Matrilocality :7 Societies Where Women Rule (1)

I got curious when I came across a read where children are called by their clan names gotten from their mothers as opposes surnames which many of us get from our fathers. So I decided to go more reading and it got more interesting.

By standard definition, a matriarchy is a “family, group or state governed by a matriarch (a woman who is head of a family or tribe).” Anthropologists and feminists have since created more specific classifications for female societies, including the matrilineal system. Matrilineality refers not only to tracing one’s lineage through maternal ancestry, it can also refer to a civil system in which one inherits property through the female line.

1. Amazons
The legendary Amazons (probably the most widely known matriarchy) are relegated to mythology.


Amazon preparing for a battle (Queen Antiop or Armed Venus), by Pierre-Eugène-Emile Hébert 1860 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of woman warriors. Herodotus reported that they were related to the Scythians (an Iranian people) and placed them in a region bordering Scythia in Sarmatia (modern territory of Ukraine). Other historiographers place them in Anatolia or sometimes Libya.

In some versions of the myth, no men were permitted to have sexual encounters or reside in Amazon country; but once a year, in order to prevent their race from dying out, they visited the Gargareans, a neighbouring tribe. The male children who were the result of these visits were either killed, sent back to their fathers or exposed in the wilderness to fend for themselves; the girls were kept and brought up by their mothers, and trained in agricultural pursuits, hunting, and the art of war. In other versions when the Amazons went to war they would not kill all the men. Some they would take as slaves, and once or twice a year they would have sex with their slaves.

The intermarriage of Amazons and men from other tribes was also used to explain the origin of various people; for example, the story of the Amazons settling with the Scythians by Herodotus.

Known to many as the ‘Kingdom of Women’, because they are a matrilineal society. The Mosuo are a small ethnic group living in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China, close to the border with Tibet. They have a population of about 50,000, and are found near Lugu Lake in the Tibetan Himalayas. The Chinese government officially classifies them as part of another ethnic minority known as the Naxi, but the two are distinct in both culture and language.


The Mosuo live with extended family in large households; at the head of each is a matriarch. Lineage is traced through the female side of the family, and property is passed down along the same matriline. Mosuo women typically handle business decisions and men handle politics. Children are raised in the mother’s households and take her name.

Historically, the Mosuo lived in a feudal system where a larger peasant population was controlled by a small nobility. The nobility was afraid of the peasant class gaining power. Since leadership was hereditary, the peasant class was given a matriarchal system. This prevented threats to nobility power by having the peasant class trace lineage through the female line. This system has led to numerous unusual traits among Mosuo society.

Heterosexual activity occurs only by mutual consent and mostly through the custom of the secret nocturnal ‘visit’; men and women are free to have multiple partners, and to initiate or break off relationships when they please.

After the coming of age ceremony, Masuo women are allowed their own private bedroom within the household in which they live; men are not afforded this advantage.

The Mosuo men practice tisese which misleadingly translates as walking marriage in Chinese. However, the Mosuo term literally means ‘goes back and forth’.

Women have the choice to invite men of interest to their private sleeping room. If the man does not reciprocate this desire, he may simply never visit the woman’s household. Men perform tisese in the true sense of the word. They can seek entry into the sleeping chambers of any woman they desire who also desires them. When feelings are reciprocal, a man will be allowed into a woman’s private sleeping area  There he will spend the night and walk back to his mother’s home in the early morning.

Since children always remains in the mother’s care, sometimes the father plays little role in the upbringing. In some cases, the father’s identity is not even known. Instead, the male’s childrearing responsibilities remain in his own matrilineal household.

3. Akan
Akans is a large meta-ethnicity and ethno-linguistic group in  and the republics of Ghana and the Ivory Coast in West Africa with a population of roughly 20 million people. The Akan language is also known as Twi–Fante.

Many but not all of the Akan still practice their traditional matrilineal customs, living in their traditional extended family households. The traditional Akan economic and political organization is based on matrilineal lineages, which are the basis of inheritance and succession. A lineage is defined as all those related by matrilineal descent from a particular ancestress. Several lineages are grouped into a political unit headed by a council of elders, each of whom is the elected head of a lineage – which itself may include multiple extended-family households.
Public offices are thus vested in the lineage, as are land tenure and other lineage property. In other words, lineage property is inherited only by matrilineal kin. Each lineage controls the lineage land farmed by its members, functions together in the veneration of its ancestors, supervises marriages of its members, and settles internal disputes among its members.

The political units above are likewise grouped into eight larger groups called abusua: Aduana, Agona, Asakyiri, Asenie, Asona, Bretuo, Ekuona and Oyoko. The members of each such abusua are united by their belief that they are all descended from the same ancient ancestress – so marriage between members of the same group (or abusua) is forbidden, a taboo on marriage. One inherits, or is a lifelong member of, the lineage, the political unit and the abusua of one’s mother, regardless of one’s gender or marriage. Members and their spouses thus belong to different abusuas, with mother and children living and working in one household, but their husband/father living and working in a different household.

In the Akan culture, a man is strongly related to his mother’s brother but only weakly related to his father’s brother. This must be viewed in the context of a polygamous society in which the mother/child bond is likely to be much stronger than the father/child bond. As a result, in inheritance, a man’s nephew (his sister’s son) will have priority over his own son. Uncle-nephew relationships therefore assume a dominant position.

“The principles governing inheritance, generation and age – that is to say, men come before women and seniors before juniors.”… When a woman’s brothers are available, a consideration of generational seniority stipulates that the line of brothers be exhausted before the right to inherit lineage property passes down to the next senior genealogical generation of sisters’ sons. Finally, “it is when all possible male heirs have been exhausted that the females” may inherit. Often, the man is expected to not only support his own family, but those of his female relatives.

Certain other aspects of the Akan culture are determined patrilineally rather than matrilineally. There are 12 patrilineal Ntoro (spirit) groups, and everyone belongs to his or her father’s Ntoro group, but not to his family lineage and abusua. Each Ntoro group has its own surnames, taboos, ritual purifications and forms of etiquette. A person thus inherits one’s Ntoro from one’s father, but does not belong to his family.

Nowadays,  some families are changing from the above abusua structure to the nuclear family.Housing, childcare, education, daily work, and elder care etc. are then handled by that individual family, rather than by the abusua or clan, especially in the city.The above taboo on marriage within one’s abusua is sometimes ignored, but “clan membership” is still important, with many people still living in the abusua framework presented above.

4. Minangkabau

Minangkabau people, also known as Minang is an ethnic group indigenous to the Minangkabau Highlands of West Sumatra, Indonesia. Their culture is both matrilineal and patriarchal, with property and land passing down from mother to daughter, while religious and political affairs are the responsibility of men (although some women also play important roles in these areas. Women usually rule the domestic realm .This custom is called Adat perpatih in Malaysia and Lareh Bodi Caniago in Indonesia. However, both genders feel the separation of powers keeps them on an equal footing.

The Minangkabau firmly believe the mother to be the most important person in society. Today 4 million Minangs live in West Sumatra, while about 4 million more are scattered throughout many Indonesian and Malay peninsular cities and towns.

Minangkabau have large corporate descent groups, but they traditionally reckon descent matrilineally. A young boy, for instance, has his primary responsibility to his mother’s and sisters’ clans.It is considered “customary” and ideal for married sisters to remain in their parental home, with their husbands having a sort of visiting status. Not everyone lives up to this ideal. Nonetheless, there is a shared ideal among Minangkabau in which sisters and unmarried lineage members try to live close to one another or even in the same house.

Landholding is one of the crucial functions of the suku (female lineage unit). Because Minangkabau men often migrate to seek experience, wealth, and commercial success, the women’s kin group is responsible for maintaining the continuity of the family and the distribution and cultivation of the land. These family groups, however, are typically led by a penghulu (headman), elected by groups of lineage leaders.The clan chief is always male, women select the chief and can remove him from office should they feel he failed to fulfill his duties.

The Minangs are the world’s largest matrilineal society; properties such as land and houses are inherited through female lineage and guarded by clanmen. This custom is called Adat perpatih. Some scholars argue that this might have caused the diaspora (Minangkabau, “merantau”) of Minangkabau males throughout the Maritime Southeast Asia to become scholars or to seek fortune as merchants. However, the native Minangkabaus agreed that this matrilineal culture is indeed the result of (not the reason for) diaspora. With their men travelling out of the country for unspecified time (with possibility of some of them not returning home), it is only logical to hand the land and property to those who do not have to leave it: The women. This also ensures the women’s (meaning: mothers of the future generations’) welfare and hence ensuring their offsprings welfare. Besides, native Minangkabaus argue that “Men can live anywhere and hence they do not need a house like women do”. The concept of matrilineal can be seen from the naming of important museums such as “The house where Buya Hamka was born” by Maninjau Lake. It has never been and never will be Buya Hamka’s house because it was his mother’s house and passed down only to his sisters. Another museum in Bukit Tinggi was called by the locals: “Muhammad Hatta’s Mom’s house” where you will see that Muhammad Hatta (the Indonesia’s Independence Proclamator) only had a room outside of the house, albeit attached to it.

A  young man usually waits passively for a marriage proposal from some young woman’s family. Upon marriage, every woman acquires her own sleeping quarters. The husband may sleep with her, but must leave early in the morning to have breakfast at his mother’s home. At age 7-10, boys leave their mother’s home to stay in men’s quarters and learn practical skills and religious teachings.

Increasingly, married couples go off on merantau; in such situations, the woman’s role tends to change. When married couples reside in urban areas or outside the Minangkabau region, women lose some of their social and economic rights in property. One apparent consequence is an increased likelihood of divorce.


Minangkabau women and girls dressed up



  1. Pingback: Matrilocality :7 Societies Where Women Rule (1) | msamba

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