The Minangkabou & the Mosuo: modern matrifocality in action
Of particular personal interest are a number of truly excellent books I have, which present anthropological research on several modern and still existing matriarchies. In each case cultural matrifocality instigates a tending and nurturant social worldview, leading to a surprisingly stable and self-regulating society. Two examples emerge in 2003 from Southeast Asia: Peggy Reeves Sanday sensitively explores the Minangkabou of West Sumatra in Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy, while in southwest China Shanshan Du performs her research within the culturally unique Lahu, in “Chopsticks only Work in Pairs”: Gender Unity & Gender Equality Among the Lahu of Southwest China. Both Sanday and Du are anthropologically trained ethnographers researching indigenous societies, and their work offers explicit epistemological modifications of great benefit for a more humane, feminized science.
Sanday’s research is truly ground-breaking, being one of the very first anthropological studies of a still-extant matriarchal society; she thereby decisively proves not just that the myth of universal male domination is absolutely false, but also that matriarchies are definitely not simply a gender-flipped patriarchy. Through her more than twenty years of dedicated visits and research to the Minangkabou — who are both one of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia and the largest matriarchy in the world today — the author explores the effects of matrifocality within this thriving egalitarian society, as well as the brilliantly adaptable balancing act performed by the culture in order to co-exist with the surrounding patriarchal societies.
Unlike many Western feminists, who focus on the mother and her womb as the primordial basis for female reverence, the Minangkabou turn to fertility and growth throughout nature to explain the roots of their belief. For them, nurturance and care for the young is society’s primary goal. Since “all that is born into the world is born from the mother, not from the father” (Sanday, 24), then by definition the mother-child bond will be the strongest — and consequently also the most effective in ensuring that children will always have a family, food, and ancestral land. Indeed, the Minangkabou further believe a focus on discovering biological fathers distracts from the real goal: the well-being of the children (Sanday, 24-25). It is therefore the mother’s brother who serves as male role model for children; despite fatherhood being conceptually understood, it simply isn’t important to them. Thus for the Minangkabou nature teaches nurturance rather than dominion, ensuring that their social contract will also emphasize care and protection for the weak, and resolution of conflict through consensus rather than force or majority rule.
This social contract is referred to as adat, and while it is a code of rules for men, women live and perform it through symbolism and through their way of life. The central pillar of each clan house, as an example, is referred to symbolically as the senior woman, and it is women who are considered the stabilizing knots in the social net of matrifocused society — their adat matriarchaat — who perform the ceremonies to keep the culture alive and thriving (Sanday, 212). Power for the Minangkabou is communal, not individual, arriving from balance and harmony rather than domination. This remarkable social adaptability is further evident in their religious beliefs: they are devoted to Islam as well as to their adat matriarchaat. This ability to conjugate apparently oppositional paradigms, rather than conceptually polarizing, is a major factor in both their deserved reputation for business acumen, and their success at both surviving and thriving in today’s world.
Where the Minangkabou are gender egalitarian, with both sexes having valued roles, it is Du’s assertion that the Lahu are gender equal, as in both sexes are regarded as merely two halves of a single whole. Her ethnography is compelling, achieving an excellent symbolic and social analysis as she contributes to the discussion on the various anthropological forms of social gender variance. The Lahu present, to my knowledge, a unique perspective on the fundamental relationships between women and men, asserting through their mythology, socio-political ritual, and economic organization a gender ideology based in the pervasive belief in dyadic unity as expressed through human couples. Fascinatingly, this ensures a social system in which women and men are both held to the same ethical ideal of kindness and softness, or nud; there are no inherently masculine or feminine traits or standards of beauty, let alone differing expectations of economic rights and responsibilities. This also raises the expectation of the indivisibility of married couples; the Lahu have no divorce. Consequently a married couple works together economically, with little to no gender specialization. Even during childbirth men are expected to perform household chores as needed, assist in delivery, and share in the responsibilities of raising the children, since as Du notes, “Lahu mythology declares that both sexes share an identical human nature and morality, even denying any epistemological predestination of sex differences in reproduction” (Du, 186).
Du’s ethnography is both readable and fascinatingly thought-provoking, and this is in my opinion the most valuable part of the book. Her introductory chapter, however, is somewhat perplexing, as she seems to believe that mainstream feminism regards gender-egalitarian societies as a utopian ideal rather than a present-day reality. Further, her apparent conflation of the anthropological validity of epistemological writing such as that of Germaine Greer or Simone du Beuvoir with ethnographical works by Margaret Mead or cross-cultural studies by Mary Douglas or Maria Lepowsky suggests to me a particularly skewed perception of feminist writing. However, considering that Sanday’s work appeared simultaneously with Du’s, and that information concerning the Mosuo was also emerging at that time, I find myself wondering if the author is perhaps reacting (with understandable frustration) to a predominantly androcentric Chinese university which either ignored, misrepresented, or did not understand that data. Despite this, I believe she is correct in noting that the Lahu conceptions of gender equality may equate to these supposed mainstream feminist ideals, but their cultural traditions of collectivity certainly do not match Western feminism’s desired goal of female individualism.
To me, one of the most important things I do as a scholar of women’s spirituality is open minds: my own, and that of others around me. There are a small handful of books I’ve read in my life that literally changed my world — that contained an idea so new, so radical and wonderful to me, that I had to pause a moment while my mental image of the world actually reshaped itself slightly to accommodate this amazing new concept. Off the top of my head I can think of three such books: Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu, James P. Hogan’s Voyage From Yesteryear, and Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third & Fourth Genders in Native North America.
Namu & Mathieu opened my mind to the personally astonishing thought that sexual love and raising family did not have to be irrevocably — and often damagingly — linked, as it is in my native society. Hogan’s book is essentially a fun science fiction libertarian manifesto, but it first presented me with the (at that time) mind-boggling concept of a completely gift-giving economy — such that when I found Genevieve Vaughn’s works concerning the gift economy, I was already able to wrap my head around this marvelous concept. Roscoe’s book demonstrated clearly for me that my previous assumptions regarding the straightforward physical division of humans into either biologically male or female was as false a binary as the assumption that there are only two genders.
It is because of Roscoe’s work, in fact, that I so enjoyed Du’s book. Once again I found a limitation in my thinking which was fascinatingly removed by Du’s research: a matriarchy where women are honored, but not due to any importance being attached to their particular social gender roles. Instead egalitarianism is achieved by considering the male and female to be complementary parts of a single working social unit. What the specific individuals in that social unit do is not as important as that the unit performs these actions — so with equal social approval men can be nurturing and women can be hunters, or vice versa. This is what I love so much about our species: we are so endlessly, wonderfully creative and flexible when it comes to culture!
This is why I believe it is incredibly important for us to study women-centered cultures around the world and through time: it gives us real ‘ammunition,’ so to speak, when we are faced with the old chestnut of “but this is how it’s always been!” or “if matriarchies are so wonderful, then why are they all gone now?” Both of these are statements I have been hit with, and I confess to great delight at being able to courteously and accurately refute them both. Even better, to me, was seeing the surprise and interest on the face of my listeners — I felt I’d possibly reached them somehow, and their mental worlds were now a little larger and more flexible.