The amazing Minangkabua matriarchs of West Sumatra

A Minangkabau woman (All photos by Fiona MacGregor)

Introducing a new Bella columnist, Fiona MacGregor.  Fiona will bring a decidedly feminist perspective to our pages at the end of each month.  Her first column looks at a matriarchal society she encountered during her travels in the far east.

by Fiona MacGregor

November in Scotland: The weather’s rubbish, and I find my mind drifting back to the tropics and West Sumatra, Indonesia, where tigers still stalk the forests and volcanoes brood malevolently on the horizon. The Minangkabau people who live there are Muslim. They are also Matriarchal, and it occurs to me that Scotland’s politicians could learn a lot from them.

Minangkabau matriarchy presents itself in many ways, but one of the most obvious is that traditionally women own all the land and property, and inheritances are passed down from mother to daughter rather than father to son. Conventionally, Minangkabau men are obliged to hand over their income to their wives and sisters to spend on the family.

This does not mean the men in this culture are powerless or downtrodden, far from it, but Minangkabau society recognises that different familial roles give rise to different skills and responsibilities – “different” they say, “but equal”.

The feminine is so important in their culture that all adult women are addressed as “Ibu” the word for “mother” as a sign of respect and, while few Minangkabau now live an entirely subsistence existence, there is little sense there that those who go out and earn money deserve higher status than those who keep the society strong through nurturing their families and the wider community.

There are plenty of Minangkabau women who run businesses and earn money through farming too, but when you ask people why they have the tradition of giving women control of the cash, the response is usually: “Women are better at looking after the “treasure” because they take care of the children and the family so they think more about the future and are less likely to squander the cash on wasteful things than men.”

This is the kind of generalisation that when published on-line, rather than voiced by a wise old man living in the Indonesian jungle, is the equivalent of handing the internet trolls a knife and fork and asking them to start carving you up on the spot. But it’s worth it to remind ourselves that power can come dressed in a headscarf just as it can in an old Etonian tie.

Stories about female-led cultures such as the Minangkabau sometimes surprise people here in the West where depictions of Asian, and in particular Muslim women, are all too often that of victims. There’s also a tendency to equate female empowerment with the rise of 1960/70s feminism and rather ignore the reality that, across the world, Capitalism may have given men power as “breadwinners” first, but the daily managing of the “bread” has most often been done by women.

Frequently, when I tell Scottish men about tribes in Asia which are female led they respond with something along the lines of: “Ha! You should come to Fife or Lewis or Glasgow” (or wherever they happen to have been brought up). “It’s the women that rule the roost there.”

All of which raises the question, why, as we look forward to 2014 and the chance to vote for a fresh start for Scotland, do the polls consistently show that so many more women remain unconvinced of the benefits of independence than men? Why are those who are most commonly responsible for managing family grocery-budgets and buying the kids’ shoes, so willing to allow their children’s social and economic futures to be decided in Westminster in a political system steeped in patriarchy where the demands of bankers and war-mongers have, under both the Tories and Labour, been placed above the needs of families and local communities?

The recent Mumsnet poll which provoked so much reaction by declaring feminism to be “over” (or “Dead” according to a hugely-relieved Daily Mail) suggested that most women questioned, did infact believe there is a need for feminism, only it should be about the right to be respected for staying at home and raising a family as much as being entitled to equal treatment in the workplace.

The idea that feminism, success, and being in control of your own life is not necessarily about burning one’s bra before donning a powersuit – the sartorial implications of which are surely even more horrifying than the political –  has of course been what many feminists have been saying for really quite a long time now.

But Feminism is a term so abused and maligned it’s no wonder that some people are nervous about applying it to themselves. So to set out my own position: under the feminist umbrella I happily include anyone male/female/transgender who believes – like the Minangkabau – that the attributes and roles we traditionally ascribe as feminine are as valuable to society as those we see as masculine.

It’s not simply a matter of biological gender – we should all be free to live our lives expressing whatever balance of feminine/masculine we feel most comfortable with. But as long as we’re living in a society where the average nursery nurse earns £12,451 p.a while the average roadsweeper earns £17,396 p.a it would seem reasonable to suggest the value our society puts on the traditionally female, nurturing roles is somewhat skewed.

And this embedded inequality is why I believe the referendum in 2014 is hugely important for anyone interested in living in a fairer, more balanced society, whether they call themselves a feminist or not.

A Yes vote will offer a unique opportunity for the people of Scotland to scrap the out-dated codes which tell us that values and behaviours we traditionally consider as masculine (those charming shouty parliamentary “debates” and the ruthless drive for career “status” above all), are the norm to which those who wish to be “powerful and successful” should aspire.

It is a prospect which must surely appeal to many men as well and I’m optimistic that, with a fresh sheet in front of us on which to create a new constitution for Scotland we’ll seek to establish a form of political interaction somewhat less combative and alienating than it often is at present.

Next generation of Minangkabau matriarchs

Crucially however, full control over our own finances, benefits and tax systems will allow an independent Scotland to reward and support those who contribute to society in different ways, including people working in vital, but traditionally low paid professions, as well those who, unpaid, care for our children and elderly (often saving the state huge amounts of money) – roles which more often than not fall to women.

An article in the Observer last weekend (25th Nov) cites TUC findings that, under current UK Government plans to cut public services,: “By 2016-17…the cumulative cost of lost public services for the poorest 10th of households in cash terms will have been £3,995 – or 31.7% of their average annual income.”

The impact of such cutbacks on women –  as those most likely to be in low-paid jobs and caring for children and the elderly –  will be particularly acute.

The Minangkabau matriarchs I met in West Sumatra are not wealthy by any Scottish standard and have their own struggles, but within their own societal settings they wouldn’t stand for the kind of short-sighted budgeting that would threaten their families’ and their wider communities’ welfare for the sake of a quick-fix temporary solution at the expense of the most vulnerable. Nor would the men there expect them to.

The same Observer article also referred to a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report pointing to the number of working families in the UK living in poverty. According to the Rowntree figures there are 6.1 million people in working households – not people reliant on benefits, but those with an earned income – who are nevertheless living below the breadline.

Compare that with a society far closer to home than Sumatra, just across the North Sea in Norway where gender equality and investment in families are at the centre of policy making and the country’s economy continues to thrive thanks to sensible investment of its oil revenues. Like the Minangkabau matriarchs with their eyes on long term stability instead of immediate gain, the Norwegian Government has looked after its “family treasure” (to the tune of an investment fund currently valued at $600 billion) for future generations and not squandered it.

We may not be in the position we’d have been in had Scotland had control of her oil resources since the 1970s, but we still have the opportunity to create a substantial savings fund from what remains to help secure the nation’s future economic security – but that won’t happen if we remain part of the UK.

To highlight the differences in attitude towards equality, publication of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012 was greeted by dismay in Norway when it revealed the country had been overtaken by Finland and fallen from second to third place in the rankings table which rates overall equality according to gender parity in terms of health, education, economic participation and political empowerment. Iceland claimed the number one spot, while Scotland’s other near cultural and geographical neighbour, Ireland, was placed at number five having risen from 10th place since 2006.

Minangkabau village

And the United Kingdom? It ranked far behind in 18th place having fallen steadily down the table from ninth place in 2006.
That the top five countries in the gender gap report all have populations of less than 10 million would certainly suggest that small independent nations have a lot to offer women. That the UK has fallen so far behind in recent years, indicates the union is doing little to protect or promote the rights and needs of women.

To be clear, I am not arguing that an independent Scotland should be run as a matriarchal commune (though to be fair, I reckon we could do worse!). But I do believe there’s a real need for a better balance and an end to a political climate which has systematically failed to nurture and protect our children and those who care for them, while simultaneously allowing the situation where female executives are currently paid on average £10,000 p.a. less for the doing the same job as their male counterparts, adding up to a lifetime earnings gap of £423,000..

At current levels of progression it is estimated that it will be another three decades before women and men achieve fully equal pay in the UK. I’ve been unable to find an estimate for the year in which a person whose main contribution is in the home or local community will be proffered the same status and support from those in charge of the economy as those who earn over £100K a year.

It is impossible to imagine that kind of true equality could ever come to fruition in a country run by any of the main, London-led UK established parties.

A Yes vote in 2014 won’t determine what an independent Scotland will look like nor will it mean an instant egalitarian utopia, but it will be the moment when we can all finally start to draw up the image of the nation we want to create when the first post independence general election takes place in 2016.

My own picture will feature people of all different backgrounds – including lots of women – shaping, strengthening and supporting the birth of a new Scottish society in a respectful fashion without feeling the need to conform to a load of out-dated stereotypical ideas of masculine power displays. This is absolutely achievable.

Last month, voters in Iceland – that tiny nation at the top of the gender equality table – approved their country’s new constitution, a document written in great part by the people themselves via internet contributions. Finland – that small nation second top of the gender equality table – is presently leading the way in terms of “crowdsourcing politics” to allow voters,with sufficient online support, to propose laws for parliamentary debate .

These processes have inevitably raised some challenges, but ultimately show that effective involvement in politics can now be achieved as easily from a laptop in the kitchen, as it can from the office, bank or parliamentary lobby. Political power no longer requires a loud voice and a suit and if Scotland takes control of her politics, her finances and her future in 2014 we can create our own versions of such egalitarianism and more –  and that’s a form of equality that all of us, regardless of gender, must surely consider is worth saying Yes to.

Fiona MacGregor will be writing a regualr monthly column for bella Caledonia

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Categories: Feminism, Gender Equality

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23 replies

  1. BC goes from the surreal to the simply silly. From now on you’re going to catalogued along with The Onion and The Daily Mash in my in-tray. Sorry folks but theres a time and a place and this is neither. Nothing personal your Ladyship but if I want to read about this kind of thing a site allegedly dedicated to the cause of Scottish independence isn’t the place I’d go looking. Come back ally max bruce all is forgiven.

  2. Mind and close the door on yer way oot.

    KW

  3. It’s been a blast but like all good things it has to come to an end, and for me that end was matriarchy in the tropics. So sorry that I won’t be around to read ally max bruce’s Marxist epic but as they say; things to do, people to see. Just a couple of thoughts before I sign-off…..

    Walter Benn Michaels in his excellent book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality points out that only 20% of new jobs created in the US require a degree level education, and that the fastest growing employment sector (in the US) is personal care for the elderly. Which I’m sure you will agree may require many attributes but a university education isn’t necessarily one of them. Add to this what Andre Gorz has to say about structural un/underemployment:

    The rate of unemployment among the unskilled is due not to their lack of professional skills, but to the fact that one third of skilled or highly skilled people are in unskilled occupations -for want of being able to find anything better- and have thus elbowed out those who ought normally to be able to fill these jobs. Instead of subsidising unskilled jobs by way of basic income, it is the redistribution of skilled jobs that ought to be subsidised by considerably lowering the hours of work in those occupations.

    Gorz wrote this nearly twenty years ago and even Michaels book is nearly a decade old, things have inevitably got a lot worse since, but you’d never know it, unless like me you’ve experienced it at first hand. The inability and/or unwillingness of the political and media mainstream (and most of the non-mainstream for that matter) to acknowledge these simple truths is staggering, but demonstrates an abiding tendency amongst our species: the greater the problem, the greater the denial. It also illustrates another general tendency, namely that history is written by the victors, which in this context mean that those who govern and those who report (including those on the Left) are invariably also those invariably for whom the system has worked.

    Unsurprisingly the attempts by UK governments of both hews have to tackle the problem of structural un/underemployment through a combination of family credit, mass university enrollment and workfare, with the implicit assumption that if we can only improve the educational level of the workforce we can get the buggers into work and off welfare as proved to be an unmitigated failure, as yesterdays announcements clearly demonstrated. The reality is however (as Michaels points out) that we could send every eighteen year old to (in his example) Harvard but it wouldn’t have any appreciable affect on employment patterns, wage rates or poverty levels. This is certainly my experience of the labour market; I spent years working in retail, earning little and sharing the experience predominantly with graduates and doctorates, the majority of whom like me never advanced wage-wise much beyond 20K, and with many over time (again like me) going significantly backwards from even this sub average UK salary figure. When one adds into this prolonged periods of straight unemployment and scale it up you begin to see just how serious the crisis is facing us. I have no property, no pension and no savings and I’m far from alone. How on earth are you going to sustain current levels of social spending let alone that required to account for the coming demographic revolution on such a precarious tax base. Well, the answer is pretty simple: you grow the public sector workforce, shower the underclass with family credit and other subsidies and borrow, borrow, borrow and hope for the best. As I have alluded to elsewhere on this site the concern expressed by the Guardianista classes with the plight of the underclass is all well and good but it really misses the point, if an economy fails to harness the talents of people like me the fate of the functionally illiterate at least in economic terms is an irrelevance.

    Mainstream political parties are essentially driven and sustained by patronage; the leadership is basically the gatekeeper to well paid employment that offers a host of ancillary benefits; post retirement media career, gold platted pension, directorships and straight forward graft. Therefore it should come as absolutely no surprise that the majority of those drawn to such institutions are by and large on the make. For a brighter than average working class kid with few prospects the career path of the trade union movement and then onwards and upwards into the local and then parliamentary Labour Party was and still is about the only legal method of significant social and financial elevation.

    The Labour Party uncannily resembles the military in its hierarchal organisation; with a cadre of working class/lower middle class trade union types doing the heavy lifting, and from whose numbers a lucky few are promoted to senior NCO status (MP’s), and an Oxbridge officer corps that monopolise the really important positions of state, (Cabinet ministers).

    Bella Caledonia joins the dowdy pantheon of self-described “radical and inclusive” organisations that litter the history of the post-war Left. The reality is that you like they are nothing of the sort; this is amply demonstrated by the proceedings of the recent Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow. Now imagine if you will; you’re passionate about Scottish Independence and you decide that this is just the kind of event for you, but there’s only one snag, you’re Jewish (and before you even think it, no I’m not) and you find yourself in less than complete agreement with the opinions of the organisers. What do you do: go along, keep your head down and say nothing; go along and get harangued or most likely not bother at all. The point I’m making is that this talk of inclusion and respect is bullshit plain and simple, it’s inclusion and respect but only if you agree with me and the comrades, which would be bad enough if it was on the central issue at hand, but of course it isn’t, it’s on an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with the matter in hand. What it does do however is demonstrate the wonderful logical disconnect that affects so many on the Left; we can debate just so long as no one actually disagrees on anything of substance. That striking the right poise is all matters. That blatantly playing the race/religious card while condemning others for doing likewise is done without the merest twinge of hypocrisy. That what is important is to get a few like-minded friends from faraway places to come over so you can all join in a big, backslapping love-fest, whilst ignoring the downtrodden on your doorstep. How seductive it is to search out cut and dried, black and white, good versus evil conflicts in faraway places that you know little about and can affect even less, make them your litmus test for participation and then wonder why nobody in the wider population takes your even remotely seriously. Instead of developing practical proposals and communicating them to a wider audience its much more appealing to sit in a room with a bunch of carbon copies and congratulate yourselves on what a bunch of Bravehearts you all are. This also has the great advantage that it means you don’t have to spend any time in your own back yard, populated as it is with a boorish, uneducated, and ungrateful working class that never ever seem to appreciate all the good work that you put in on their behalf. All those conferences on expenses, working parties at Holyrood, the endless hours spent sitting on this quango and that, oh yes its altogether eminently much more productive (and a whole lot more fun) to chew the tapas fat with your new Catalan chums than get on a bus to Coatbridge and try and persuade a few of the great unwashed how posturing in support of Hamas (a nastier bunch of fascist thugs its hard to imagine) is going to help transform their life for the better.

    Pat Kane inadvertently let the cat out of the bag with his wonderfully surreal suggestion that the next step in building on the “success’ of the RIC was some kind of Adam Curtis type documentary! Now I like Adam Curtis, and obviously Pat Kane does too, but the vast majority of the electorate, no I don’t think so. In fact why not just recycle the wonderful Off-Kilter by Jonathan Meades, it’s ready made, eminently relevant and watched by about the same number of people. This kind of navel staring cobblers is sadly the meat and drink of the so-called (at least by the participants) Radical Left. The reality is that they are neither radical nor particularly Left. The causes they gravitate towards invariably have little or nothing to do with the lives of most ordinary Scots, and consequently are largely ignored. Stephen Dorril, one of the founders of that fine periodical The Lobster summed it up very nicely some years ago, the exact quote I don’t have to hand but basically it was that after years plodding round the doorsteps of Hull on behalf on the Labour Party he had concluded that far from it being the case that what was required was for the majority to have the blinkers removed from their eyes and the prospect of socialist paradise revealed, the vast majority of the population simply weren’t interested in politics, and never were going to be interested. A statement that if made in connection with stamp collecting, train-spotting, Bridge or buggery would one imagines illicit nothing more than mumbling agreement by the readership of this site, but if one were to suggest the possibility that politics might fall into this ambit you’d be denounced as some kind of bourgeoisie sell-out or worse. Folks, the uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of you’re fellow Scots aren’t capable of even the most basic level of abstract thought, without which sophisticated political debate of the kind that you endlessly indulge in is simply impossible. They don’t know what the hell you’re talking about and they don’t care. If you’re serious about Scottish independence then you have to accept this fact and tailor your message accordingly, but that assumes that you’re motivated primarily by your stated objective, but sadly from all that I’ve seen on this site and my wider experience of and in the Scottish Left I sincerely doubt that this actually is the case.

    By bye Bella, I wish you well.

    MRT

    PS My posts may to some have been somewhat intemperate in tone, but as you may have guessed I’m pretty pissed-off with my lot and have been for many years. Talking amongst yourselves is all well and good as is meeting-up for the occasional conference, not least as it offers the opportunity for the odd bit of leg-over Olympics but at the end of the day that shyster Salmond has for reasons of pure ego and hubris propelled the nation to a point of premature decision. I don’t think the vote has a cat in hells chance of going our way, for that you’d need to have at least five years of +70% polling figures. So, the question to be asked and answered is how quickly and in what form can you reconstitute another vote, and in this if nothing else I’m rather optimistic. The global economy and the Eurozone in particular are buggered and no amount of central bank financial chicanery will alter that. The long term employment trends in all the advanced economies (Germanyincluded; there are only so many machine tools you can sell the Chinese before they start making and selling their own) a permanent structural change that ensures that capitalism at least as we’ve known it for the last couple of hundred years is as dead as the Dodo. The Left needs of get of its mental knees, look beyond trade unionist slogans and embrace a future that will be here a lot sooner than you or I can imagine.

    • Me, me, me. poor me – such a waste of education if that’s all you think about.

      • Did you ever sit in a classroom with one of those teachers who could never give a one sentence answer? You would always dread some other kid asking them a question with five minutes to go before break. :)

  4. Is it safe to say that I actually enjoyed the article and welcome Fiona to Bella without getting ranted at?

    Think the points that Fiona is making are directly relevant to the independence debate and how they can and should be addressed – as Fiona pointed out herself, you don’t need to be a feminist to want a fairer and more balanced society. Surely that’s what we all want?

    • It is safe and thanks for responding. Totally agree with what you say and will try and facilitate such engagement here via Comment moderation.

      As one of the two moderators of comments on here I’m prepared to sacrifice freedom of speech in order to make sure quieter or less confident voices can be heard on here too without belligerent know-it-all males trying to browbeat readers back into silence.

      KW

  5. Excellent article and I look forward to hearing more. I think many women in scotland need to hear the voices of other women in order to help them decide on indyref.

  6. Enjoyed reading your article, Fiona.

  7. Liked the article Fiona, more please.

  8. I very much enjoyed learning about the women of Minangkabua – thank you :-)

    Isn’t it fascinating how the dominant culture of a people can determine so much; and isn’t tragic how the UK’s dominant culture of neoliberalism destroys and distorts everything of ‘value’ that we hold dear to keep us in our place and protect the status quo.

    I read an article recently where the media, and many science reviews, used the beautiful Venus figurines to legitimise modern sexist behaviour as having ancient Palaeolithic roots! Headlines such as The Sun’s, ‘The World’s First Page 3 Girl’. I mean, heaven forbid that ancient man actually worshipped and respected a FEMALE creator!
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21628900.300-palaeoporn-weve-got-it-all-wrong.html

    I don’t know the reasons why the polls show that Scottish women would prefer to stay in the Union. Maybe they’re so disillusioned with this sick culture that they instinctively prefer safety in numbers:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/nov/27/women-fighting-sexism-media-page-3
    It’s up to Indy Scotland to prove that we’re not all talk and no action!

  9. It has always struck me that looking beyond our own culture to the wider planet is a good thing to do. We might, just might, learn something that was to our advantage.

    Interesting article.

    I hope that Bella Caledonia retains it’s open minded stance on the material it publishes. If we are to look to an independent future, as I take it we all do, then that future is up for grabs!

  10. How is a society where women rule men any less sexist and stratified than one where men rule women?

  11. I think it’s all down to how you define ‘matriarchy’. Living in a contemporary ‘patriarchal’ society, we automatically assume that matriarchy is a similar system of autocratic rule with an equivalent of suppressing men. However, it’s really all about ‘cultural values’ and how they are expressed in the wider society.

    Take, for example, matriarchal pre-Minoan Crete (known for its great palaces, villas, farmsteads, harbours and advanced transportation). Archaeologists have found a striking lack of warfare compared with patriarchal societies of the same period. Interestingly, when patriarchy appears to dominate this area, fortifications and weapons of warfare appear at the same time.

    Obviously, I have taken all of the above from a feminine perspective of archaeology, where they’re more inclined to view cooperation between the sexes as opposed to divisions and hierarchical ranks. Apparently, they prefer to use the word ‘matristic’ ;-)

    • You mean the Matriachal society was destroyed by a warlike patriachal society which was after the wealth of the matriachal society and this could be the reason why weapons appeared at the same time? If matriachal societies are inherently less warlike then that would perhaps be a kind of darwinian reason why there are not so many of them about. I work sometimes in refugee camps in Africa and NGOs often channel resources in the camps through women, NGO workers say it is a better developed and fairer society when it is done this way so i can well believe that women having more control of resources gives an advantage. Good article Fiona, very much appreciate the range of articles on BC.

    • It’s still sexist. Sorry…

      When one gender rules another, it’s wrong. When both genders rule together, that’s right.

  12. Yep, I expect that’s exactly what they are saying. Although I’m not so sure about Darwin and the implication of ‘survival of the fittest’. Not such a clever evolutionary tactic when you take a look around at the consequences of their past victories…
    I’m just an unemployed chancer sick to the back teeth of being kept in my place :-)

    • Mmm did not mean that one society was “fitter” than another, whatever that means. To be fair to Darwin i think an economist started to use the “survival of the fittest” thing, Darwin said something else – think something like “natural selection through random mutation”. Maybe I should have used Dawkins and memes? If one society decides it is easier to get rich by invading peaceful neighbours and steal their stuff then this can be a succesful strategy at least for a while. You are right it cannot be succesful long term, thinking British empire and the diminishing returns gained from invasion of other countries, leading to the situation where it bankrupts itself.

  13. On the Darwinian thing, the survival of the fittest, don’t women generally live longer than men and are females not more than half the population – even in Glasgow where I live? :)

  14. Stui,
    Hmm, I’m not sure they were considering genetics in their analysis, more to do with social conditioning. As someone famously wrote, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” ;-)

    Re Dickie Dawkins and dear auld Darwin, well, the times they are a changing :-) Even ‘the grand old man of biology’ E O Wilson, now says that human co-operation and not selfish individualism is where the smart ‘meme’ is – and Dickie is not at all pleased! What is it with some people and beasties?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/aug/18/edward-wilson-harvard-biologist-interview

    I don’t think that it can be successful in the long term because there won’t be a long term to be successful if we don’t stop this crazy system from destroying everything it touches!
    http://climateandcapitalism.com/2012/11/27/the-world-banks-gross-hypocrisy-on-climate-change/

    C’moan the weemin! :-)

  15. Same here, Wanvote! Although I have heard they live even longer in the South of England… imagine that! ;-)

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