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Minangkabau women: Change in a matrilineal society - article ; n°1 ; vol.13, pg 79-103


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Archipel - Année 1977 - Volume 13 - Numéro 1 - Pages 79-103
25 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1977
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Language English
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Joke Schrijvers
Els Postel-Coster
Minangkabau women: Change in a matrilineal society
In: Archipel. Volume 13, 1977. pp. 79-103.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Schrijvers Joke, Postel-Coster Els. Minangkabau women: Change in a matrilineal society. In: Archipel. Volume 13, 1977. pp. 79-
doi : 10.3406/arch.1977.1328
Introducion. (*)
Before visiting Minangkabau (West Sumatra) on a short fieldwork
trip in 1973, we stayed in Jakarta for some time to get the necessary
permits and to perform some documentary work. The amount of
Minangkabau immigrants in that metropolis is estimated at some
500.000 (Mochtar Nairn, 1971). Their presence is visible in the many
"rumah makan Padang" (Minangkabau restaurants), which are spread
over the city. The immigrants will also be found in a range of different
occupations, from newspaper-seller to university professor.
Although the were not the specific subject of our study,
we naturally tried to get into contact whenever we happened to come
across a person who came from the area that had already interested
us for some years. Looking for Minangkabau novels in a small
bookshop in Jakarta, we were addressed by the owner. Hearing of
our planned trip to West Sumatra he was beaming with joy : that was
the right thing to do ; it was his homeland, and he could tell us it
was the most interesting part of Indonesia. People there were still
living in matriarchy !
(*) In this article we have made use of data collected during a fieldwork trip in
1973. We want to express our gratitude to Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, who
was so kind as to provide us with some very recent information.Her contribution
is mainly to be found in the third section. 80
Politely we showed our interest. Did this mean that power was with
the women ? Oh no, he hastened to answer, it should be understood
as rule of inheritance, established long ago by a famous ancestor called
Datuk Perpatih nan Sabatang. There followed a lesson of the type
we would hear very often afterwards : on formal rules and their roots
in tradition, leaving us completely in the dark on what interested us
most : the actual role relations between presentday Minangkabau
women and men.
The term Minangkabau originally refers to the central highlands
North East of Padang, in the midst of the isle of Sumatra. Although
this part is still regarded as the true source of Minangkabau culture,
the area designed by this name is now much wider, covering the
whole of the province of West Sumatra, including the coastal region.
According to tradition, this whole area has been populated by
emigrants from the highlands, who gradually spread over the
country. This, indeed, is one of the ideal patterns of behaviour, for
young men in particular : to roam about and see the world outside
one's own village without however loosing contact with one's family
and place of birth.
Minangkabau culture is characterized by a matrilineal family system,
the idea of which is cherished not only by our bookseller, but by many
others as well, as the nucleus of their cultural identity — although
it is felt as a burden at times. In connection with this system there
exists a whole body of rules, traditions and beliefs commonly called
adat (x), which finds its expression in hundreds of proverbs and
sanyings. Minangkabau adat is mainly concerned with the matrilineal
family system and its implications for behaviour patterns and socio
political organization.
Disregarding for the moment the many local variations, the social
organization may be briefly described as follows :
The largest social units are the suku, or matrilineal clans. Their unity
merely consists of a common name : one suku is usually widely spread
over the country, but there is no organization linking its members
together. A child become a member of its mother's suku at birth. The
suku is not strictly exogamous. A member of the suku Bodi, for
instance, may take a partner from the same clan as long as he, or she,
The concept of adat is not typical for Minangkabau. It is used throughout
Indonesia to denote local traditions and customary law. 81
is not from the same village. This is not felt as incestuous, although
a clan chief told us that an extra ceremony was required at such a
At the village level, the suku are real groups, exogamous and leaded
by a male chief (penghulu}. Ideally, there are four suku in each
village, each living in its own quarters. In practice this number may
differ. The penghulu of the different suku together form a council
that formerly ruled the village. The villages used to have a high
degree of autonomy. There was little central authority and each
village could develop its own style in the common adat tradition.
Since the beginning of this century Minangkabau gradually became
part of greater organizational units : first the colonial government
and later the national Indonesian State. In this process the villages
lost much of their autonomy, and the power of the penghulu demi-
nished. Although not enough data are available to be quite explicit
on the position of the penghulu at present, it seems safe to state that
they mainly decide on family affairs, marriages and matters of
inheritance and common property.
In the village the suku are divided into smaller units, the indig
enous name for which is derived from the Minangkabau word for womb.
We will refer to these as "entended family". This group consists of
one or more women, their married and unmarried daughters and the
young children of the latter. The members of an entended family
traditionally lived together in a longhouse : the famous Minangkabau
house with the "horns" at both sides. Head of the family is one of
the eldest brothers of the mother, or grand-mother. Mamak is the
general name for mother's brother : one of them is chosen as the head
of the house. His sister's children are his kemanakan.
Boys were not supposed to live in their mother's house after the age
mens' of 7 or house 8 years. also By used that for time religious they began instruction, sleeping until in they the surau, married a
and ''home" had was access an to ambiguous their wife's one house. for a man. Even Although after that, he the slept notion in his of
wife's house, as a mamak he kept his obligations to his mother
sisters and sisters' children. His regular presence in their house was
required. If he went to his wife too early in the evening, he was
even ridiculed. (Korn, 1941). When old and sick he was taken back
to his .sister's house, to die and be buried in the ancestral ground.
This uncertainty about what is home is often thought to bear a
relation to the "mercmtau"-pattern, the traditional migration of young
men mentioned above. Although the idea of merantau is also known
from other parts of Indonesia, without being connected with matrilocal 82
residence, it seems probable that it has been reinforced by the
ambiguous position of men.
Contrary to this, women were the stable factors in society. They kept
living in the house in which they were born, with their own family.
Only when the extended family became too large, it was split up, and
a new house was built near the old one. The traditional Minangkabau
house is divided lenghtwise into two parts : in front is a huge
rectangular room covering the whole frontispiece. This is the daily
living and reception part of the house. Behind this are several smaller
rooms : one for each daughter with her husband and children, and a
kitchen which is the common domain of the women of the house.
The house is built on a piece of land owned by the extended family.
Further common property of the family are ricefields and certain
ancient heirlooms. It is not allowed to sell any of these, except in
highly specific cases. It is the sacred property of the extended family,
called harto pusako. In contrast to this there is a category of individually
onwed property, or harto pencarian (literally : acquired property) : a
person's earnings from trade or wages, and the land used for cash
cropping. A man is free to give of this harto pencarian to his own
children, while the harto pusako will always remain the common
property of his kemanakan.
Obviously, the harto pencarian mainly spring from the modern
sectors of society. Ever since the introduction of the money economy to
Minangkabau in the beginning of this century, their relative importance
has grown. The end of the matrilineal system was even foretold by
Schrieke (1955, first published 1928), on the supposition that its
economic basis, the common pusako property, was about to di
sappear. This is not what actually happened. Although the matrilineal
institutions lost part of their economic and political functions, they
are by no means extinct. Much of what has been described above in
the past tense, might have been written in the present, particularly
in regard with the situation in rural areas.
Women In the adat system.
In spite of the fact that Minangkabau as the greatest matrilineal
society in the world has arisen the interest of social scientists for a
long time, surprisingly little is known about sex roles and the relations
between women and men. Anthropological studies, as well as treatises
on adat by indigenous experts, nearly exclusively take the man's side
as their viewpoint. Enough has been written, p.e., on the position of
a man in his mother's, resp. his wife's house, but hardly anything on
the position of women and their influence in decision making. 83
Taking the life cycle in a typical adat milieu, we may tentatively
draw a picture of a woman's position in different periods of her life,
in a typical adat milieu. As a baby, a Minangkabau girl is most
welcome to her parents and the wider family of which she forms a
part. She is the one to continue the matrilineal family : the more
girls the stronger it will be. According to Mitchell (1969) not much
difference is made between boys and girls before the age of 7. Both
grow up in a loving and intimate sphere. After that age, girls were
much more under their family's control than boys. First of all they
were trained to become mothers and housekeepers, to be able to cook
and sow.
The female hero of a Minangkabau novel (Pamuntjak, 1927) is a
modern girl who is working as a teacher. But she "did not forget
about the obligations and the work of women", and so she spent her
free time at home sowing and embroidering, thereby arousing the
admiration of the male hero, who was to become her bridegroom.
A girl's chastity is cautiously guarded. She should be shy and modest
in the presence of boys. With her brothers and father there is
according to Mitchell, a kind of avoidance relation ; she may not
appear in public with one of them. (Mitchell, 133 ff.) She spends a
great part of her time in her own house, among her mother and
sisters, with whom conflicts may arise easily by jealousy and mutual
Marriage was traditionally arranged by the older generation. The
mamak had to give his consent, but the parents, and notably the
mother of the girl also took initiatives. Ideally the marriage should
be with a cross cousin, preferably a father's sister's son. Although
such a marriage is still referred to with respect and admiration,
its frequency is probably very low nowadays. Another requirement
was that both partners should be from the same village. This
ideal pattern is still clearly in force. In several places the council
of penghulu expressed its preference for such marriages. Many
informants told us this was the best marriage, although they were
no longer prepared to force their own children into it if they
woud make another choice for themselves. Minangkabau girls used to
be married out at an early age, partly no doubt to avoid the danger
of intimate relations before marriage. The unmarried state is an unusal
one for grown up women. If they are single, it is practically always
the result of divorce or death of the husband.
Although exact statistical data are missing, divorce is evidently high
in Minangkabau (Mochtar Nairn, 1971). The husband is an honoured
guest in the house of his wife, but he is also, according to a popular 84
saying, "like a bit of ash on top of a pole", and thus may easily be
blown away. Without being actually divorced, many women are alone
in the rural areas, as their husbands have gone "to the rantau", abroad,
to earn their money in trade or occupations. As a rule, they return
at least once every year, but some stay out for even longer periods.
The area has also long been known for a high rate of polygyny : 87
per 1.000 in 1934, and 83 per 1.000 in 1968 (De Josselin de Jong,
1975), the highest in Indonesia. This may seem a strange feature in
a matrilineal system with matrilocal residence. So in fact,
that the combination has been marked as an impossibility by one
anthropologist writing on kinship (Fox, 1967) (2). In the Minangkabau
setting, however, where a man is already used to have obligations in
more than one house viz. his mother's and his wife's), it is not even so
anomalous as it might seem at first sight. The husband may visit
each wife in turn, p.e. for a few days every week.
Having no children is as sad and shameful for a woman in Minang
kabau culture as anywhere. If there are no daughters in her house
this line of the family will become extinct, to the disappointment of
all concerned. The little rooms in the back will stay empty, and she
may have to live all alone in the big house when she is old. Or she
may be overruled by her sisters and their daughters and have to be
content with a modest place amidst the nieces. If she has no sons to
take the leading positions in the house and the village, her family
will become less influential, and the titles reserved for the men of
the matrilineage will remain unused, or "folded up", as it is called.
If, however, a woman has a number of children and is healthy enough
to work hard in the fields and in trade, middle age probably offers
the best opportunities to self actualization. She may demand respect
from her children and their spouses ; protection and financial support her brothers ; love, financial and labour support from her
husband. Besides taking part in the management of the family rice-
fields, she may earn her own money by selling fruit and vegetables
(2) Fox' explanation runs as follows: Although sororal polygyny would be
compatible with matrilocal residence "general polygyny would not work
with matrilocal residence. This is the system in which a man has several wives
who are not sisters — so they would be drawn from several groups. Now he
could manage to go around and "visit" them in their matrilocal homes, but it is
obviously more convenient for him (our italics) to have them all around him.
Once circumstances permit or encourage general polygyny, then the doom of
matriliny is spelt. Only virilocal residence can accomodate such a system".
(1967: 111).
One could hardly think of a better example of a viricentric approach leading
astray. 85
on the market. Although many uncertainties are left (her brother or
son may squander the harto pusako, her husband may turn to another
wife, or stay out in the rantau, her sisters may cause her trouble),
she is at least sure to keep her own place in the house and to be
cared for during old age.
A middle aged woman, then, is often a person of importance in the
house and the family. But she has also learned that she is not supposed
to raise her voice in public. The men are trained in making pidato's
(public speeches), and fulfil the traditional offices of family heads
and village leaders. The relative position of both sexes is neatly
demonstrated in the traditional Minangkabau house : the woman's
domain is the back of the house : the separate rooms and the
kitchen. The men's part is the big front veranda, which is used
as reception room and meeting place. Women are associated with the
small circle of the family, the village ground, with continuity and
traditional wisdom. Men with public life, politics, the rantau, change
and individual performance.
So far we have mainly viewed Minangkabau society from the side of
adat. But already, more than four centuries ago, Islam, with its strong
patriarchal tradition, has penetrated the area. Nearly all Minangkabau
are Muslims at least nominally. West Sumatra has been a stronghold
of Islam in a strict and fundamentalistic form since the beginning of
the 19th century.
In certain respects adat and Islam have joined hands ; integration
has taken place to such an extent that it is often hard to know where the
roots of a specific part of tradition lie. In other respects, however, the
two are incompatible. Neither of them has given way to the other,
and so they continued to exist side by side. The differences became
particularly acute when, in the beginning otf this century, Islamic
reform movements, originated in the Middle East, reached West
Sumatra. These movements were typically fundamentalistic as well
as modernistic. Islam had to be purged of local traditions by returning
to its true sources : the Koran and the Holy Tradition. It should
arise in a new form, free from magic and olds rituals, and fitting the
spiritual climate of a modern world. The Muhammadiyah, and its
female counterpart the Aisyiyah, founded in Java in 1912 and 1917
respectively, were the main organizations promoting the new trends
in religion. 86
Rationalism and individualism were ingredients of the new movement,
and for West Sumatra this caused some friction with the collectivism
of adat. Man, according to Islam, is responsible to Allah alone, not
to the community to which he belongs. Likewise, Islam can recognize
only individual property, no communal rights of the family. The only
type of family acceptable in Islamic law is the patriarchal, possibly
polygynous one, with the father as the responsible head. Evidently a
woman's right to the protection of her brother for herself and her
children cannot be recognized in this context. Although in both systems
women belong to the sphere of the house and the family, having no
access to public positions, obviously they are much more dependent
in Islam than in the Minangkabau adat system, being part of their
father's, resp. their husbands' property. According to adat, they are
honoured as the guardians of the matrilineal family, whose property
they may help to manage.
Polygyny, although it may have been practized in the area even before
the penetration of Islam, certainly got a new legitimacy by it. In the
view of Minangkabau people polygyny clearly belongs to the sphere
of Islam. One of our informants, who was an outspoken protagonist of
adat, expressly condemned polygyny as an Islamic custom running
counter to adat. Its patrilocal form, with several wives living in their
common husband's house, never existed in West Sumatra. In the
villages, of course, women have to stay on their own family's land.
But even in the towns, women have their own houses, while the
husband is visiting each in turn. Divorce, according to Islam, is the
exclusive right of the man, who may simply dismiss his wife by
pronouncing the right formula (talak) three times. (3). Rights of
inheritance are definitely less favourable to women in Islam than in
the adat law. The extreme segregation of the sexes in many Islamic
countries, moreover, limits the opportunities for women to earn their
own money.
In Indonesia, segregagion of the sexes never assumed an extreme
shape. Women, along with men, had to fulfil their tasks in agri
culture. Besides that, they usually sold some of their products on
local markets, which gave them a certain degree of economic and
social freedom.
(3) In Indonesia this rule is often mitigated by using the "conditional talak", that
is pronounced by the husband right at the wedding. He declares p.e. that his
wife is repudiated in case of maltreatment by himself. This is one of the
concessions Islam has had to make to a culture less strictly patriarchal than that
of the 7th century Arabic Bedouins. 87
Still, it is clear that in those sectors of society most influenced by
Islam, segregation is much stronger than in the secular ones. Coeduc
ation is normal on government schools, but in religious education
the sexes are separated rather rigorously. In those circles the
habit of "kurung", (litterally cage, seclusion), is applied to girls of
marriageable age. At the initiative of the Aisyiyah the veil, covering
the hair and neck, was introduced for Indonesian women who had
never known such a custom before. There isi perhaps no area where
so many girls and women adhere to this custom as in West Sumatra.
Although the official view is that adat and Islam are harmoniously
going side by side, both being equally important elements of Minang
kabau culture, conflicts are practically unavoidable. Adat has been
under severe attacks of modernist Islam leaders ; it has defended
itself by strengthening its organizational structure. A certain com-
partementalization has been the result of lasting disharmony, some
sectors of society conforming more closely to Islam, others to adat
Besides adat and Islam there is a third principle Minangkabau people
generally mention as a characteristic of their culture : the ideal of
progress, expressed in the Indonesian word kemajuan. This notion is
closely connected with the modernization process and all that it
entails : education, an urban style of life, and a high degree of
technical and organizational development. According to Taufik Ab
dullah (1971), the idea of kemajuan first took shape in the circles of
the coastal aristocracy in the end of the 19th century. People founded
Dutch style clubs and periodicals. They propagated the idea of
progress and pleaded for a modern educational system. Although
they certainly did not want to imitate the western style of life
as a whole (notably the western way of free social intercourse
betwen the sexes seemed repulsive to them), the Dutch school system,
Dutch literature and Dutch cultural societies were their main frame
of reference. The summit of education to be reached by the happy
few in those days was a university study in Holland.
The ideal of kemajuan, although first and foremost promoted by a
secular elite, did not for long remain their exclusive concern. The
idea also took shape in adat circles and, still later, in those of Islamic
modernism. One of the elements all those different expressions of the
desire for progress had in common, was the emphasis on better shool