Mainstream society has by and large been dominated by men for at least the past few millennia. But under-the-radar communities where women are at the center of the culture have long existed. Prevalent mostly in rural areas, matriarchal societies differ from the mainstream in many ways — some surprising, some less so.
Matriarchy is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a family, group, or state governed by a woman; or a system of social organization in which descent and inheritance are traced through the female line. Contrary to popular misgivings, the matriarchy is not a system where women lord over men; rather, as founder of the International Academy HAGIA for Modern Matriarchal Studies Heidi Goettner-Abendroth put it to Dame magazine: The aim is not to have power over others and over nature, but to follow maternal values, i.e. to nurture the natural, social and cultural life based on mutual respect. However, things are certainly different when gender power structures are flipped around. Many societal issues that exist today seem to be absent in matriarchal societies, and both men and women are happier when the society holds different values, at least according to Argentinian writer Ricardo Coler, who spent two months with the famous women-led Mosuo tribe in China. Here are some that stand out the most:
Many matriarchal societies are matrilineal, where the line of descent is through a female ancestor. Heritage is passed from the woman; children often get family titles and names from their mother, and land is typically handed down from mother to daughter.
Khasi tribe in India is matrilineal and matrilocal, which means that children live with the mother's side of the family or clan. Marriage in matriarchal societies are typically non-binding, and various types of romantic relationships are embraced. In the mostly matrilocal tribe of Khasi in India, because children live with the mother's family side of the family or clan, there is little to no stigma and hardship when women divorce and have to move. "No matter how many times the woman marries, her children will always remain with her," editor of The Shillong Times and a Khasi, Patricia Mukhim, told Dame magazine. "And even if a man abandons a woman he has impregnated, the children are never 'illegitimate.' "
A woman from Umoja, Kenya, a village established by a group of women who abandoned their husbands after being raped by them. In mainstream society, men overwhelmingly commit more crimes — and more serious ones at that — than women. Jennifer Schwartz of Washington State University's Department of Sociology told Dame magazine: In more gender-egalitarian societies, there is much less crime by both women and men. And in those societies, the crime gap between women and men is somewhat larger, that is, women participate even less in crime.
Generally, people who live in matriarchal societies have much more sex and face much less stigma. In the Mosuo tribe, for example, men and women can take as many sexual partners as they please and bearing children with different people is accepted.
Domestic abuse is an epidemic in mainstream society; an estimated 3-4 million women are battered each year in the U.S. alone. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are indications that domestic violence is close to absent in matrilineal societies.
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. While the legendary Amazons (probably the most widely known matriarchy) are relegated to mythology, there are a handful of female-led societies that thrive in the real world today.
Living near the border of Tibet in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, the Mosuo are perhaps the most famous matrilineal society. 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.
The Mosuo have what's called “walking marriages." There is no institution of marriage; rather, women choose their partners by literally walking to the man’s home and the couples never live together. 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.
At four million people, the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia, (pictured above, during a harvest season celebratino) are the largest known matrilineal society today. In addition to tribal law requiring all clan property to be held and bequeathed from mother to daughter, the Minangkabau firmly believe the mother to be the most important person in society.
In Minangkabau society, women usually rule the domestic realm while the men take the political and spiritual leadership roles. However, both genders feel the separation of powers keeps them on an equal footing. 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 10, boys leave their mother’s home to stay in men's quarters and learn practical skills and religious teachings. While 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 Akan people are a majority in Ghana, where they predominantly reside. The Akan social organization is fundamentally built around the matriclan, wherein one's identity, inheritance, wealth, and politics are all determined. All matriclan founders are female, but men traditionally hold leadership positions within the society. These inherited roles, however, are passed down matrilineally—meaning through a man's mothers and sisters (and their children). Often, the man is expected to not only support his own family, but those of his female relatives.
The Bribri are a small indigenous group of just over 13,000 people living on a reserve in the Talamanca canton in the Limón province of Costa Rica. Like many other matrilineal societies, the Bribri are organized into clans. Each clan is made up of extended family, and the clan is determined through the mother/females. Women are the only ones who traditionally can inherit land. Women are also endowed with the right to prep the cacao used in sacred Bribri rituals.
Much like their Khasi neighbors in the North-East Indian state of Meghalaya, the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Garos pass property and political succession from mother to daughter—typically, he youngest daughter inherits her mother's property. Much like the Akan, however, the societiy is matrilineal but not matriarchal: the men govern the society and manage property.
Oftentimes, the youngest daughter's marriage is arranged for her. But for non-inheriting daughters, the process can be much more complex. In Garo tradition, the groom-to-be is expected to run away from a proposal of marriage, requiring the bride-to-be's family to "capture" him and return him to his potential bride's villiage. This back-and-forth is repeated until the bride either gives up, or the groom accepts her proposal (often after she has made many promises to serve and obey him). Once married, the husband lives in his wife’s house. Should it not work out, the union is dissolved without social stigma, as marriage is not a binding contract.
The Nagovisi live in South Bougainville, an island west of New Guinea. Anthropologist Jill Nash reported Nagovisi society was divided into two matrilineal moieties, which are then divided into matriclans. Nagovisi women are involved in leadership and ceremonies, but take the most pride in working the land entitled to them. Nash observed that when it comes to marriage, the Nagovisi woman held gardening and shared sexuality at equal importance. Marriage is not institutionalized. If a couple is seen together, sleeps together, and the man assists the woman in her garden, for all intents and purposes they are considered married.