Life Among the Minangkabau of Indonesia
Peggy Reeves Sanday
Women Centeredness in Minangkabau Symbolism
What is “female rule”?
The Minangkabau refer to their social system as a “matriarchate.” By this term they mean female rule in marriage and family matters as well as in property customs. Since these activities occupy the physical and social energy of almost all of daily life, there is some truth to the notion that women rule Minangkabau society. For example, husbands move into the household of their wives after marriage where he is expected to contribute his labor and income. Women inherit the ancestral rice and farm lands along with the houses of the older women. Women manage the proceeds of the land, with the cooperation of their brothers and the senior males of their matrilineal clan.
Conceived in Western terms, the Minangkabau matriarchate is best defined as “mother right,” not female rule. Neither male nor female rule is possible according to Minang social philosophy because of their belief that decision making should be by consensus. Although differences of opinion are regarded as normal, consensus is the goal of all deliberations. About differences of opinion the Minangkabau have a proverb: Crossing wood in the hearth makes the fire glow. This notion of crossing wood is repeated in the idea that males and females complement one another–like the skin and nail of the finger tip– I was told. The consequence is a peaceable, nearly violence free society with a remarkable egalitarian philosophy undergirding the activities of everyday life.
Although they do not fulfill the promise of matriarchy as we in the West have traditionally defined this term, the Minangkabau social philosophy deserves our attention for the emphasis it places on achieving balance with nature and resolving differences among humans. In this philosophy I found the answers to the original questions I posed. Women are given privileges and power because of the belief that humans must follow the natural rhythms of nature to nurture social life. The unfurling, expansion, and growth in nature must be our teacher the Minangkabau say in their most famous proverb. In social terms this means that because children depend on their mothers, both must be protected and strengthened through social institutions to ensure the healthy flow of human life from one generation to the next.
The most visible representation of the female centeredness of Minangkabau daily life is the matrilineal household where several generations of women of the same matrilineal line live with their families. The house built according to the traditional style is called the big house or “rumah gadang.” The distinctive upswing of the roof is said to represent the horns of a buffalo. This house is the major symbol of Minangkabau ethnic identity. The importance of the buffalo horns is seen in the etymology of the word Minangkabau which means “victorious buffalo.”
In addition to the shape of the traditional roof, women wear headdresses in the shape of buffalo horns. Here is a picture of Eggi (age nine) dressed for a wedding ceremony in the village wearing the horn-shaped head dress. This head dress must be worn by at least some young girls or women for all ceremonial occasions. Without such distinctive clothes worn by women or the special foods prepared by them (to be eaten by guests or exchanged with other women) no ceremony would be complete according to Minangkabau custom.
The representations that facilitate social interaction among the four major clan groupings in Eggi’s village are found in the ceremonial and exchange activities of women. Elaborately made foods borne on the heads of lines of colorfully dressed women flow along the roads and pathways of the village almost weekly during certain times of the year breaking the routine of everyday life. Men are closely involved in these activities, but more often as workers and guests rather than as visible, front stage actors. This is not to say that men do not play a central role at some point in a ceremony. One can say that the food prepared and exchanged by women frames and structures a ceremony, gives it its house so to speak, while the ritual speeches made by men during the ceremony anchor the activity in customary law (called “adat.”) No ceremony would be complete without the work and displays of both sexes. However, in terms of sheer energy and hardwork as well as in their presence during the ceremony women play the dominant role. It would be quite possible to hold a ceremony with a few men, but no ceremony would be successful without the input and attendance of many women.
The Victorious Buffalo: Minangkabau Identity
The Minangkabau tie with a political center is encoded in the story they tell about the meaning of the word Minangkabau. The “victorious buffalo” refers to a fight between a Minangkabau and a Javanese buffalo for sovereignty in the area–a fight which the Minangkabau claim to have won–hence the name. Interestingly, the struggle pitted a baby buffalo (the Minangkabau combatant) against a powerful, bull buffalo (the Javanese combatant). The baby buffalo won through a ruse. Starved for weeks before the fight, the baby buffalo ran out on the battlefield with knives attached to his head and went straight for the underside of the surprised bull buffalo looking for milk and gored him to death. The metaphors at work in this tale are all too obvious–the powerful, patrilineally oriented Javanese social system tricked by the weaker, matrilineally oriented Minangkabau. It is interesting how the theme of nurture is turned through this story into superior strength in political conflict.
According to local explanations of this story, the fight between the Javanese and the Minangkabau buffalo was in part a struggle over who would inherit the land and the ancestral titles when the area was colonized by a Javanese prince in the l3th century–his male descendants or those of the local women he married. Whether or not this story is true, and no one knows for sure, it is interesting to note that the symbolism of buffalo horns is associated with matrilineality and women.
The meaning of the name “victorious buffalo” illustrates an ever present reality for Indonesia’s many ethnic groups. Few groups have been entirely isolated from a larger whole. Today, the activities of the nation-state reach into every village. Before Indonesian independence there was a long period of colonization by the Dutch and a few years of domination by the Japanese. Prior to European colonization, polities emanating from Java, eastern Sumatra, or Ceylon (in the case of the Minangkabau) affected local life.