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.

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