduang (senior-women adat council) play an important role alongside the Ninik Mamak (the senior-men adat council) to make decisions which protect the well-being of the female descendants in terms of adat, including the maintenance of their wealth. These decisions aim to maintain the harmony within the community.

Senior Women of West Sumatra play an important role in family and community decision-making

Because of the western bias surrounding the term matriarchaat or matriarchy in English, as meaning the rule of women, anthropologists today tend to opt for alternative terms to describe the Minangkabau society. The terms partnership, matrilineal, matrilocal, women-oriented, or women-centered society are among those which are now used.

The Influence of Islam

With the arrival of Islam in the 16th century in West Sumatra, Islamic law was widely adopted in the region, while the people still retained their ‘matriarkat’ social structure. The Minangkabau people are known to be devout Muslims. This may seem contradictory from an outsider’s view. For example, the way inheritance is arranged in Islam (ruling men with twice the amount given to women) conflicts with centuries-old matrilineal Minangkabau custom (adat). It was said that through their egalitarian way of community decision-making, religious and adat tensions were resolved. Inheritance from the matrilineal kin is passed on to women in accordance with tradition and economic sources gained independently is inherited in accordance with Islamic law.

Islam is said to have further contributed to the uniqueness of the Minangkabau society. This is reflected in the old saying: ‘adat basandi syara’, syara’ basandi Kitabullah’, which means that adat is implemented based on Islamic law, and Islamic law is implemented based on the Holy Koran.

Men gathering
The Ninik Mamak shares its power with the Bundo Kanduang


There have long been concerns about the declining role of the Bundo Kanduang with the development of centralized governance. Despite the reintroduction of the nagari (the traditional administrative unit of West Sumatra) in 2001 under regional autonomy, these concerns still continue.

For the Minangkabau people of the older generation, the Islam and adat duality shows how their ancestors survived the test of time despite challenges to their cultural values and religious belief. They maintained their society by adapting to changes, resolving differences, and maintaining egalitarian forms of community life. Indeed a lesson the younger generation can learn from.


Sanday, Peggy. An excerpt from Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy
Cornell University Press, 2002. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~psanday/sanday.htm (accessed 1 April 2016)
The Pennsylvania University. Indonesia’s Matriarchal Minangkabau offer an Alternative Social System. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-05/uop-imm050902.php (accessed 1 April 2016)
 Liza Hadiz is an editor in Jakarta.
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