In much of the western world, Islam is viewed as a religion at odds with female power. But a society in West Sumatra, Indonesia, is based on matriarchal influence and Islamic belief.
Peggy Reeves Sanday is an anthropologist who took a closer look at the matrilineal Minangkabau society and saw how one of Indonesia's largest ethnic groups lives peacefully and harmoniously as a female-oriented society devoted to Islam.
Peggy Reeves Sanday first went to West Sumatra in 1981. Intrigued by reports that the matrilineal Minangkabau labeled their society a matriarchy, Ms. Sanday wanted to see for herself how some four million people in Indonesia defined the term through their practice of customs and religion in daily life.
Ms. Sanday repeatedly visited a Minangkabau village to study and share in its practices and rituals, called "adat." Adat emphasizes the maternal in daily life where women control economic and social issues.
Ms. Sanday said she was taken in by a village family and tells the story of Ibu Idar, a woman she considered to be the "ideal Minangkabau woman." "In the two most important realms of village life, adat and religion," Ms. Sanday said, "Ibu Idar was sort of an exemplary model of the way people should be. She knew all the adat ceremonies. She helped women in the village stage their ceremonies. She knew what kinds of foods had to be cooked and prepared and she was also exemplary in her devotion to the Islamic regime of prayer."
Islam has played an important role in village life since its inception into Minangkabau culture in the 16th century and despite recent outbreaks of violence associated with Islamic ideologies in many parts of the world, Minangkabau society remains tranquil. Ms. Sanday says the Minangkabau people have a way of accommodating outside forces in a peaceful manner.
Historically, the Minangkabau have dealt with their share of conflict. In the 14th century, a Javanese prince invaded the area and tried to institute a male-dominated regime. Ms. Sanday said the Minangkabau "successfully withstood and struggled against it." In the 19th century, there was strife between adat officials and Islamic fundamentalists, but again, she said, they found a way to accommodate both adat and Islam.
She attributes their adaptability to the importance put on women in society. Ms. Sanday said, "The Minangkabau have managed to accommodate all of the sort of outside influences that have come in to their region from at least the 14th century by weaving these influences into their adat. But they always held on to the principle of matrilineality."
The Minangkabau system of matrilineality is more like a "partnership," according to cultural historian Riane Eisler. Ms. Eisler said Peggy Reeves Sanday's book on her experiences, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy, dispels the notion that society has always been and always will be male-dominated.
The Muslim religion and culture were superimposed on their system," Ms. Eisler said,"and they now consider themselves Muslim. But if you really look at the description that Peggy has of how they look at nature, how they look at gender, how they look at some, you know, pretty basic things, what you find is much more of the remnants of their earlier belief system."
Islam and matrilineal adat are accepted as equally sacred, but there is an emphasis on female jurisdiction that Islam does not have. For example, many of the ceremonies, particularly weddings, call on the women to run the show. Women go to pick up the groom and return him to the bride's house - the opposite of the Muslim tradition. Property rights are in the hands of women, and they inherit land and can instigate divorce and child custody.
But Ms. Sanday worries that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia may affect Minangkabau society. Knowing the culture the way she does, however, Ms. Sanday believes they will always find ways to adapt to outside influences, from rock music to religion.
Riane Eisler agrees that the West can learn from the Minangkabau society when it comes to accommodating everybody in the system. "Peggy's book is like Exhibit A," she said. "It is like one of the pieces of evidence to share that there is an alternative and to show the critical importance of gender."
Ms. Sanday says that the Minangkabau people remind us that there is always an alternative and that as long as women are half of the equation, then they will always be half of the solution.