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The Minangkabau

The largest matrilineal ethnic group in the world

The Koran and matrilineal society: a contradiction?

Anyone who thinks that two worlds are colliding here is mistaken. The Minangkabau practice their matriarchal tradition (called adat, common law) with pride and conviction in the center of this Muslim country. They illustrate the peaceful coexistence of these two cultures with the notion of two distinct origins: “Islam ascended from the coasts while adat descended from the mountains.” The leading social role of women is still existent, but it remains to be seen for how long. The moderately practiced state religion isn’t what is undermining the traditions of the Minangkabau, however, but rather the influence of modern urban life.


“We Minangkabau women also play a strong role as Muslim women, because for us culture counts far more than religion.”

With three million people, the Minangkabau are the largest matrilineal ethnic group in the world. Most of them live in the highlands of Western Sumatra encircled by a number of volcanoes and in the port city of Padang. They are matrilineal and matrilocally-organized. The entire estate is passed down from generation to generation exclusively along the female lineage. In addition to the house, the women also own the rice fields, which are handed down to their daughters. Sons are left empty-handed. Yet this in no way provokes discontent in the Minangkabau culture. “I accept it. After all, I’ve known since birth that this was the way it is in our culture,” a young man tells us. “We have the opportunity, though, to move about freely and earn money.” The money that the husbands earn is handed over at home to their wives, who manage it in the interests of the family.

The maternal uncle, known as mamak, is the male counterpart to the strong mother figure. This combination of the masculine and the feminine is regarded as the ideal balance of genders. In the family system, mamak also plays a more important role for the children than their biological father. As in all matriarchal societies, although the Minangkabau are matrilineal and matrilocally-organized, female domination of power is not the goal, rather egalitarian coexistence is. “I feel equal to my husband. We don’t have bosses or leaders in our house, but an equal division of tasks that simply differs greatly from other cultures.”

Via Jakarta we are able to fly directly to Padang, the largest city in the Minangkabau area. Besides us, hardly anyone seems to be interested in this culture. We meet only one couple, from France, on our journey from the coastal city to the interior of the country. Wherever we go, we are welcomed warmly. It seems as if the people are almost proud to be able to share their customs with us.

Fairytale wedding in a glittery tent

We are also invited to a wedding that reveals to us all the splendour of this rich culture and its artisan traditions. The bride and groom are dressed in red and adorned with golden ornaments. They look doll-like under their heavy make-up and shrouded in austere ceremony. The wedding is only valid if the groom succeeds in reciting the wedding vows flawlessly. If not, the couple has to come back the next day.

Magnificent longhouses for many generations

There are still old, lavishly-painted houses with elaborate carvings, but only a few are still run as traditional residences. They are long buildings on slender stilts. Next to the grandiose common room, which is decorated with precious textiles, a separate room has been added for each daughter. After the marriage, the groom moves into the bride’s house, which eventually becomes her and her sisters’ property. This way of life gathers several generations under one roof. The housework is divided equally between husband and wife; the care of the elderly and the upbringing of their children and those of the sisters’ families is done as a group. Although many of these old houses stand empty today, they are never sold. They are used for big celebrations and ceremonies and serve as accommodations for guests.

House, courtyard, fields and fishponds

We are struck by the large pools of water situated in front of the rows of houses: almost every large house has its own fishpond. These have contributed to the self-sufficiency of this agricultural society. In the Minangkabau kitchen, almost everything revolves around rice, with beef, lots of fish, chicken and vegetables, all seasoned generously with chili powder and velvety coconut milk. Minang food is one of Indonesia’s most popular cuisines.

Culture and craftsmanship

The Minangkabau are rich not only in delicious food, but also in artisanal traditions. While the men produce artistic wood carvings and work as silversmiths, the women have made a name for themselves as textile artists. Crochet, weaving, lacework or embroidery: in their long floral dresses and the obligatory hijab covering their heads, Minangkabau women perform everything with impressive attention to detail and skill.

I’m fascinated by the sumptuous colors and dexterity with which they embroider multicolored flowers on precious silk scarves and the golden lace of which bridal crowns are crafted. The houses, too, are traditionally adorned with extravagant textiles.

Education and poetry

In their verbal descriptions, the Minangkabau are also very skilled. They are regarded as well-educated and place great value on school and culture. This attitude is personified by the so-called datu. He is chosen by society to represent the clan. The datu is sovereign over all things, but in order to attain this prestigious position, he must pass a series of tests and be able to express himself poetically, among other things.

Like out of a scene of a period film, the datu sits in front of us, telling the story of the Minangkabau and the impending end to the culture which he predicts will come in a few generations. “In the past, someone moved away every now and then,” he says, “a kind of natural selection that regulated the number of people in our traditional houses. But today more young people simply want to leave than want to stay in the village at home with their ancestors.” It is not an indictment issued by the elderly man in the red silk suit, but rather a wise look at the world and the times in which it is changing.

Behind the scenes

maria haas - projects - The Minangkabau