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Minangkabau women: Change in a matrilineal society

Joke Schrijvers, Els Postel-Coster

Citer ce document / Cite this document :

Schrijvers Joke, Postel-Coster Els. Minangkabau women: Change in a matrilineal society. In: Archipel, volume 13, 1977. pp.

doi : 10.3406/arch.1977.1328


Document généré le 16/03/2016






Introducion. (*)

Before visiting Minangkabau (West Sumatra) on a short fieldwork

trip in 1973, we stayed in Jakarta for some time to get the necessary
permits and to perform some documentary work. The amount of
Minangkabau immigrants in that metropolis is estimated at some
500.000 (Mochtar Nairn, 1971). Their presence is visible in the many
"rumah makan Padang" (Minangkabau restaurants), which are spread
over the city. The immigrants will also be found in a range of different
occupations, from newspaper-seller to university professor.
Although the immigrants were not the specific subject of our study,
we naturally tried to get into contact whenever we happened to come
across a person who came from the area that had already interested
us for some years. Looking for Minangkabau novels in a small
bookshop in Jakarta, we were addressed by the owner. Hearing of
our planned trip to West Sumatra he was beaming with joy : that was
the right thing to do ; it was his homeland, and he could tell us it
was the most interesting part of Indonesia. People there were still
living in matriarchy !

(*) In this article we have made use of data collected during a fieldwork trip in
1973. We want to express our gratitude to Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, who
was so kind as to provide us with some very recent information.Her contribution
is mainly to be found in the third section.

Politely we showed our interest. Did this mean that power was with
the women ? Oh no, he hastened to answer, it should be understood
as rule of inheritance, established long ago by a famous ancestor called
Datuk Perpatih nan Sabatang. There followed a lesson of the type
we would hear very often afterwards : on formal rules and their roots
in tradition, leaving us completely in the dark on what interested us
most : the actual role relations between presentday Minangkabau
women and men.


The term Minangkabau originally refers to the central highlands

North East of Padang, in the midst of the isle of Sumatra. Although
this part is still regarded as the true source of Minangkabau culture,
the area designed by this name is now much wider, covering the
whole of the province of West Sumatra, including the coastal region.
According to tradition, this whole area has been populated by
emigrants from the highlands, who gradually spread over the
country. This, indeed, is one of the ideal patterns of behaviour, for
young men in particular : to roam about and see the world outside
one's own village without however loosing contact with one's family
and place of birth.
Minangkabau culture is characterized by a matrilineal family system,
the idea of which is cherished not only by our bookseller, but by many
others as well, as the nucleus of their cultural identity — although
it is felt as a burden at times. In connection with this system there
exists a whole body of rules, traditions and beliefs commonly called
adat (x), which finds its expression in hundreds of proverbs and
sanyings. Minangkabau adat is mainly concerned with the matrilineal
family system and its implications for behaviour patterns and
sociopolitical organization.
Disregarding for the moment the many local variations, the social
organization may be briefly described as follows :
The largest social units are the suku, or matrilineal clans. Their unity
merely consists of a common name : one suku is usually widely spread
over the country, but there is no organization linking its members
together. A child become a member of its mother's suku at birth. The
suku is not strictly exogamous. A member of the suku Bodi, for
instance, may take a partner from the same clan as long as he, or she,

The concept of adat is not typical for Minangkabau. It is used throughout

Indonesia to denote local traditions and customary law.

is not from the same village. This is not felt as incestuous, although
a clan chief told us that an extra ceremony was required at such a
At the village level, the suku are real groups, exogamous and leaded
by a male chief (penghulu}. Ideally, there are four suku in each
village, each living in its own quarters. In practice this number may
differ. The penghulu of the different suku together form a council
that formerly ruled the village. The villages used to have a high
degree of autonomy. There was little central authority and each
village could develop its own style in the common adat tradition.
Since the beginning of this century Minangkabau gradually became
part of greater organizational units : first the colonial government
and later the national Indonesian State. In this process the villages
lost much of their autonomy, and the power of the penghulu demi-
nished. Although not enough data are available to be quite explicit
on the position of the penghulu at present, it seems safe to state that
they mainly decide on family affairs, marriages and matters of
inheritance and common property.
In the village the suku are divided into smaller units, the
indigenous name for which is derived from the Minangkabau word for womb.
We will refer to these as "entended family". This group consists of
one or more women, their married and unmarried daughters and the
young children of the latter. The members of an entended family
traditionally lived together in a longhouse : the famous Minangkabau
house with the "horns" at both sides. Head of the family is one of
the eldest brothers of the mother, or grand-mother. Mamak is the
general name for mother's brother : one of them is chosen as the head
of the house. His sister's children are his kemanakan.
Boys were not supposed to live in their mother's house after the age
of 7 orhouse
8 years.
also By
they began
in they
the surau,

and had was

''home" access
an to
their wife's
one house.
for a man.
Even Although
after that,hetheslept
in his
wife's house, as a mamak he kept his obligations to his mother
sisters and sisters' children. His regular presence in their house was
required. If he went to his wife too early in the evening, he was
even ridiculed. (Korn, 1941). When old and sick he was taken back
to his .sister's house, to die and be buried in the ancestral ground.
This uncertainty about what is home is often thought to bear a
relation to the "mercmtau"-pattern, the traditional migration of young
men mentioned above. Although the idea of merantau is also known
from other parts of Indonesia, without being connected with matrilocal

residence, it seems probable that it has been reinforced by the

ambiguous position of men.
Contrary to this, women were the stable factors in society. They kept
living in the house in which they were born, with their own family.
Only when the extended family became too large, it was split up, and
a new house was built near the old one. The traditional Minangkabau
house is divided lenghtwise into two parts : in front is a huge
rectangular room covering the whole frontispiece. This is the daily
living and reception part of the house. Behind this are several smaller
rooms : one for each daughter with her husband and children, and a
kitchen which is the common domain of the women of the house.
The house is built on a piece of land owned by the extended family.
Further common property of the family are ricefields and certain
ancient heirlooms. It is not allowed to sell any of these, except in
highly specific cases. It is the sacred property of the extended family,
called harto pusako. In contrast to this there is a category of individually
onwed property, or harto pencarian (literally : acquired property) : a
person's earnings from trade or wages, and the land used for cash
cropping. A man is free to give of this harto pencarian to his own
children, while the harto pusako will always remain the common
property of his kemanakan.
Obviously, the harto pencarian mainly spring from the modern
sectors of society. Ever since the introduction of the money economy to
Minangkabau in the beginning of this century, their relative importance
has grown. The end of the matrilineal system was even foretold by
Schrieke (1955, first published 1928), on the supposition that its
economic basis, the common pusako property, was about to
disappear. This is not what actually happened. Although the matrilineal
institutions lost part of their economic and political functions, they
are by no means extinct. Much of what has been described above in
the past tense, might have been written in the present, particularly
in regard with the situation in rural areas.

Women In the adat system.

In spite of the fact that Minangkabau as the greatest matrilineal

society in the world has arisen the interest of social scientists for a
long time, surprisingly little is known about sex roles and the relations
between women and men. Anthropological studies, as well as treatises
on adat by indigenous experts, nearly exclusively take the man's side
as their viewpoint. Enough has been written, p.e., on the position of
a man in his mother's, resp. his wife's house, but hardly anything on
the position of women and their influence in decision making.

Taking the life cycle in a typical adat milieu, we may tentatively

draw a picture of a woman's position in different periods of her life,
in a typical adat milieu. As a baby, a Minangkabau girl is most
welcome to her parents and the wider family of which she forms a
part. She is the one to continue the matrilineal family : the more
girls the stronger it will be. According to Mitchell (1969) not much
difference is made between boys and girls before the age of 7. Both
grow up in a loving and intimate sphere. After that age, girls were
much more under their family's control than boys. First of all they
were trained to become mothers and housekeepers, to be able to cook
and sow.
The female hero of a Minangkabau novel (Pamuntjak, 1927) is a
modern girl who is working as a teacher. But she "did not forget
about the obligations and the work of women", and so she spent her
free time at home sowing and embroidering, thereby arousing the
admiration of the male hero, who was to become her bridegroom.
A girl's chastity is cautiously guarded. She should be shy and modest
in the presence of boys. With her brothers and father there is
according to Mitchell, a kind of avoidance relation ; she may not
appear in public with one of them. (Mitchell, 133 ff.) She spends a
great part of her time in her own house, among her mother and
sisters, with whom conflicts may arise easily by jealousy and mutual
Marriage was traditionally arranged by the older generation. The
mamak had to give his consent, but the parents, and notably the
mother of the girl also took initiatives. Ideally the marriage should
be with a cross cousin, preferably a father's sister's son. Although
such a marriage is still referred to with respect and admiration,
its frequency is probably very low nowadays. Another requirement
was that both partners should be from the same village. This
ideal pattern is still clearly in force. In several places the council
of penghulu expressed its preference for such marriages. Many
informants told us this was the best marriage, although they were
no longer prepared to force their own children into it if they
woud make another choice for themselves. Minangkabau girls used to
be married out at an early age, partly no doubt to avoid the danger
of intimate relations before marriage. The unmarried state is an unusal
one for grown up women. If they are single, it is practically always
the result of divorce or death of the husband.
Although exact statistical data are missing, divorce is evidently high
in Minangkabau (Mochtar Nairn, 1971). The husband is an honoured
guest in the house of his wife, but he is also, according to a popular

saying, "like a bit of ash on top of a pole", and thus may easily be
blown away. Without being actually divorced, many women are alone
in the rural areas, as their husbands have gone "to the rantau", abroad,
to earn their money in trade or occupations. As a rule, they return
at least once every year, but some stay out for even longer periods.
The area has also long been known for a high rate of polygyny : 87
per 1.000 in 1934, and 83 per 1.000 in 1968 (De Josselin de Jong,
1975), the highest in Indonesia. This may seem a strange feature in
a matrilineal system with matrilocal residence. So strange in fact,
that the combination has been marked as an impossibility by one
anthropologist writing on kinship (Fox, 1967) (2). In the Minangkabau
setting, however, where a man is already used to have obligations in
more than one house viz. his mother's and his wife's), it is not even so
anomalous as it might seem at first sight. The husband may visit
each wife in turn, p.e. for a few days every week.
Having no children is as sad and shameful for a woman in
Minangkabau culture as anywhere. If there are no daughters in her house
this line of the family will become extinct, to the disappointment of
all concerned. The little rooms in the back will stay empty, and she
may have to live all alone in the big house when she is old. Or she
may be overruled by her sisters and their daughters and have to be
content with a modest place amidst the nieces. If she has no sons to
take the leading positions in the house and the village, her family
will become less influential, and the titles reserved for the men of
the matrilineage will remain unused, or "folded up", as it is called.
If, however, a woman has a number of children and is healthy enough
to work hard in the fields and in trade, middle age probably offers
the best opportunities to self actualization. She may demand respect
from her children and their spouses ; protection and financial support
from her brothers ; love, financial and labour support from her
husband. Besides taking part in the management of the family rice-
fields, she may earn her own money by selling fruit and vegetables

(2) Fox' explanation runs as follows: Although sororal polygyny would be

compatible with matrilocal residence "general polygyny would not work
with matrilocal residence. This is the system in which a man has several wives
who are not sisters — so they would be drawn from several groups. Now he
could manage to go around and "visit" them in their matrilocal homes, but it is
obviously more convenient for him (our italics) to have them all around him.
Once circumstances permit or encourage general polygyny, then the doom of
matriliny is spelt. Only virilocal residence can accomodate such a system".
(1967: 111).
One could hardly think of a better example of a viricentric approach leading

on the market. Although many uncertainties are left (her brother or

son may squander the harto pusako, her husband may turn to another
wife, or stay out in the rantau, her sisters may cause her trouble),
she is at least sure to keep her own place in the house and to be
cared for during old age.

A middle aged woman, then, is often a person of importance in the

house and the family. But she has also learned that she is not supposed
to raise her voice in public. The men are trained in making pidato's
(public speeches), and fulfil the traditional offices of family heads
and village leaders. The relative position of both sexes is neatly
demonstrated in the traditional Minangkabau house : the woman's
domain is the back of the house : the separate rooms and the
kitchen. The men's part is the big front veranda, which is used
as reception room and meeting place. Women are associated with the
small circle of the family, the village ground, with continuity and
traditional wisdom. Men with public life, politics, the rantau, change
and individual performance.


So far we have mainly viewed Minangkabau society from the side of

adat. But already, more than four centuries ago, Islam, with its strong
patriarchal tradition, has penetrated the area. Nearly all Minangkabau
are Muslims at least nominally. West Sumatra has been a stronghold
of Islam in a strict and fundamentalistic form since the beginning of
the 19th century.

In certain respects adat and Islam have joined hands ; integration

has taken place to such an extent that it is often hard to know where the
roots of a specific part of tradition lie. In other respects, however, the
two are incompatible. Neither of them has given way to the other,
and so they continued to exist side by side. The differences became
particularly acute when, in the beginning otf this century, Islamic
reform movements, originated in the Middle East, reached West
Sumatra. These movements were typically fundamentalistic as well
as modernistic. Islam had to be purged of local traditions by returning
to its true sources : the Koran and the Holy Tradition. It should
arise in a new form, free from magic and olds rituals, and fitting the
spiritual climate of a modern world. The Muhammadiyah, and its
female counterpart the Aisyiyah, founded in Java in 1912 and 1917
respectively, were the main organizations promoting the new trends
in religion.

Rationalism and individualism were ingredients of the new movement,

and for West Sumatra this caused some friction with the collectivism
of adat. Man, according to Islam, is responsible to Allah alone, not
to the community to which he belongs. Likewise, Islam can recognize
only individual property, no communal rights of the family. The only
type of family acceptable in Islamic law is the patriarchal, possibly
polygynous one, with the father as the responsible head. Evidently a
woman's right to the protection of her brother for herself and her
children cannot be recognized in this context. Although in both systems
women belong to the sphere of the house and the family, having no
access to public positions, obviously they are much more dependent
in Islam than in the Minangkabau adat system, being part of their
father's, resp. their husbands' property. According to adat, they are
honoured as the guardians of the matrilineal family, whose property
they may help to manage.
Polygyny, although it may have been practized in the area even before
the penetration of Islam, certainly got a new legitimacy by it. In the
view of Minangkabau people polygyny clearly belongs to the sphere
of Islam. One of our informants, who was an outspoken protagonist of
adat, expressly condemned polygyny as an Islamic custom running
counter to adat. Its patrilocal form, with several wives living in their
common husband's house, never existed in West Sumatra. In the
villages, of course, women have to stay on their own family's land.
But even in the towns, women have their own houses, while the
husband is visiting each in turn. Divorce, according to Islam, is the
exclusive right of the man, who may simply dismiss his wife by
pronouncing the right formula (talak) three times. (3). Rights of
inheritance are definitely less favourable to women in Islam than in
the adat law. The extreme segregation of the sexes in many Islamic
countries, moreover, limits the opportunities for women to earn their
own money.
In Indonesia, segregagion of the sexes never assumed an extreme
shape. Women, along with men, had to fulfil their tasks in
agriculture. Besides that, they usually sold some of their products on
local markets, which gave them a certain degree of economic and
social freedom.

(3) In Indonesia this rule is often mitigated by using the "conditional talak", that
is pronounced by the husband right at the wedding. He declares p.e. that his
wife is repudiated in case of maltreatment by himself. This is one of the
concessions Islam has had to make to a culture less strictly patriarchal than that
of the 7th century Arabic Bedouins.

Still, it is clear that in those sectors of society most influenced by

Islam, segregation is much stronger than in the secular ones.
Coeducation is normal on government schools, but in religious education
the sexes are separated rather rigorously. In those circles the
habit of "kurung", (litterally cage, seclusion), is applied to girls of
marriageable age. At the initiative of the Aisyiyah the veil, covering
the hair and neck, was introduced for Indonesian women who had
never known such a custom before. There isi perhaps no area where
so many girls and women adhere to this custom as in West Sumatra.
Although the official view is that adat and Islam are harmoniously
going side by side, both being equally important elements of
Minangkabau culture, conflicts are practically unavoidable. Adat has been
under severe attacks of modernist Islam leaders ; it has defended
itself by strengthening its organizational structure. A certain com-
partementalization has been the result of lasting disharmony, some
sectors of society conforming more closely to Islam, others to adat


Besides adat and Islam there is a third principle Minangkabau people
generally mention as a characteristic of their culture : the ideal of
progress, expressed in the Indonesian word kemajuan. This notion is
closely connected with the modernization process and all that it
entails : education, an urban style of life, and a high degree of
technical and organizational development. According to Taufik
Abdullah (1971), the idea of kemajuan first took shape in the circles of
the coastal aristocracy in the end of the 19th century. People founded
Dutch style clubs and periodicals. They propagated the idea of
progress and pleaded for a modern educational system. Although
they certainly did not want to imitate the western style of life
as a whole (notably the western way of free social intercourse
betwen the sexes seemed repulsive to them), the Dutch school system,
Dutch literature and Dutch cultural societies were their main frame
of reference. The summit of education to be reached by the happy
few in those days was a university study in Holland.
The ideal of kemajuan, although first and foremost promoted by a
secular elite, did not for long remain their exclusive concern. The
idea also took shape in adat circles and, still later, in those of Islamic
modernism. One of the elements all those different expressions of the
desire for progress had in common, was the emphasis on better shool

education for girls as well as for boys. There were widely differing
opinions, however, on the contents of school programs.
The Dutch governmental school system had a clearly dualistic
structure (Paul v.d. Veur, 1969). One section, meant for Dutch children,
closely parallelled the Dutch educational program. A few Indonesians
from the highest classes in society entered these schools. The other
section was meant for the masses. Since 1907 its main institution was
the three-year "Volksschool", in which elementary, western type
education was given either in the local vernacular or in Malay. As
these schools had to be founded by local initiative with an often
insufficient government subsidy, there were far too few of them once
the urge for school education had been aroused.
This happened rather suddenly around 1914. Before that time some
government schools had to be closed by lack of interest. People sending
their children to these schools were called kafirs by their fellow-
villagers. But from that time onwards the call for more public schools
kept being heard. The idea of kemajuan had taken root. In West
Sumatra an enormous amount of private and religious schools
developed besides the governmental education system. For pupils
aspiring to some kind of a white collar job the latter was to prefer ; to
boys it opened way to the lower sectors of the civil service, or to a
teachers career. For girls only the latter possibility gradually came
within reach. While in prewar Indonesia educational facilities and job
opportunities were so limited in general, girls lagged far behind in both.
Education is not the only characteristic of the ideology of kemajuan.
It also comprises ideas on a new type of family structure, and an
involvement with national Indonesian problems and issues rather
than local ones. Western educated adherents of these ideas therefore
turned against adat as well as Islam, because both, in their eyes,
contained archaic elements that would hamper progress. The influence
of this category of intellectuals has been relatively small in the area,
as many of them left for higher education, and stayed away afterwards.

Start of the womens movement

Womens' organizations appeared on the Indonesian scene practically
as soon as national consciousness began to develop and all-Indonesian
clubs and national political parties came into being. It was not a
Minangkabau woman, but the Javanese princess Raden Adjeng Kartini
who first drew public attention to the lack of freedom for the Indonesia
woman. From her letters, edited in 1911, emerged the need for women
to be released from the social prejudices that prevented them from
taking part in the new developments of their time.

It will be clear from the foregoing, that in Minangkabau, despite its

alleged "matriarchy", there were reasons enough for women to follow
this trend. It was however a man, Datuk Sutan Maharadja, who
first stimulated womens' education as an integral part of progress.
Being a representative of adat, he pointed to "the discrepancy
between adat ideals and social reality — the high status of women
in the matrilineal society and their ambiguous social position" (Taufik
Abdullah, 1972, p. 222). By publications in several newspapers and
periodicals his ideas were spread.
In 1912 he promoted the first feminist magazine published in
Sumatra : Soenting Melajoe. It was edited by his own daughter
Zubaidah Ratna Djuita and another prominent Minangkabau lady
called Rohana. (4) The publication of Soenting Melajoe "opened the
initial phase of the feminist movement in Minangkabau" (Taufik
Abdullah, 1972, p. 217). It was firmly rooted in adat. Womens' education
was allright as part of the modernization process, as long as it did
not cause them to abandon their roles as mothers and guardians of the
matrilineal family. The danger of "over-education" should be avoided.
In 1909 Datuk Sutan Maharadja founded a weaving school for girls,
with five women from his birth village as teachers. In this
undertaking his concern with the old legacy of Minangkabau ancestors was
combined with the striving for more, but special education for girls.
Till then, few parents or mamaks had seen the use of spending their
money on school fees for girls. In the late nineteenth century the
government had to close two girls' schools for lack of pupils. The
Dutch school inspector C. Lekkerkerker remarks that the amount
of indigenous girls going to school is small in Indonesia, and smallest
among the Muslims. He does not want to blame religion for it, but
"the general low position of women... in the East, and in general
with the less civilized peoples". (C. Lekkerkerker, 1914, p. 873, our
translation). For the sake of fairness he goes on to state that even in
Europe chances for girls and boys are far from equal, but here
beginning participation in public life demonstrates the use
of their further education. This, according to him, is not yet the case
in Indonesia, where only ideological factors and the higher value of
an educated woman as a wife and mother can be used as arguments.
In mixed government schools in West Sumatra, however, the number
of girls was rapidly going up by that time. While in 1906 the
percentage of girls was 5.8% of that of the boys, in 1913 this had raised
to 11.25% as an average for the province. Compared to most other

(4) Cf. below, p. 164 sqq.


areas of Indonesia, this was a rather high score, especially for a strictly
Islamic region. This might be due to the higher valuation of women
in the adat system, and the fact that women's education was propagated
as an aspect of progress.
In 1907 the first female pupil entered the famous teachers training
college at Bukittinggi, (formerly Fort de Kock), West Sumatra. In
a memorial volume edited the next year one of the (Dutch) leaders
of the school wrote that "there are 75 pupils, and on top of that one of
the female sex, the daughter of (one of the teachers), who was accepted
the year before. For the present no destination has been given to
the study of this pupil". (Gedenkboek, 1908) Still, from that time
onwards, the amount of female pupils rapidly increased. Just as in
Europe, one of the first professions in which women were accepted,
at least before marriage, was that of teacher. Many of the early
female intellectuals and leaders in Minangkabau got their training at
this same school.

The "voice of women"

Ten years later, a female graduate of Bukittinggi teachers training

college, Saadah Alim, published another feminist periodical : Soeara
Perempoean (Womens' Voice). While Soenting Mela/joe represented the
adat view on progress, and the position of women, Soeara Perempuan
reflected western conceptions of womens' emancipation. Also Saadah
Alim wanted Minangkabau women to join their sisters from Java
and elsewhere in an all-Indonesian womens' movement. One of
the things she advocated was the freedom (5) for women to choose
their own direction on education and development. She was severely
attacked, among others by Datuk Sutan Maharadja, in the meantime
changed over to the orthodox Islamic party, who accused her of
wanting "free social intercourse with men". (Saadah Alim, 1936) As
this was a very bad thing, in her own eyes as well, she defended
herself by stating that this was not what she had meant by the word
Western educated women like Saadah could not concieve of
emancipation in a society controlled by adat. "In adat women have high status,
but in fact, their freedom is meaningless. They live like birds in a
cage. Is this equality ?" (Saadah in Soeara Perempoean quoted by
Taufik Abdullah, 1972, p. 241).
In marriage a woman was, according to Saadah, her husband's servant.
"She is responsible for the greatest part of daily work, not only in

(5) Characteristically she uses the Dutch word for freedom : "vrijheid".

the househoid, but also in the fields. In some areas, like Agam...
it is nearly exclusively the woman, who keeps working. She works
in the fields and in petty trade, while H.M. the Man has full
opportunity to indulge in endless chatting in front of the many coffee
house (lampau), and in the soerau,... and to amuse himself with
his dear traditional bird game". (Saadah Alim, 1936).
Islam, too, was condemned by her in this context : ... "to man
Minangkabau is paradise in a way. Religion allows him a maximum
of four wives, and he eagerly seizes this privilege. Perhaps nowhere
so many adherents to polygamy, so many broken womens' hearts are
to be found as in Minangkabau !"
While religion allowed polygyny, adat, according to Saadah and her
friends, created the circumstances favourable for it. As a man could
leave the responsibility for his children to his wife's brother, who
had to pay for their education, there were hardly any financial limits
to the amount of families he could raise. There is a striking difference
between these views and those of the men, (see p. 81) which are
prevailing in literature on the Minangkabau family. In his eyes he is
the underdog, who hardly has a place of his own, while his wife and
mother in law are bossing him. In the view of these women it is they
who suffer from heavy obligations and the lack of a safe background,
while the men are free to order their own life.

Women in Islam

Meanwhile, womens' education became a topic in modernist Muslim

circles as well. Religious instruction to girls was no altogether new
for Indonesia : girls did attend religious schools, where they learned
to recite the Koran. In some areas they even acted as teachers. But
these schools were felt to be old fashioned by the religious reformers.
Oral instruction was the only way of teaching ; no books, blackboards,
tables or chairs were used. There were no classes, as all pupils sat
around their teacher, endlessly repeating his words.
With the secular school system as an example, a movement for renewal
started, and special attention was paid to education for girls. Perhaps
the most famous promoter of this kind of education was a
Minangkabau woman : Rahmah el Yunusijjah.
She was trained herself in a religious school set up by her elder
brother in modern style, with a curriculum stressing general knowledge
besides religion. Girls and boys could enter the school. After finishing
her studies, she wholly devoted herself to working among girls and
women. Her interest in this work was "enlivened by the conviction that

on some questions instruction to girls could only be given by women".

(Deliar Noer, 1973,p. 53) So she spoke to her brother, and with his
help she founded a special school for girls in 1923. It is the still famous
Sekolah Diniyah (literally religious school) in Padang Panjang. The
success was great : it was set up as a boarding-school, and girls came
in from all over the country.
Rahmah had to overcome many difficulties. First she had to collect her
own pupils, in defiance of the mockery of the public, when they saw
girls going to school, books under their arms. What use would these
be in the kitchen ? She even reached grown up women with courses
for illiterates. Then she had all sorts of financial troubles, as she wanted
to be independent and for that reason refused to apply for government
subsidy. Finally there was some disagreement in her own staff about
the objects and the content of the program. Having started with only
religious subjects like study of the Koran, the Holy Tradition and
Islamic Law, Rahmah soon wanted to add general subjects, to prepare
her girls for life in a modern world. This met with the resistance of
conservative Muslim, but she insisted on adding one general subject
after another, until her curriculum was much like that of present-day
religious schools in Indonesia : a mixture of studies in Islam and the
common subjects taught on public schools.
The Sekolah Diniyah was meant to give the pupils "solid religious
education, without neglecting practical knowledge that would allow
them, after school, to join their husbands in their business, or to
work themselves in administration or private enterprise". (Jeanne
Cuisinier, 1956, our translation). Besides that there was a section for
training girls as religious teachers. It has been an example for many
similar schools, in West Sumatra and farther away.


Problems arising from education.

Etty is a very attractive girl student, dressed after the latest fashion.
Her family has no financial problems. Some time ago her father's
sister, living in Jakarta, wrote to her mother inviting Etty to live
with them for a year. Etty did not want to go, but "her mother
explained everything and she went". Her aunt's son came home every
month from Bandung where he was studying. Etty's stay in Jakarta
became a success : she returned being engaged to her father's sister's
son, who is now a student in Australia. After she has finished her
studies they wUl marry, and she will "second her husband and chil-

dren". Asking her if she loves her fiance, she answers deeply
shocked : "yes of course, I should love him !"
Although the tendency with the younger generation is towards free
choice of a marriage partner, and the voice of the children is much
stronger than in former days, marriage arrangement in a modern way
is still very common. The initiative to the negotiations mostly comes
from the girl's mother, possibly according to her daughter's (and her
friend's) wishes. The formal decision and approval is strictly man's
concern, finally authorized by the penghulu of the suku.
Children learn to respect their parents' wisdom. At a party we met
Lies, a student behaving in a rather emancipated manner. Walking
home together through the dark, she tells us about herself. A few
years ago she had a boyfriend whom, she loved and still loves. They
promised to marry, but he did1 not want to wait till she finished her
studies, a condition set by her parents. Then her friend married
another girl. She is from Lies' village, so the pair now lives there.
In great distress Lies then turned to her parents and told them to
look for a suitable husband. Once having failed she would completely
leave the decision with them, "because they know best what is good
for me". It did not take long before the right person had been selected,
her father's sister's son. She knows who he is, but did not see him
for years because he lives in Padang. On the day of their formal
engagement she will meet him again. Although she still loves her
former friend she submits to the decision of her parents, which is
indisputably just.
The emotional conflicts arising from romantic love against arranged
marriage, vividly described several decades ago in Minangkabau novels,
still frequently occur today. The young who read the most famous
novels still can identify themselves with the characters and conflicts
More and more girls get the chance to follow higher education. One
of the results is an increasing awareness of the (potential) role
conflicts for an educated young woman. During her study she has
more chances for meeting young males and getting involved in
romantic love. Her safety, that is her virginity, seems to be in constant
danger. Although she cannot marry against the will of her parents
and mamak without loosing her home and property, she can dismiss
their proposals and postpone her marriage. She may want to have a
job before marrying and having children, or to work and study
abroad — following the cultural example of the male migrant. The
girl's family members, knowing that by then their authority will be in
danger, exert great pressure upon the girl to accept a suitable
candidate before she is too old to have chances for marriage. The choice

is not a simple one, for the husband at least must have the same
degree of education. An unmarried woman from the age of about
25 and upward, is regarded as an abnormality, blaming her family.
For first of all a woman's value is determined by coming to be and
being a mother.

Women as mothers.
Talking to people, one realizes soon enough how very important the
birth of a girl is considered. Several men sadly told us they had only
sons. Some others, first having had three, four, five or more sons,
proudly mentioned the recent birth) of a daughter. In one case there
were six sons. The whole family prayed for a girl, which prayer
turned out to be fulfilled.
With the still rather high rate of infant mortality however, one
daughter does not guarantee the continuation of the family line.
Mothers of grown-up children are urged by their family — mother,
sisters and maternal uncles — to become pregnant again, to see if
another daughter will be born.
Like all unilineal descent systems, in combination with preferential
marriage, Minangkabau kinship structure is not favourable to the
acceptance of the idea of birth control (Ihromi, 1973). Moreover,
though modern contraceptive devices are widely known, extremely
high costs and fear to use them cause the number of acceptors to be
small. (Keebet von Benda, personal information).
In the socialization of girls primary emphasis is laid on the role of
mothers, and all related attitudes and abilities. Girls from the age of
about seven already behave like little mothers, having a considerable
amount of duties regarding household and care of younger siblings.
A grown-up mother, fulfilling culturally valued tasks, is considered
an important, honoured person. Her status implies rights on the
family property and the usufructs of it, rights of decision in household
and home affairs, and the actual responsibility for the upbringing of
children. As a mother, and even more so as a grandmother, a woman
has a key position within the matrilineally extended family.

The structural matrifocality of the Minangkabau family is supported
by important cultural values. The cultural image of the mother as
simultaneously strong, nurturant and wise is found throughout
Minangkabau drama and literature (Tanner, 1974 : 145) . An important
female symbol is Bundo Kandueng ("Own Mother"), the mythical
queen mother of Minangkabau.

Minangkabau matrifocality has been strengthened by the agelong

pattern of male migration, which has been strongly intensified by the
process of urbanization. Now increasing amounts of males, but also
females, only incidentally or never return home to take up their
roles in the family and society. Most villages count a considerable
surplus of women, left with children and old people to be the main
producers and effective decisionmakers. This migration has also
increased the already high frequency of divorce and polygyny.
Women are farmers and traders ; many of them work in home
industries or have jobs. The most important occupations practised
by women are that of teacher, female Islamic teacher, and clerk.
Economically the position of women, especially in the villages, is
strong. The greatest part of food production, mainly wet rice
agriculture and horticulture, is done by them. Women possess their own
products, and the effective decisionmaking in this field is in their
hands. Formally however, males are still responsible for the decisions
and management regarding family property.
Ideally, Minangkabau emigrants are required to send money to their
sisters and mothers, and give consent to their kemanakan's marriage,
however far they have gone. But the tendency now seems to be for
remittances to be sent to the home villages as a whole, for the benefit
of communal works.
So for long periods women often must, and are able to support
themselves, their children and old people with very little financial or
practical support from men. This independence is facilitated by the
traditional matrilocal pattern of residence, according to which related
women lived together in the longhouse, snaring the responsibilities of
agricultural labour, household duties and childcare.

Extended versus nuclear family.

Many of the longhouses decayed, as a result of a shortage of money

and manpower, caused by the mass emigration to Jakarta and other
places. In some cases, out of a desire for more comfort, people built
stone houses, and smaller ones. In the urban areas no traditional
houses are to be found at all.
The disadvantages of living close together with relatives are being
emphasised. A modern Minangkabau writer and politician illustrated
this point when he complained to us that nowadays daughters not
only wanted their own rooms in the house, but also their own sowing
machines and other status symbols. Quarrels among women living
together, for instance about their respective husband qualities, are
being portrayed as important sources of conflict.

New ideas concerning the advantages and more "advanced" status of

the nuclear family have caused new variants of the co-residency of
kinswomen. In the villages clusters of one-family houses, built close
together put up the families of consanguineally related women. After
marriage, the husband — if not on migration — usually moves in to
his wife's family house. After the birth of the first child, especially
if it is a daughter, the couple moves to a nearby house, built on the
wife's family ground or on a bought plot. Though the financing and
building has to be done by the husband, the house and everything
in it belongs to his wife. After divorce the husband has to leave
everything with his wife, for it is her property ; at best he can take
some money with him. (Keebet von Benda, personal information) In
the towns people live in one-family houses. One often finds also
single, older family members — most females — of the wife living
Cultural emphasis still lies on consanguineal relationships, conflicting
with strong affinal ties. Formally, a woman's loyalties are primarily
with her own maternal kin ; strongest ties with the opposite sex are
those with her brothers and sons, not with her husband. His loyalties
in the first place have to go to his mother, sisters and kemanakan. After
marrying into his wife's residency the management of his maternal
property and the education of his kemanakan stays under his responsibility.
Much has been written and is still being said about the difficult
position of the Minangkabau man, emotionally more and more tied to
his wife and own children, morally obliged to promote primarily the
interests of his maternal extended family. Compared to the Islamic
or western patriarchal family structure, the kin positions of
Minangkabau men vis à vis women are more peripheral and their effective
power within the family less strong.
Especially in Padang, the center of the modern intellectual and
political elite, many men complained to us about the Minangkabau adat,
which is village-like, oldfashioned and unfair in their views. "What
rights do we have, what possibilities to leave our possessions to our
own children
away..." A well
? One
sure of often
the mamak,
used in he
stands farther
to us

the man's problem, strikingly expresses this feeling :

Anak dipangku, kemanakan dibimbing.
(The child is on the lap, while the nephew is lead by the hand)

Though a man's own child is closest, his responsibility lies with his
sister's child , which is physically and emotionally farther away. As
mentioned before, much less is known about the Minangkabau woman's
xor -


près deleBatu
en traditionnelle
maçonnerie : deux
adat): sur
La photo
par excellence
est prise;

A côté d'une batu basurat ou "pierre inscrite"(où les graffiti récents sont venus
remplacer les anciens caractères d'une inscription du XIV e s. presque
entièrement disparus...), jeunes élèves d'une école coranique pour filles. La photo
est prise près du petit village de Pariangan.

Pays Minangkabau
(Photos D. Lombard)
Tukang jamu de Java ; on remarquera
la diversité des liquides, portés sur le dos
dans un panier retenu par une écharpe
(selendang) ; le seau en plastique contient
l'eau nécessaire au rinçage des verres.
(Photos V.D.)

view on her position in the family and society, and about her
conflicting loyalties. As we experienced, men are the ones who talk
almost constantly and eagerly about adat affairs, Islam and
modernization. It is much more difficult to get to know the opinions of women,
especially on a short visit during which we were mostly the guests of
the men, as official representatives of their society. This is not to say,
that women less than men know about what is going on. Only according
to adat and Islam, women are not expected to speak out in public.
One evening for example, we were the guests of a penghulu, the
father of one of the two girls who introduced us to their village. As
we sat on the verandah of the house, the father in detail explained
to us his rights and duties as a penghulu. The girls and his wife,
who was sitting somewhat behind in a corner, listened to his speech.
It was clear, that he used the situation to teach his daughter and
her friend on matters having to be known when grown-up. The girls
politely asked questions, sometimes schocking the father with their
lack of knowledge. The discussion abruptly came to an end at seven
o'clock, when the penghulu excused himself to perform his ritual
prayer inside. The girls prayed with him. whereas his wife prepared
our meal in the kitchen.
It is clear that Minangkabau women no less than men have to deal
with problems, arising from conflicting values and loyalties. If a wife's
affection goes to her husband, they can have a strong, lasting and
intimate tie together, which often happens actually. (Tanner 1974 :
143) Though she loves her husband who is the father of her children,
not he (nor she) but her brother has the authority and is responsible
for their upbringing and education. Her husband stays only a "guest"
in her family.
Ideas about modernization, one of the necessary conditions of
which is thought to be the nuclear family, sharply conflict with
adat principles, especially the relations between women and men.
Though the by-products of urbanization — loosening of extended
family ties and the institution of the nuclear family — seem to further
modernization, this process can have negative consequences for the
status of women. Once a wife lives alone with her husband and
children, away from her own kin and family land, she comes under the
sole authority of her husband, a pattern moreover legalized by Islam.
A patriarchal family type develops. She loosens the possibility of
solidarity with kinswomen, and the resources for economic self-
reliance. She can less easily share household and childcare activities

Planche ci-contre : cf. article, p. 263.


with other women, thus having more difficulties in fulfilling a job


The limits of women's power.

Underlying features and values of patrilineality (de Josselin de Jong,
1951) and patriarchy, already existent in Minangkabau structure and
strengthened by Islam and westernization, seem to have become
more dominant during this century. (Maretin, 1961; Schrieke, 1955).
Answering our questions about the formal status of women, a college
of male officials from the Islamic department in Padang gave us their
most official point of view : "We adhere the opinion of the Indonesian
government. There is no difference between the position of the
Indonesian woman and the Minangkabau woman. The Minangkabau
woman is honoured (menghormati)". Our carefully formulated
question about possible differences in women's position according to
adat or Islam is answered with a well known adat proverb :
Adat bersendi Syarak, Syarak bersendi Kitabullah.
(Adat is based on the muslim Law, muslim Law is based on the
Book of Allah.)

This means, that adat and Islam harmoniously go together, the Koran
being the base of everything.
According to the government's ideology of modernization regional
differences have to be attenuated. In howfar this eventually will
advance the position of Minangkabau women is not sure. What
has struck most observers of Minangkabau society, coming from
other cultures, is the high status of women. Minangkabau people still
call their society a "matriarchy", proud of the speciality of their
culture. However, all formal positions of authority — adat,
governmental, religious or political functions — are strictly man's affair, so
that the term "matriarchy", though charming, does not correspond
with reality. Minangkabau culture makes no exception in the
opposition between the public sphere associated with men, and the
domestic sphere associated with women. (Zimbalist Rosaldo and
Lamphere, 1974)
What makes women's position strong, apart from the centrality of
the mother and her traditional economic independence, is the great
effective power women may achieve. Especially senior women have
a fair amount of influence, directly in the domestic sphere, and
indirectly through men in the public sphere. Through the strong ties
a woman has with her brothers and sons, and often now with her
husband, she can influence male decisionmaking according to her

interests. A common way to enlarge her power is to promote her son

for important functions. By influencing the opinions of male kinsmen,
women can have an effective say in family, kinship and village
matters. Although they cannot take part in the family or village
councils, during the formal deliberations women are present in and
around the house, hearing what is being said by the men. If they
don't agree with the arguments, senior women may interrupt the
discussions and interject their opinions. The men then discuss her
suggestion at length. (Tanner, 1974: 144).
During our short visit to Minangkabau we mainly participated in
public events. Apart from the meetings with women's organizations,
in all situations the authority and leadership of men was striking
to us. An example may illustrate this experience : One day we give
a lecture for the students and staff members of the APDN, an
educational institute for civil servants (Akademi Pemerintah Dalam
Negeri). During the time written questions for the discussion
are being arranged, we ask the few girls present, sitting in
the front rows, what are their plans after the training. Can a girl
become mayor or head of a district, and what if she marries ? The
male students burst out laughing, while the girls timidly consult
together. When silence returns, one girl takes courage and says that
Bapak Rektor (father rector) can best answer the question. With
great dignity he then explains : There is no problem at all ; the rights
of boys and girls are completely the same. After we put some more
questions concerning the actual situation, things become clearer :
Once, for a very short time, there has been a female mayor. But
usually women don't become civil servants, "because these functions
don't suit them". The reasons given are ecological (bad roads, hot
weather and a lot of rain) and physical (female weakness). These
factors together "most understandably" exclude women from this
hard type of work.
It will be c'ear, that this attitude corresponds with an ideal,
pattern, according to which women are considered luxury
goods, kept far from hard physical labour. The actual situation for
most Minangkabau women is of course very different from this urban
ideal. In practice, after finishing their exams, boys from the APDN
become civil servants, while girls marry or take jobs as clerks. We
ask the girls if they agreed with mister principal's explanation. "Yes,
of course, he perfectly expressed our feelings".

The women's organizations.

Since the start of this century the struggle for women's emancipation
in Indonesia has been closely linked with the process of national

awakening and political emancipation. After independence, the

importance of women's participation in the upbuilding of the state has been
îecognized by the government.
To stimulate their instruction wives of civil servants have been
organized and divided into groups according to their husband's
professions. In the district of Padang this has resulted in 34 compulsory
organizations, coordinated in one body, the Badan Koordinasi Organi-
sasi Wanita (BKOW), the president of which is the governor's wife(6).
The instruction of these women, belonging to the social elite, seems
to be limited to a rather narrow sphere of "female" activities, strongly
influenced by the image of western upper-class life. The women are
taught sowing, cooking, child-care and hygiene, and get instructions
about how to set the table when having guests. Besides there is a
number of "free", district-bound associations, aiming at social assistance
programmes. Active in this field is also the Aisyiyah, which supports
for instance an orphanage for Mentawai children and a maternity
A number of informal cooperative women's associations also exist,
similar to the Javanese "arisan" (Vreede-de Stuers, 1968: 159). Each
time the group meets, the whole collected contribution, equal for
all members, is given to one of them. So each woman in turn recieves
an amount of money, than she could have saved alone. She can
spend it as she likes. As in the towns, the activités of women's
organizations in the villages concentrate upon domestic matters. Modern
argicultural, technical or political information is not provided for
women, irrespective of their important economic roles. In this regard
the situation in Minangkabau differs little from that in most parts
of the world (Boserup, 1970).
However, Minangkabau women don't seem to live on their former
glory of having a high status to all eternity. As has been described
in the last chapter, women's efforts for change were made in
different sectors of society during a long time. What exactly their
ultimate purpose are we don't know. In any case, they strived after
a woman's counterpart of the LKAAM (Lembaga Kerapatan Adat
Alam Minangkabau), which has been a political organization for men
only until a few months ago. This forum of representatives of the
provincial government and of the penghulu, founded by the
government in 1966, has two important functions : at first, it is meant and
used as ari instrument for carrying out the plans of the government.
Secondly, it has also become a pressure group for the penghulu, who

(6) Cf. below, p. 206.


are trying to regain the power they have lost after independence
(von Benda, 1975 : 67). Very recently a woman's counterpart of the
LKAAM has been established, named "Bundo Kandueng" after the
mythical queen mother. This organization will be represented in the
LKAAM, but function autonomously.
It is through the Bundo Kandueng that women want to strengthen
their position in the adat structure. How they imagine to realize this
is not yet sure. For urban "bourgeois" ideals still dominated the
women's speeches during the third conference of the LKAAM, held
in November 1974. They publicly stated to further concentrate on
specifically feminine matters. They considered the task of women to
lie primarily within the domestic sphere. (Although many of the
women present have jobs as teachers.) The discussions within the
committee of Bundo Kandueng covered themes like family planning
and education (von Benda, 1975: 68-9).
The president of Bundo Kandueng is a sister of an influencial male
adat specialist. It is interesting to note, that these women seem to
choose the traditional way to enlarge their effective power in public
life : by influencing the opinions of men, their brothers and sons.
However, leading women of Bundo Kandueng also started a series of
activities directly aimed at the "upgrading" of women. The division
of Bukittinggi for instance started adat courses, instruction about
family planning and explanation of the new marriage law, coming
into force in October 1975. Deliberately the intellectual level of the
lectures is kept low, so that women from the surroundings of
Bukittinggi can understand the speakers.
Though the participation of village women is aimed at, this will
probably take very long. For the time being, village departments of
Bundo Kandueng will not be established, nor will women participate
in the village administration. Male resistance to an official position
of women in public life is still very strong in Minangkabau (von
Benda, personal information). Compared to the situation in most
parts of the world, the traditional status of Minangkabau women is
certainly high. Moreover, their progress and education were promoted
by several persons and organizations. The ideals behind it, however,
were very different. The ends pursued in women's education ranged
all the way from trying to become better housewives and mothers to
being recognized as equals of men.
To achieve real equality of the sexes in all spheres of society, women
will have a long way to go. Probably to this end they will choose a
careful, culturally accepted "female" approach — anyway for the time


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