A matriarchy is a “family, group or state governed by a matriarch (a woman who is head of a family or tribe)”. This includes a matrilineal system where one can trace their lineage through maternal ancestry, or inherit a property through the female line.
You may be familiar with legendary matriarchies like the (now extinct) Amazons, but there’s still a handful of female-led societies still surviving in the real world. These are matrilineal (where ancestral descent is traced through maternal instead of paternal lines) societies – and interestingly, most of them are in Asia.
Asia’s Matrilineal Societies
Currently, the largest known matrilineal society is the Minangkabau, a 4 million-strong tribe living in Indonesia’s West Sumatra. The Minangkabau treasure girls, and firmly believe the mother to be the most important person in society. This means the property, family name, and land pass down from mother to daughter.
When couples marry, the husband moves into his wife’s home. He may sleep with her, but must leave early in the morning to have breakfast at his mother’s home. Boys leave their mother’s home by the time they’re 10 to stay in men’s quarters and learn practical skills and religious teachings.
While religious and political affairs are the responsibility of men, and women rule the domestic realm, nearly all decisions require consensus between men and women. They feel the separation of powers keeps them on an equal footing. The clan chief is always a male who’s selected by women but if he fails to fulfil his duties, they can remove him from office.
Living within the borders of Tibet, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces of China, the Mosuo are perhaps the most famous matrilineal society today. They’re classified as an ethnic minority known as the Naxi although the two are distinct in culture and language.
Like many Asian matrilineal societies, the Mosuo live in large households with the extended family, with a matriarch at the head of each. Mosuo women typically handle business decisions, while men handle politics. Since the lineage is traced through the female side of the family, children take their mother’s name and properties are passed down through the matriline.
Interestingly, the Mosuo practice “walking marriages” where women choose their partners by literally walking to the man’s home! There’s no such thing as “marriage” either, as couples never live together. Children are always raised under their mother’s care – the fathers sometimes play a little role in the upbringing. In some cases, the identity of the father isn’t even known. Even if he does take part in a child’s life it’s usually in his own matrilineal home.
Khasi and Garo, India
Both the Khasi and Garo, as well as Jaintia, are matrilineal tribes that live in the mountainous northeastern part of India, mainly in the state of Meghalaya. The Mon-Khmer-speaking Khasis and Tibeto-Burman-speaking Garos both pass property and political succession down the matrilineal line. This is typically from the mother to the youngest daughter, who has a special position with regard to inheritance and succession. Marriage is typically arranged for her to a specific relative, and once married, the husband lives in his wife’s house. Should a couple not have a daughter, they’ll adopt one from their family tree.
With 1.4 million people, the Khasi is the largest of the three matrilineal ethnic groups in this region; their name kha si means “born of a woman.” For them, the youngest daughter plays the role of khaddu, a person of great importance. She takes over the house and land, manages family income, leads family councils, and makes important decisions with her uncle (the second most important person in a household). For the Goro, their youngest daughter is given the title nokna, which means “for home.”
However, in both tribes, the men govern the society and manage property.
Matrilineal Societies Around the World
Nagovisi, Papua New Guinea
The Nagovisi are one of three tribes that live on the tropical island of Papua New Guinea called South Bougainville. Their society, as noted by anthropologist Jill Nash, is divided into two matrilineal moieties, which are divided into matriclans.
Every adult woman takes most pride in working the land entitled to them, with husbands of the tribe only assigned to tasks like clearing the land. The land is passed down via the female line, and since food plays a dominant role in Nagovisi society (it’s the basis of all wealth), refusing the food she serves is considered disrespectful.
When it comes to marriage, the Nagovisi woman value gardening and shared sexuality with equal importance. However, marriage isn’t institutionalised – if she sleeps with a man, and he assists her in her garden, they’re considered married. This shows how men are dependent on women’s cultivation for food, and how women take pride in their gardening responsibilities.
Bribri, Costa Rica
At just over 13,000 people, the Bribri are a small indigenous group living in the Talamanca canton of Costa Rica. Living in the mountains, they’re known for their agriculture.
The Bribri’s social system is divided into clans that follow the matrilineal system. Each clan comprises an extended family which is determined through the mother/females. Every child belongs to and is raised by the mother’s clan (and extended family). The male awa, or shaman, holds a very important place in Bribri society and boys are trained when they’re about 8 for about 10-15 years. However, an awa cannot teach his own sons, only the sons of his female relatives.
In Bribri culture, only women can traditionally inherit land and their since their spirituality favours women, the right to prepare a drink called Theobroma cacao – which is essential to their sacred rituals – is also reserved for women.
The Akan people predominantly reside in Ghana, where they are the majority. Their social organisation is built around the matriclan which determines one’s identity, succession, land tenure, and inheritance. While all matriclan founders are female, men traditionally hold leadership roles in the society. However, the major positions in financial and political ladder assigned by looking at the mother’s side of the family.
These inherited roles are matrilineal – through his mothers and sisters (and their children). Often, the man is expected to support his family as well as those of his female relatives. Interestingly, they play an important role in the life of his sister’s son, but not his own son.
The Akans practice polygamy where men are more associated with the female members of his family, while the women are focused on the management of the entire clan.
This story appears in our May 2022’s Gender Issue, which you can read here.