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Women’s History Post: The Minangkabau People

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Don’t you get really sick of hearing broad sweeping generalizations about how women are treated in Muslim countries?

And thus we totally need to look at that and not worry about our own serious failings in the treating women with respect and dignity department?

I do.

Now, before you get all shirty, I know that women in some Muslim countries suffer horrible treatment, and I absolutely decry and loathe it. I think that Arab feminists are absolutely kick-fucking-ass. I hope that the women of Afghanistan and elsewhere will see their freedom and dignity restored, not soon, but right fucking now. I hope the sweeping waves of reform going through the middle east help to free women from the patriarchy. I am not qualified to comment on Islam as a religion, so I won’t. But I do suspect that like most other faiths, Islam grows quite differently depending on the soil in which it is planted, and this post reenforces that perception.

In short, the Middle East is not the whole of the muslim world, and the whole of the muslim world is not actually patriarchal. I know. Your mind, it is blown.

This post was born out of, and owes a debt of gratitude to a couple of things– firstly, I went on a foreign film binge on Netflix, and watched a film called “Merantau” which I expected to be sort of standard martial arts fare.

 

Pictured: A Movie You Would Expect to Be Standard Martial Arts Fare

There was plenty of ass kicking going around, and it seemed to have the standard boy goes on journey, is an ass kicking fighter, saves girl and her little brother from white sex traffickers plot (spoilers!). But what was really interesting to me was the emphasis placed on certain relationships over and above the ass kickings, specifically the emphasis on men’s relationships to women, and what those relationships should look like, and what fighting for them means. there was a very clear focus on boy journeyer’s relationship with his mother, which was warm and very… comfortable, if that’s the word I want.

I don’t know the last time I saw a teenage boy in an American film have a warm, loving relationship with his mother, with no bizarre Freudian overtones or manliness shaming. At no point did I get the sense that this was about dramatically severing his bonds with his mother either.  The other interesting thing was the emphasis on the struggle and suffering of the girl he was trying to save. The film did not white wash her struggle to survive and care for her younger brother, nor did it slut shame her, or cast her as a passive victim. She was outspoken, fierce and fought hard. The final interesting thing was the way in which the rape scene was handled in the film. It was very hard to watch, because the entire time, the focus was on the face of the actress.

There was no titillation, or mistaking this scene for sexy times. She managed to express the anguish and dissociation of rape in a way that was much more shocking and emotionally fraught than what you get in American films, where rape is very difficult for people to identify unless it is accompanied by torture of some sort, and regardless it’s all about the male gaze and the titillation of power.

Now, this was not a cinematic masterpiece, but it was different enough to be quite memorable. It was arguably made for the male gaze, but most certainly not made for a male gaze I was familiar with.

The second thanks I need to give for this post is to the work Peggy Reeves Sanday, who is a kickass feminist anthropologist, and has written many interesting books, including some that challenge the idea of universal male dominance.

“After years of research among the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, she [ Sanday] has accepted that group’s own self-labeling, as a “matriarchate,” or matriarchy. The problem, she asserts, lies in Western cultural notions of what a matriarchy “should” look like—patriarchy’s female-twin.

“Too many anthropologists have been looking for a society where women rule the affairs of everyday life, including government,” she said. “That template—and a singular, Western perspective on power—doesn’t fit very well when you’re looking at non-Western cultures like the Minangkabau. In West Sumatra, males and females relate more like partners for the common good than like competitors ruled by egocentric self-interest. Social prestige accrues to those who promote good relations by following the dictates of custom and religion.”

You can read more of this little blurb for her book about the Minangkabau people here . They are Indonesia’s largest ethnic minority, and live primarily in Western Sumatra, which looks like this:

In other words, beautiful

“Too many anthropologists have been looking for a society where women rule the affairs of everyday life, including government,” she said. “That template—and a singular, Western perspective on power—doesn’t fit very well when you’re looking at non-Western cultures like the Minangkabau. In West Sumatra, males and females relate more like partners for the common good than like competitors ruled by egocentric self-interest. Social prestige accrues to those who promote good relations by following the dictates of custom and religion.”

As noted, the Minangkabau people call their system of social organization a matriarchaat, and women are active and centered in every sphere of life. Inheritance is matrilineal, husbands go to live with their wives, and there is a strong sense that nature is the most important teacher for humans.

Here’s the fun part!

Today, according to Dr. Sanday, while the Minangkabau matriarchy is based largely on adat, Islam also plays a role—but not in the way one might expect. Islam arrived in West Sumatra sometime in the 16th century, long after adat customs and philosophy had been established. At first there was an uneasy relationship between adat and Islam and, in the l9th century, a war between adherents of adat customs and fundamentalist beliefs imported from Mecca. The conflict was resolved by both sides making accommodations. Today, matrilineal adat and Islam are accepted as equally sacred and inviolate, handed down from the godhead. “At a time when consumerism is more prevalent in Indonesia than ever before, these sacred principles of Minangkabau culture and society act to support one another,” she noted.

OoooOooOoOoo!! That’s definitely not supposed to be possible, right?

I wanted to start out my series of posts for women’s history month on a really positive, hopeful note. The way we do things in the Western world is neither eternal or unchangeable. The Patriarchy and its attendant abuses are not universal or inevitable. Matriarchy does not mean, as Reeves Sanday pointed out, that women rule over men and marginalize them in the way the patriarchy does to women. I would also like to point out that this is a direct refutation to the common MRA perception that Asian women are subservient, pliable and meek. Racism, it’s all a bunch of bullshit!

Pictured: An awesome, take no shit looking woman from an Islamic Matriarchaat (now go wipe your brains off the wall, tea baggers).

Now, enjoy this really lovely Minangkabau song, and the next time some bastard is droning on and on about “their women” let them know that “they” are not a monolith and that in some very Muslim places, women and men are much better to each other than we are here.

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About Pepper

Pepper Lee Hales is a twenty something, married, vicious feminist liberal. She likes dogs, cats, spiders, epistemics and cake.

One response »

  1. Hello! Thanks for the hopeful and positive post! Oh… the inherent myths we tell ourselves about other people we don’t know! 😀

    Reply

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