Eggi’s Village

Reconsidering the Meaning of Matriarchy

By: Peggy Reeves Sanday

Originally Published in 1997

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There are many living societies in the world today in which women hold positions of signif­icant power and authority in the public domain, posi­tions that are quite different from what we know in contemporary Western society. Knowledge of such soci­eties goes as far back as reports on the ancient Lycians of Asia Minor. Early Greek philosophers and historians considered them remarkable because they showed “women more honor than the men…. [They took] their names from their mothers and [left] their estates to their daughters, not to their sons” (Nicholas of Damascus, quoted in Bachofen 1967 [1897 122). The contention that such societies represented a middle stage in a pre­sumed universal cultural evolution from “primitive promiscuity” to civilized patriarchy was an important aspect of 19th century Western social theorizing.

Western anthropology gave up on the idea of a matriarchal stage early in the 20th century. Today, most anthropologists would agree with the statement that there has never been a society where women ruled. Many would also concur with the notion that females do not exercise economic or political authority in matrilin­eal societies, even though names and property are inher­ited through the female line. In my view, the latter conclusion lacks scientific validity. There are some matrilineal societies in which women share power equaly with men.

A carried out ethnographic field research in such a society over a sixteen-year period, from 1981 to 1997. The Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia, are known to anthropologists as the largest and most mod­ern matrilineal society in the world today (Figs. 1, 2). The Minangkabau themselves label their social system a matriarchy or “matriarchate,” using a term borrowed from their Dutch colonizers. By this term, the Minang­kabau mean that women have more rights than men in the daily affairs of village life.

An this photo essay I try to convey through the eyes of a cultural anthropologist aspects of daily life as 1 experienced it in a Minangkahau village. Spending in all more than two years in Balabuih, I developed a relation­ ship of unusual intimacy with one family that included four generations of women. These women chose to name one of their children after me, a girl who was born on my birthday while I was in the village. This essay, and the exhibition on which it is based, focuses on my namesake, Eggi, and her village. I took pictures of Eggi from the time she was born until she was nine years old. The result is a unique photographic record of a young girl growing up in a matrilineal “matriarchate.” For this essay, A include pictures of typical activities and life-cycle ceremonies in order to approach the subject of “matri­archy” through the reality of life as it is lived on a daily basis.


Daily life in Egg’s village is guided by the demands of the agricultural cycle, particularly produc­tion of the all-important staple of rice, as well as gardens produce such as peppers, corn, bananas, and coconuts. The Minangkabau consider rice the only food that fills the stomach and makes one strong. Without rice people feel weak: their stomachs are empty and their souls vacant. For some, like Pak Edi, Eggi’s father, daily life revolves around the family’s rice fields. The rice cycle begins with tilling the soil, which Pam Edi does with the family’s buffalo. While this is being done unhealed rice seeds arc germinated in water. When the seedlings begin to sprout they are sown in the “rice nursery,” then moved to the rice fields where they are eventually har­vested (Figs. 3-5).

During the year, daily work is punctuated by life-cycle ceremonies—marking birth, marriage, and death—and Islamic religious observances. Women play a central role in both agricultural and ceremonial activi­ties, but are less important in the Islamic religious insti­tutions. Although the women pray faithfully, many of them five times a day following Aslamic dictates, these institutions are coordinated by men. Looking at religion alone, one might well conclude that the Minangkabau are patriarchal. Seeing village life more completely leads to a different conclusion.

The Minangkabau live by the rule of both Islamic law and their customary law (called adat), which preceded the entrance of Islam into the area. Matrilineal customs stem from adat, not religious law. Adapt is based on a philosophy which dictates that nature must he taken as a teacher. “Because nature surrounds us in all the events of our lives, the rules of adapt must be based on nature,” people say. The most important natural law is growth nurtured by the sun, rain, the mother, or by other physical forces. This means that the mother must be dominant because she is closest to her children and establishes the character of the generations.

The Minangkabau orientation to nature is reflected in many ways: in proverbs filled with allusions to nature, as well as in the rich carving and textile tradi­tions that incorporate motifs derived from the local flora. The orientation to nature is most evident in the reverence shown for Mt. Merapi, the volcanic mountain that dominates the landscape throughout West Sumatra.

The Minangkabau see no contradiction between their matrilineal custom and the matrilineal emphasis of Islam. The first applies to ancestral property, while the second applies to property acquired in an individual’s lifetime. Although ancestral property must be inherited equally by matrilineal descendants, there is more flexi­bility in the disposal of the second type of property.

A sojourn in any Minangkabau village quickly makes apparent the central role women play in village and household affairs. Since these activities occupy the physical and social energy of daily life, there is some truth to the contention that women are at the center of Minangkabau society. For example, after marriage a husband moves into the household of his wife and con­tributes his labor and income there. Women inherit the ancestral rice and farm lands, along with the houses of the older women (Figs. 6, 7). Women manage the pro­ceeds of the land, with the cooperation of their brothers and the senior male members of their matrilineal clan. Women are the prime movers in all non-Islamic cere­monial activity. Without women, village life would liter­ally grind to a halt.

Each matrilineage has a small number_ of tides which are conferred on carefully selected men. Eggi’s great-uncle, Datum Llano, is the titled male leader of her niatrilineage (Fig. 6). There are strict criteria specifying a man’s eligibility for a tide (Fig. 8). Most importantly, he must be a direct matrilineal descendant of the man from whom he inherits the tide. The title confers con­siderable responsibility in the management of internal clan affairs with respect to the ancestral land inherited by women. These affairs are con­ducted by a man only with the agree­ment of his close female relatives. Because men in this position could potentially abuse clan interests for their own profit, the man chosen to receive a title must be deemed hon­est, truthful, straightforward, and able to uphold the rules of adat. A man who fails in his role can be divested of his title. If he commits some egregious offense, such as sell­ing clan property for private gain, he can be struck dead by maledictions of the ancestors. A observed one case in which people said that a man on whom the title Daruk had been conferred met with sudden, unexpected death because he violated the oath of the ancestors.


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 (adat). No ceremony would be complete without the work and displays of both sexes. However, in terms of sheer energy and hard work as well as their much greater numbers at a 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. Men, on the other hand, play an important role in settling interclass disputes. Together, the activities of men and women preserve and reproduce Minangkabau culture.

The Victorious Buffalo

Minangkabau means “victorious buffalo,” and the image of buffalo horns is deeply symbolic in Minangkabau culture. The reference is to a well-known tale about a legendary 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). The struggle pined 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 mnives attached to his head. Looking for milk, he went straight for the underside of the surprised bull buffalo 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 burned through this story into superior strength in political conflict.

The Gaming Ceremony 

Eggi was born in July of 1987 in the house of the senior female leader of her matrilineage, Abu Idar. Egg’s mother is Wik, Abu’s niece. Although born while I was in the village, Eggi was not named until after I left to return to the United States. Her name was selected by Ibn Adar in discussion with Wik and the rest of the family. They chose my name as a way of keeping me in the village. “We are always sad when you leave,” Wick told me when A returned the following year. “This way even after you leave someone will always answer when we call your name.”

The importance attached to my name not only by Egg’s family but in the village more generally illus­trates the social relevance of names for the Minangkabau. Clan names, place names, and those of titled male leaders provide a gloss on historical contacts. I have been able to trace clan names to historical places in ancient Sumatra and as Ear away as Java, Malaysia, and Thailand. Even the early kingdom of Champa in the area now known as Vietnam appears in Minangkabau lore. At is not surprising, then, that the highlight of the ceremonies honoring the newly born is the naming cer­emony. The whole family attends this ceremony and each member writes a name on a piece of paper. The names are then read out and there is much discussion about each one. Often the names have historical, reli­gious, or popular significance (Figs. 9, 10).

The Marriage Ceremony

The celebration of a marriage breams the rou­tine of everyday life with a crescendo of color, costume, ritual eating, and exchanges involving men and women of many matrilineal clans. The bride and groom occupy center stage for the days of the ceremony. During this time they hold court on wedding couches in the matri­lineal households of both bride and groom, receiving well-wishers bearing gifts. The couches with their back­drop of colorfully embroidered red and gold brocade, the colors of royalty, are built like thrones, and the cou­ple is treated literally like a queen and king. They move back and forth between the households accompanied by a colorful procession of women bearing food offerings for the women of the other household.

Most marriages are arranged by close family members. Clan affiliation is one of the prime factors in choosing a mate, with some clans being preferred more than others. Romantic love may or may not play a role. The wedding depicted in these pictures is fairly typical. Edison declared his love for Et by letter, asking her to “walk out” with him. Walking out means appearing together on the roads and paths of the village and taking little trips. This went on for three years before there was any formal talk of marriage.

Marriage proposals are never made outright. Everyone involved proceeds gingerly, testing the waters each step of the way. An this case Edison’s family took the first step by sending one of their ill-harrying males to ask Et’s mother if Et was ready to get married. Her mother talked it over with Et’s father and the parents agreed that it was up to Et, which was an indirect way of showing their approval. The next step was to ask Et what she thought. When she said it was up to her par­ents, this was a sign that she agreed.

Once all close relatives are informed of the agreement to marry, a meeting is held to arrange the wedding. The negotiation begins with an official exchange between the male leaders of Et’s and Edisons matrilineal clans as a sign that the two clans are now married. For the duration of the engagement period, Edison’s family gives their ancestral dagger, the premier symbol of male leadership, into the keeping of the bride’s family. Et’s family in turn gives gold, the symbol of female ancestral wealth, to the groom’s family. This exchange binds the clans so that neither Et nor Edison can withdraw without great cost to both families.

The negotiations which ensue concern wedding costs. Customarily, the clothes for bride and groom are provided by the maternal relatives of their respective fathers. The husband’s family usually buys the bedroom furniture. The families of in-marrying spouses also help out. The end result of wedding negotiations is that all sides share in the costs with one exception. A token groom price is also decided upon. This is understand­able given that the Minangkabau husband moves into his wife’s household and provides his labor.

The ceremony proper begins with a procession from the bride’s father’s house, where she has been dressed, back to her own (her mother’s) house (Fig. 11). (A similar parade accompanies the newly dressed groom back to his mother’s house from the house of his father’s maternal relatives.) Following the bride’s ceremonial progress (Figs. 12, 13), Et receives friends at her moth­er’s house. Then a new procession forms to accompany her to fetch Edison from his house (Fig. 14). The group includes some of the women who came from Et’s father’s matrilineal household, along with close family members from Et’s matriclan. The gifts carried by the women are rich with gender meanings associated with the physical and social perpetuation of the generations.

For example, a live cocm, rice seeds for germi­nation, and sprouted coconuts for planting are given by the groom’s family. References to the groom as the “cock” symbolize his role as seminator. Gifts of cooked chicken from the bride’s family symbolize the role of women in nurturing and transforming raw energy. The elaborately prepared sweets and cakes brought by women from both sides are symbolic of the Minang­kabau’s love for elaborate, graceful ritual interaction. The grand wedding finale bows to modernity with bride and groom holding court in Western marriage dress (Fig. 15).


Conceived in Western terms, the Minangkabau “matriarchate” is best thought of as “mother right,” not female rule. Neither male nor female rule is possible, according to Minangkabau 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 fingertip—an apt metaphor. 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 Minangkahau social philosophy deserves our attention for the emphasis it places on achieving balance with nature and resolving differences among humans. A find in this philosophy the meaning of matri­archy in a living society. Women are given privileges and power because of the belief that humans must fol­low the rhythms of nature to nurture social life.

My own experience of living in Eggi’s village taught me that matriarchy, Minangkabau-style, means grounding family ties in the land and in life-cycle Jereconies. Matriarchy creates a permanent sense of mother-place for family members, providing an unusual sense of psychological stability. One might say that family values are at the apex of Minangkabau culture and that in these values one finds the primary meaning of the Minangkabau “matriarchate.”

Every year when my plane hovers over the main airport in West Sumatra and I see the upswing of the buffalo-horned rooftops of the matrilineal households, A feel as if I am returning not just to my village but to a rootedness in the past and family memories. This sense makes me feel both uniquely human and permanently tied to a community defined by people and place. Whenever A enter Eggi’s village I feel as if T have come home, that there is nowhere else in the world quite like this place which will always receive me with open arms.

The story of my involvement with Egg’s family story that links up two lines of women and their descendants—is not uncommon in Minangkabau social life. Women can take up residence in a village and, after undergoing the proper ceremonies and payments, become formally incorporated into one of the matrilin­eal clans. They can then embrace the rights, duties, and responsibilities of clan membership. In a sense this hap­pened to me when Eggi was named after me. Through our shared name I am part of Eggi’s matrilineal line, which means that I and my descendants will always be welcome in her matrilineal household.

The meaning of the Minangkabau matriarchate is to be found not so much in issues of male or female social power but in the social loyalty and transgenera­tional economic ties connecting matrilineally related families, whether related by biological or adoptive ties. Viewed in this way matriarchy must be entertained not as a long-lost evolutionary stage, but as a world view that still lives in the world today and has relevance for shaping the public interest of modern societies.

Cite This Article

Sanday, Peggy Reeves. "Eggi’s Village." Expedition Magazine 39, no. 3 (November, 1997): -. Accessed February 27, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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