Libby Jones
Final Paper
Anthropology 103
23 April 2013
The Role of Women in Minangkabau Society
While deciding which topic I would like to specialize in for this project on the Minangkabau society, I kept coming across articles that discussed the fact that the Minangkabau were a matrilineal society. Having studied a majority of cultures during this course with patrilineal descents, this immediately caught my attention. The gender roles of this culture certainly set it apart from the majority, especially because this type of unilineal descent would seem to conflict with the Minangkabau’s devout Muslim beliefs. The Minangkabau believe that because the past and future of the family depends on a women’s ability to produce children, women should always be respected and cared for. Because women are treasured in this society, couples often hope their first-born child is female because having daughters is seen as good fortune (Shapiro 2011).
The Minangkabau, who are also sometimes known as the Minang, originally resided in the West Sumatra and Padang regions of Indonesia, even though their population is now more dispersed throughout Indonesia. The Minangkabau are the fourth largest ethnic group in Indonesia, with a current population of a little over six million people. The Minangkabau population is almost entirely Muslim and they speak their own Minang language. The name “Minangkabau” literally translates to “winning water buffalo”. This name comes from the ancient wartime tradition of water buffalo fighting. The Minangkabau chose a starving calf to represent them a fight, which was able to kill its opponent, who was a large, Javanese champion buffalo. Remnants of this ancient tradition are still visible in Minangkabau culture today. The water buffalo has influenced Minang architecture and can be seen in the horn-shaped structures on roofs (Lewis 2013).
It is important to distinguish between three terms that we’ve talked about in this course which are relevant to this topic before further investigation. These three terms are matrilineal, matriarchal, and matrilocal. A matrilineal descent means that descent is traced through the women only. So, according to this definition, the Minangkabau would be classified as a matrilineal society and actually one of the largest societies in the world. In the case of the Minangkabau, this means that land, property, and family name are passed down the female line. Matriarchal, if taken to mean the opposite of patriarchal, would mean a political system ruled by women, so in this sense the Minangkabau don’t have an actual matriarchy even though women do play a very important role in the decision making process. Some anthropologists have said that their society is close to a matriarchy but not technically so, because it is not the equivalent of male rule. This culture is also matrilocal, because shortly after a Minangkabau coupe marry, the man collects his things from his home and moves in with the woman and her family (Kottak 2013:214).
Although the Minangkabau are a matrilineal society, they do still share some more traditional gender roles. Women tend to be in charge of domestic affairs and raising the children while men tend to hold positions of religious and political power. The main difference between the Minangkabau and the majority of other patrilineal society is the way that each gender values the other. A Minangkabau man in one article described the gender balance in his society as two sides of a coin (Shapiro 2011). One gender, and their traditionally assigned duties, is not valued over the other gender’s duties. A main focus of Minangkabau gender politics is the importance of consensus (Kottak 2013). Although the figurehead or the “front” of the family is the senior male, senior women also hold an important symbolic role. Women have the power to make everyday decisions on their own and in more formal discussions, disputes, or ceremonies, men usually lead the conversations but don’t make decisions without consulting the women first and then making a joint decision. Consequently, in this society, people who promote consensus and equality are more valued than people who fight to gain personal power (Shapiro 2011).Because the women are in charge of the property and land of a family, which in the traditional sense would be mostly the family home and rice paddy, they are also responsible for the finances and the women actually make the decisions about what the family is going to buy. I also learned that in this matrilineal society, despite the somewhat uncommon gender relations, domestic violence does still occur (Shapiro 2011).
The Minangkabau have worked to fit their matrilineal descent in with their Muslim beliefs. Adat is the general term for the traditions that existed amongst the Minangkabau before the arrival of Islam to Sumatra. The adat, which comes from Hindu beliefs, was responsible for the emphasis on gender equality and matrilineal descent in Minangkabau society. To fit adat in with their strict Muslim beliefs, the Minangkabau divided their inheritance into two distinct groups: low inheritance and high inheritance. The high inheritance is the property that is passed down the female line, which protects the traditions of adat. The low inheritance is money passed down the male line, which protects the strict Islamic tradition (Shapiro 2011).
More recently some of these gender roles are becoming less rigid amongst the Minangkabau. This is because the nuclear family is becoming more important than the traditional extended family in their culture. The increasing significance of smaller family sizes is a trend that can be seen in many places around the world today, including the United States. Even though the traditional gender roles are changing due to globalization and urbanization, the Minangkabau’s unique matrilineal structure and their ability to make that work with their Muslim beliefs make them a very unique society who still catch the attention of many anthropologists around the world.

Kottak, Conrad P.
2013 Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig
2013. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth Edition. Electronic document,, accessed April 23, 2013.
Shapiro, Danielle
2011 Islam’s Secret Feminists. The Daily Beast, September 4. [Online]. Available: minangkabau-the-world-s-largest-matrilineal-society.html. Accessed: April 28, 2013.