Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy

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Cornell University Press, 2002.


“Peggy Sanday has long been a dissenting voice in the debates about the universality of male dominance. This pioneering feminist anthropologist now gives substance to her arguments, redefining matriarchy and revealing the power of maternal symbols through an accessible ethnography of a famous matrilineal community.” Lila Abu-Lughod. Anthropology and Women’s Studies. Columbia University

“This fascinating, richly documented work is an invaluable contribution not only to anthropology but to a better understanding of human possibilities. It dispels the notion that society always has been and always will be male dominated. It shows that societies where women have power are not mirror images of patriarchy but societies where both women and men benefit from an ethos of peace and accommodation. The importance of these findings cannot be overemphasized in a world where relations based on domination rather than partnership threaten us, our children, and our future.” Riane Eisler, Author of The Chalice and the Blade and The Power of Partnership

“The Minangkabau of Sumatra have long garnered academic and popular interest as a prominently matrilineal society; in fact, the largest and most stable in the world, according to Sanday (Univ. of Pennsylvania). In this important and useful ethnography, Sanday provides the closely observed, everyday details of how such a system works and considers the bases for Minangkabau cultural practices in founding origin myths and proverbs, conceptions of cosmological and village space, and key life cycle rituals. Sanday foregrounds this particular reading of Minangkabau culture in terms of the larger question of matriarchy. Her contribution lies in her sustained rejection of dualist models of gender and power–matriarchy as the mirror image of patriarchy–and in her sensitive treatment of how males uphold matrilineal adat (custom). Those in search of a thorough treatment of feminist and anthropological theories of gender and difference may be disappointed, while those looking for a clear and engaging treatment of gender in a matrilineal society will be rewarded. Likewise, those interested in the role of Islam may find this part of the book thin, but the inclusion of post-reformasi changes is welcome. Of interest to anthropologists, students of kinship, and area studies specialists; useful for undergraduate collections on cross-cultural gender issues.” — S. Ferzacca, University of Lethbridge, CHOICE, 2003.

An Excerpt

Cornell University, 2002


Women sitting at the center of Mother Village, Sungai Talang


It was late, already dark, on the evening of July 6, l996. It was obvious from the bags of newly threshed rice stored in the living room of the house that we were not expected. From my seat in the back of the Jeep that brought us from the coastal city of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, I saw Wik grab a broom and start sweeping when she realized who was pulling into her driveway.

“Ibu! Ibu! Ibu!” Agoes yelled pointing at me and Serge with delight as we walked in the front door. His little body stood momentarily still, arched like a streak of lightning staring up at me in sheer amazement. Over and over he yelled to his mother, Ibu Wik. “Amak, Ibu Peggy, Ibu Peggy.”

Eggi, Agoes’ older sister, materialized from somewhere in the house with a broad smile on her face. I embraced her gently in the Minankgabau way of familiar greeting, inhaling as I touched my cheek to hers. Because Agoes was still a little afraid of me, I offered him the more formal greeting. Leaning down to his level I stuck out my palm. At first hesitant, he stopped just long enough to extend his little hand making it stiff as a board. We touched palms and then drew our hands back to our hearts. I liked this greeting because of the emphasis on the heart.

The look on the faces of Agoes and Eggi expressed what I felt on returning to Belubus — joy at being once again in my adopted home; anticipation at what would transpire during this visit; excitement at the prospect of catching up with the family. I could see how Eggi and Agoes had grown in the nine months of my absence. Eggi was now a girlish nine and Agoes had left the toddler stage behind.

Eggi was named after me in July of l987 after her birth in the house at which we had just arrived, my home during our visits to the village. Eggi’s full name is Peggi Sandi. This version of my name was chosen by Eggi’s mother, Wik, her great aunt, Ibu Idar, and her aunt, Ibu Ida. The honor these women conferred by bestowing my name on Eggi transformed me from anthropologist to family member.

For years, both before and after Eggi’s birth, I returned to Belubus on an annual basis to learn as much as I could about the customs the Minangkabau people refer to as “matriarchal.” Belubus is a village of some 1100 inhabitants located in the highlands of the province of West Sumatra in Indonesia. This is one of hundreds of villages in the Minangkabau heartland connected by a shared sense of being part of a common world, founded centuries ago on the slopes of Mt. Merapi, the impressive volcanic mountain that rises majestically on the horizon wherever one travels.


Statue of Bundo Kanduang, Minangkabau Queen Mother, Payakumbuh, West Sumatra

The Minangkabau are the largest and most stable matrilineal society in the world today. Numbering some 4 million people in West Sumatra, the traditional homeland of their culture, the Minangkabau are the fourth largest ethnic group in the archipelago. They are a proud people well known in Indonesia for their literary flair, democratic leanings, business acumen, and “matriarchal” ways. On my first visit I encountered many people who proudly referred to their society as a matriarchaat, using the Dutch term for matriarchy. I understood that this term was adopted from Dutch colonial officials who used it in the l9th and early 20th centuries to describe the Minangkabau. However, it has long since been incorporated into the local lexicon so that today the term operates as an ethnic label marking the Minangkabau as distinct among Indonesia’s 300 ethnic groups.

This book is a memoir of an intellectual and personal journey into the heart of matriarchy as I came to know it in West Sumatra generally and in Eggi’s village in particular. It is a tale about a special relationship, a special people, and a special place. The journey began in l981. Between the years l981 and l999, with the exception of five years between 1990 and 1994, I returned every year to West Sumatra. Most of those years I lived in Belubus. I was alone until l988 when my husband, Serge, joined me for the first time. After that, he accompanied me every year and Eggi’s village became our summer home.

The Minangkabau matriarchaat deserves our attention because it has managed to accommodate patrilineal influences for centuries brought by immigrant kings, traders and religious proselytizers looking to establish a base in the gold and pepper rich regions of the Minangkabau heartland. At the end of the 20th century, the Minangkabau people are aware of the threat to their “matriarchal customs” posed by the explosion of modernity that made Indonesia one of the top developing economies in the last part of the 20th century. Today, tradition and modernity live in visible coexistence in the cities of West Sumatra. Malls, universities, banks, and book stores share the same street with traditional market places in the capital city of Padang. The colorful cities of the highlands attract tourists from all over the world. Buses link most villages to the cities. Satellite dishes beam CNN, Asian MTV, Indonesian soap operas, Japanese and Indian movies to TV’s in village homes and food stalls. All of these influences filtered into Belubus once the village was wired for electricity in the early l990’s and got a road that was passable during the rainy season. How these diverse influences are accommodated in village life is part of my story.

My journey into the heart of the Minangkabau matriarchaat suggests that the time is long overdue for challenging the Western definition of matriarchy as rule by women. This definition has had the unfortunate consequence of producing over a century of squabbling over a vision that could only have been crafted through a Western patriarchal lense. From the time of the first delineation of the Western definition of matriarchy in the l9th century, its meaning was fashioned by analogy with “patriarchy” or “father right,” not by reference to ethnographic studies of female-oriented social forms. Because patriarchy developed as a code word for paternal tribal rule based on Biblical sources, matriarchy was defined as its mirror image, patriarchy’s female twin.

Armed with such a definition, it is not surprising that the countless scholars who went looking for “primitive matriarchies” during the 20th century turned up nothing. It is impossible to find something that has been defined out of existence from the start. Defining a female-oriented social form as the mirror image of a male form is like saying that women’s contribution to society and culture deserves a special label only if women act like men. Furthermore, to look narrowly at secular rule in one domain of life to the exclusion of all other domains is to ignore much that is going on in the traditional societies of the human record.

Given anthropology’s dedication to seeing things “from the native’s point of view,” throughout my anthropological career I have been disheartened by the number of distinguished colleagues who stepped up to the plate to take an intellectual swing at an empirically empty social form. Finding no society where females as a class ruled like men, mainstream anthropologists proclaimed the universality of male dominance and struck the word matriarchy from their lexicon.

The excision of matriarchy from the anthropological canon on the grounds that women don’t rule obscures the dominant role played by maternal meanings in many societies. To neglect this role because women do not flood the domain of male politics, despite the fact that they play a central role in other ways, has always struck me as androcentric bordering on misogyny.

A number of feminist writers within and outside anthropology are not so myopic in their vision. Many understand the social implications of maternal meanings and refer to a female ethos in social relations which emphasizes love, duty, and common commitment to a sacred tradition. Following anthropology’s lead, most of these writers avoid using the term matriarchy choosing instead replacement terms like gylany, matrix, matristic, matri-centered, or matri-focal to avoid any connotation of gynecocracy. With respect to the relationship between the sexes in these cases, these scholars speak of the sexes as being on an equal footing, egalitarian, or “linked” rather than “ranked,” in a “partnership” rather than a “dominator” relationship. This characterization fits the Minangkabau as many of the anthropologists who have studied them have been at pains to point out.

I prefer to retain the term matriarchy out of courtesy and respect for Minangkabau usage. As an anthropologist I see my task as one of understanding what the Minangkabau mean before devising a new term. I hope the reader will agree with my conclusion that rather than abolishing the word it should be refurbished. Had the original definition been devised based on what was known of female-oriented societies in the l9th century the word matriarchy would have had a very different genealogy in anthropological usage. In the interest of starting from ground zero, the chronicle of my journey includes the kind of ethnographic analysis that might have led to a different conceptualization of matriarchy.

How the Minangkabau conceive of their world and think humans should behave in it along with the practices and rituals they have devised to uphold this world operates as a central theme in the story I tell. My experience of the centrality of women in this world at the end of the 20th century is the stage from which I speak. Based on this experience, I suggest that the term matriarchy is relevant in societies where maternal symbols are linked to social practices influencing the lives of both sexes and women play a central role in these practices.

At the least, I hope this book conveys the respect for women that characterizes Minangkabau culture and permeates social relations in villages like Belubus. At the most, I hope that the reader will finish these pages with a comprehension of the stability of the Minangkabau “matriarchaat” in social life and an appreciation of the world view on which it is based. If this comprehension gives the reader an incentive to rethink female-oriented webs of significance in the societies of the human record including more patriarchal settings I will have accomplished my goal….


Peggy Sanday (l) and Peggi Sandi (r), Aug. 1999