(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
My partner and I looked at each other, laughed, and shrugged. Arman belonged to the Minangkabau, the society recognized among anthropologists as the world’s largest and most stable surviving matriarchy* (though some prefer to call it a gylany, matrix, matrifocal or matricentric society, or something else to avoid conjuring images of mythical Amazons). Knowing this, I presumed his question was part of a routine entertainment for tourists.
“For us it is the woman who is boss,” he continued, predictably. “The woman has all the privileges; she owns everything. The men, we own nothing.”
I knew that the Minangkabau, like most Indonesians, are Muslims. In May 2009, one of the first things I noticed upon arriving in their homeland—a stretch of volcanic highlands running along the western coast of Sumatra—was that a higher percentage of women here wear the hijab (here called jilbab) than did further north, near Medan and around Lake Toba. In fact, well over half of the adult women covered their hair in public. But here, as elsewhere on Sumatra, the headscarf appears to be as much a fashion statement as a covering for modesty. It’s often brightly colored or festooned with beads, sequins, rhinestones, small brooches, lace, or shimmery ribbons. Many women sport styles with a dainty sun visor in the front. Pretty much anything you can do to a hat is done to the Sumatran jilbab.
These observations, and Arman’s good humor at his lack of patrimony, made me wonder how I should understand the Minangkabau matriarchaat (their word, borrowed from the Dutch). What truce had been struck between Islam and matriarchy?
In the small villages surrounding Mount Merapi, which lies at the center of the Minangkabau creation myths, Arman lead us down tangled lanes lined with traditional Minangkabau homes. Many of these were great wooden structures, some as much as 300 years old, tattered or rotting in places, patched or expanded upon over the years. These traditional homes are long, each enclosing a broad rectangular hall over an empty ground floor, once used to house livestock. Their roofs are arched to suggest the horns of a buffalo. There were newer dwellings too, without the ground floor for livestock, with SUVs parked out front, satellite dishes growing like mushrooms of modernity from balconies and awnings.