The Minangkabau: Mixing Islam and Matriarchy

By Usha Alexander

Woman09 “In your marriage, who is the boss?” our driver, Arman, asked in a playfully provocative tone, like he was setting up the punchline of a joke.

My partner and I looked at each other, laughed, and shrugged. Arman belonged to the Minangkabau, the society recognized among anthropologists as the world’s largest and most stable surviving matriarchy* (though some prefer to call it a gylany, matrix, matrifocal or matricentric society, or something else to avoid conjuring images of mythical Amazons). Knowing this, I presumed his question was part of a routine entertainment for tourists.

“For us it is the woman who is boss,” he continued, predictably. “The woman has all the privileges; she owns everything. The men, we own nothing.”

Indonesia I knew that the Minangkabau, like most Indonesians, are Muslims. In May 2009, one of the first things I noticed upon arriving in their homeland—a stretch of volcanic highlands running along the western coast of Sumatra—was that a higher percentage of women here wear the hijab (here called jilbab) than did further north, near Medan and around Lake Toba. In fact, well over half of the adult women covered their hair in public. But here, as elsewhere on Sumatra, the headscarf appears to be as much a fashion statement as a covering for modesty. It’s often brightly colored or festooned with beads, sequins, rhinestones, small brooches, lace, or shimmery ribbons. Many women sport styles with a dainty sun visor in the front. Pretty much anything you can do to a hat is done to the Sumatran jilbab.

These observations, and Arman’s good humor at his lack of patrimony, made me wonder how I should understand the Minangkabau matriarchaat (their word, borrowed from the Dutch). What truce had been struck between Islam and matriarchy?


MtMerapi In the small villages surrounding Mount Marapi, which lies at the center of the Minangkabau creation myths, Arman lead us down tangled lanes lined with traditional Minangkabau homes. Many of these were great wooden structures, some as much as 300 years old, tattered or rotting in places, patched or expanded upon over the years. These traditional homes are long, each enclosing a broad rectangular hall over an empty ground floor, once used to house livestock. Their roofs are arched to suggest the horns of a buffalo. There were newer dwellings too, without the ground floor for livestock, with SUVs parked out front, satellite dishes growing like mushrooms of modernity from balconies and awnings.

Wherever we passed, Arman stopped and chatted amiably with whomever was out. There was a conspicuous absence of men in the villages, so mostly we met middle-aged women, and children. Several women graciously let us into their homes so we could take a look at the living arrangements of the rumah gadang, or traditional longhouse, which is meant to house an extended family.

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Each home is a single large, common living space, with a row of cramped, dark rooms along the back wall—bedrooms for each married woman in the family to have some privacy with her husband. Instead of what Americans would call furniture, well-used rugs, cushions, the odd wooden chest, and simple wall decorations (including posters of Bollywood stars), made the cavernous common rooms feel casual, lived in, even cozy. On one end of each longhouse was a small kitchen area, where stairs lead down to a hearth built into the dirt floor, surrounded by soot-encrusted pots and pans.

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Arman took us through some small hold plantations, where they grow spices, coffee, and cacao, among other tropical delights, in lush stands of mixed cultures that almost looked like wild jungle growth. We strolled past shimmering rice paddies and meandered between coconut palms and cool, dark, stocked fishponds. Few people were working in the fields at the time, but most of those who did were women. We stopped to investigate the workings of a coffee mill powered by a water-wheel, where two women sifted and bagged the dust-fine coffee, intended for local markets. At two other family-owned factories, perhaps a dozen sooty, sweaty women and men labored side-by-side to process the local harvests of peanuts and sugar cane. The roasted peanuts and jaggery they produced were also bound for local markets.

And all of this, Arman informed us—the lands, the produce, the homes, the small industries—belonged to the women of the clans whose lands we passed through.

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It is not that men gain no benefit from the family wealth. Men, like their sisters, remain always and inalienably members of their clan. No matter how long or far a man roams to make his living in the world, his home is with his sisters, where he regularly returns, though not to become a permanent resident. He participates essentially in the life of his mother’s household, helping to discipline, raise, and educate his sister’s children, although, after marriage, he lives in his wife’s house. And respected men within each clan or subclan are nominated and selected to hold a range of political titles.

TwoBoys Minangkabau boys leave their mother’s house as they reach pre-pubescence to sleep in shared accommodation with other boys, usually at a nearby mosque. As teenagers and young men, Minangkabau males are encouraged to go rantau, ranging out in the world to seek education (a highly held value) and fortune. As one father explained it, in Peggy Sanday’s personal and penetrating ethnography, “Young men must be sent away from the village to prove their manhood so that there will be no competition between them and their sisters.” [Sanday, 25]

Indeed, Minangkabau men and women are dispersed throughout the Indonesian Islands and beyond, and it’s their cuisine (Padang) that has come to stand for “Indonesian food.” Minangkabau openness and exposure to the wider world is often credited for the fact that many of the early agitators for Indonesian independence from the Dutch came from the Minangkabau, and today they continue to be disproportionately overrepresented in the country’s educated and leadership circles. Ideally, after gaining worldly experience, a man will return with his wife to her ancestral house, to live there along with her sisters and their children.


Carving Detail We drove through the West Sumatran countryside, admiring its verdant fertility, brimming over with foliage. Stands of jungle still cover cliffs and hillsides that are too steep to farm, coming down to the very perimeter of villages, fields, and homesteads. Every so often, we stopped in villages known for their crafts. The Minangkabau are especially known for the intricate floral designs of their woodwork. In one village, a large room was filled by some twenty men engaged in various stages of hand-carving elaborate designs into wooden panels; these would become walls and doorways for ceremonial houses. As I watched, I wondered if woodcarving and other forms of artistry are open to female participation. In another village, known for its textiles, it was women we saw weaving.

When we stopped to photograph a mosque, I asked Arman if his wife wore the jilbab. “Yes, she does. She doesn’t wear it around the house, but even if she runs out to the market, she will be sure to put it on.” He intimated that, while he would not think of forcing her to wear it, he was proud that she chose to do so.

Girls1 In the last few years, the jilbab has become required schoolwear for girls in West Sumatra, though no one makes them wear it outside of school. But there is a certain amount of social pressure to wear the scarf, which they regard as a statement of religious piety and a personal commitment to religious values and lifestyle. This seems to be an association women make for themselves, rather than one that is forced upon them. In one of many telling quotes gathered by Lyn Parker, who conducted fieldwork in Western Sumatra, a young woman explains her choice not to wear the jilbab,

“If I could, I would wear the jilbab, but my religious practice is not yet steady. There are people who wear the jilbab with mini-skirts. It’s better to get all that sorted out first. After that, then start wearing the jilbab, wearing clothes that aren’t short and tight. That is playing around with religion…. My prayers still have lots of holes in them, but I do do the full fast. The jilbab is not just a hat. Schoolkids—actually it’s compulsory now for them—but they’re not ready yet, they often take it off after school. It would be better if schools didn’t make it compulsory before girls were ready. What’s the point of covering your head if your heart is not clean! Better to have a clean heart, then cover your head. Once we can be obedient, speak well, and wear the jilbab, then we’re complete as Muslim women.” [Parker]

Woman02 Such statements characterize the struggle over wearing the jilbab almost as a matter of negotiating peer pressure, not entirely unlike the struggle to claim in-group or out-group status based on drug-use or religious commitment might be experienced by girls in other social contexts. But, however much young women may wish to embrace the jilbab, there is obvious conflict between the matriarchaat and certain Middle Eastern family values ostensibly espoused by Islam, like paternalism or even the seemingly simple injunction for a man to live apart from his wife’s sisters (considered haram).

As in any society where women are economically independent, divorce is fairly common for the Minangkabau, and can be initiated by either party. As Arman told us with concern and resigned irritation, his own sister was working on her third divorce. While the family was unhappy about her decision, she was not forbidden from it. (His family might, I imagined, finally penalize her through the ordinary anger, criticism, and passive-aggression that are a universal (if difficult) fact of family relations.) But since a child’s home life and relationships to parents and other guiding figures are clearly defined and not severely altered or broken by divorce, Minangkabau social structures offer escape for both women and men who find themselves unhappily married, without damaging their children.

Woman08 A Minangkabau woman is expected to be a virgin at the time of her first marriage, but couples may court each other and date, chastely and within the bounds of propriety, while evaluating a potential mate. However, while young people may wish to marry for love, their elders will have other motives, considering a good match one who satisfies desirable clan affiliations, wealth, status, and other factors. As one woman put it, having married four times, “The first marriage pays off our debt to our mother. We marry who we want after that.” [Sanday, 119] However, an older woman is answerable to her daughters if she chooses to remarry. Since her husband must come to live in her home, her daughters have the power to drive him away by treating him badly, if they do not approve.

Landscape20 Jeffrey Hadler, in his thoroughly researched and incisive historical ethnography, captures one kind of tension between mothers, daughters, and the expectations of matrimony in this quote by a writer in an Islamic feminist publication who rails against the practice of child marriage in 1927:

Is this sort of marriage everlasting? Don’t expect it. The husband will get sick of seeing his wife’s childish behavior, and the wife will feel trapped and try to escape from her marital bonds, even if in some inadvisable manner. So frequently we meet with women who are 20 to 25 years old, and have already been married 4 or 5 times and have 3 or 4 children from different fathers. So it is that marriage is sampled haphazardly. [from Asjraq, as quoted in Hadler, 83]

That Islamic feminist publications existed eighty years ago surprised me. But I also noticed that this writer’s objections to child marriage suggest that the practice was motivated by something other than the more usual Draconian concern for controlling a girl’s chastity, life path, and reproductive value.

An upstanding Minangkabau man is one who contributes his earned wealth both to his sisters and to his wife. In this way, what men individually acquire is brought back into the extended family. While certain financial obligations to each party may be prescribed, much is discretionary, making the waters of ego and obligation between sisters and wives tricky enough to navigate. This can only be made harder for a man with multiple wives who must be treated equally, according to the Koran. This does not sound like a recipe for harmonious marital relations, and any woman who is deeply unhappy with the arrangement can finally divorce a polygamous husband. Interestingly, some polygamous marriages do persist.

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The Minangkabau are explicitly aware of the points of conflict between Islam and the matriarchaat, and have consciously and carefully sought ways to rationalize the two systems and even bring them to cohesion. For decades during the early 19th century, they suffered a period of brutal guerilla violence, a civil war in which the stakes were the preservation of Minangkabau tradition, called adat, versus the adoption of Wahhabi Islam. The war was instigated by the violence of the Padris, lead by Tuanku Imam Bondjol, who declared jihad on the institutions of the matriarchaat and the highest ranking families of the Minangkabau nation in favor of what he considered a purer form of Islam than the one they practiced. It is important to recognize, however, that from the beginning the adat traditionalists were no less committed to Islam than their rivals; the salient difference was that they believed it was essential to find a way to reconcile the belief systems, rather than jettison one or the other.

Dutch colonialists, who until this time had not ventured deeply into West Sumatra, entered the fray in 1820. Lured there by Minangkabau wealth, which had been rapidly increasing in the preceding decades, primarily through local production of gold, coffee, pepper, and cassia, they saw an opportunity in the Padri conflict. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) signed trade treaties with the Minangkabau royal families and sent troops into the hills to fight against the Padri factions. Of course, the Dutch, themselves possessed of a belief in divinely ordained patriarchy, also considered the Minangkabau social system barbaric and contrary to god’s designs for humanity; they had no intention of preserving it.

StatueBonjol What followed was a bloody and protracted war of shifting fortunes and allegiances. Hadler tells us that in 1833 the Tuanku recanted his Wahhabist position, declaring, instead, that Islamic law (sharia) and adat must co-exist. Publicly surrendering, he made restitution for the harm he had caused and sought peace with the traditionalists. Thereafter, the Tuanku was incited by Dutch insult to lead his Padri warriors alongside the adat traditionalist and fight the Dutch occupation. The final cost was the defeat of the united Minangkabau by the Dutch in 1838. For his valiant efforts against the Dutch and the bravery of his recantation, the Tuanku is memorialized with a statue in the center of Bukittinggi, the commercial hub of the Minagkabau region.

But from all this cultural upheaval and mayhem came a resolute and articulate defense of the matriarchaat. The Minangkabau had defended their tradition from Islamic reformers for some two hundred years, even sacrificing their lives against the Padri. And with the Tuanku’s change of heart, an actual policy had emerged, wherein sharia was said to preside over matters of religion, and adat was to preside over matters of society—a separation of domains. By the time the Dutch were in a position to impose their colonial reformations on the matriarchaat, a mature and confident cultural resistance prevailed. Women even stepped into the breach created by the conflict to expand their role and redefine some aspects of tradition that had once restricted them.

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According to Sanday, the Minangkabau describe their culture as being made up of three equally essential and interwoven strands, including their ancient cultural customs and beliefs (adat), Islam, and the state. Where the three strands cross, they try to locate the point of balance or to bring them into alignment. It helps that their worldview is not uncomfortable with duality, contradiction, and difference, as expressed by one Minangkabau man:

“Adat teaching is oriented to human morals and feelings. You do not accuse someone directly. You do not criticize directly. You do so with proverbs. It is very rude to point out mistakes directly. There should be no force in decision making. There should be mutual understanding. In Minangkabau democracy there is no room for rivalries. Differences of opinion are regarded as normal—consensus arrives through discussion. About differences of opinion there is a proverb: Crossing wood in the hearth makes the fire glow.” [Sanday, 20]

To ameliorate conflict between adat and Islam, the Minangkabau do what people usually do: 1) engage in moral reasoning to find the best compromise; 2) delineate the conflicting realms such that they do not coincide; and 3) rationalize, deny, double-think, and reconstruct memories and histories. The reasoning of one pious man quoted by Sanday struck me as inventive:

“Why was Adam sent into the world by God? To accompany Eve. So Eve is just as important as Adam. Women play a very important role. Without women, life would be impossible. So for these reasons women are given more privileges.” [Sanday, 19]

In other words, he describes what is a complete inversion of the Abrahamic creation myth as I know it. But then this is the function of myths: they are living stories, able to be renewed with every telling.

No doubt the unusual character of Islam in West Sumatra is due to the unusual cultural substrate that it encountered when it arrived here, so far from its origins. This new environment was different enough, and solid enough, that it changed the very character of the religion as the Minangkabau adapted it to accommodate their worldview. This is, of course, what happens in every case, when an established culture integrates a foreign belief system. What makes this case surprising, then, perhaps has less to do with the mixture of Islam and matriarchy, and more to do with my received notions of Islam as an inflexibly misogynistic tradition.

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* Matriarchy, here, is not defined as the mirror image of patriarchy, in which women dominate men in the identical roles and modes typically considered masculine in patriarchal societies. Rather, matriarchy is a system in which women are considered to be at the center of the social and economic system. For an excellent discussion on this matter, which exceeds the scope of this piece, see Sanday. For another perspective, note that Hadler responds to Sanday, saying, “I agree that this is the sort of society we find in highland West Sumatra. On the other hand, I am not prepared to dismiss patriarchal political and religious movements in West Sumatra as un-Minangkabau. Islam aside, Minangkabau culture contains male-dominated elements.” [Hadler, 7]


West Sumatra on (by Namit Arora). The page has many more pictures with captions.


1. Jeffrey Hadler, Muslims and Matriarchs: Cultural Resilience in Indonesia through Jihad and Colonialism, Cornell University Press, 2008
2. Lyn Parker, To Cover the Aurat: Veiling, Sexual Morality and Agency among the Muslim Minangkabau, Indonesia, 2008
3. Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy, Cornell University Press, 2002
4. Fiony Sukmasari and Amir M.S., Traditional Wedding of Minangkabau, Citra Harta Primia, Jakarta 2009

Usha Alexander, writer, instructional designer, and erstwhile student of anthropology and natural sciences, has lived in four countries and visited over a dozen others. She counts her US Peace Corps service as a science teacher in Vanuatu as one of the formative experiences of her adult life. Though currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, she carries her home within her self. Only the Eyes Are Mine is the title of her first novel.