The Minangkabau ethnic group, West Sumatra

The Minangkabau ethnic group is indigenous to the highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia. The Minangkabau are the fourth largest ethnic group in Indonesia. They live primarily in the tropical mountain regions of Sumatra, Indonesia’s westernmost island. Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world, is populated by people of fifteen different language groups.

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Minangkabau origins were heavily influenced by Hinduism and date back to around 200 AD. The name “Minangkabau” represents a high degree of wit and resourcefulness, since it literally means “winning” (minang) “water buffalo” (kabau). They are well known throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia for their spicy foods, cultural pride, and successful businesses.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Minangkabau culture is that their societies are matrilineal. This means that they recognize descent and inheritances through the female line. The Minangkabau are the largest people group in the world to continue this practice. The strength of their culture is that they have remained matrilineal while embracing Islam.

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This community is traditionally matrilineal and yet holds strong Islamic religious beliefs. In this symposium, four Southeast Asia scholars will address different aspects of this unique culture. A matriarchal society in Indonesia, makes us think differently about traditional gender family roles. Rachel Hand explains how the culture works and gives insight into a world when women run the household.

Traveling through West Sumatra, the striking rooftops of traditional Minangkabau houses with gables that point upwards to the sky represents a strong tradition amidst the constant development of modern Indonesia. This region is home to the world’s largest matrilineal people, the Minangkabau or Minang.

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A women-centered society 

Although some anthropologists regard this society as matrilineal, where assets such as land and property are passed down through the women of the family, many people consider the Minangkabau to be a matriarchal society, where women are seen as head of the family. The culture describes ethnic animism-based customs as matriarchaat, a term derived from Dutchnd whether or not this is defined as a matriarchy; there is no doubt that the traditions are women centered.

The Minangkabau have a unique tradition, combining a matrilineal or matriarchal system with Islamic beliefs and increasing modern influences, where the women enjoy a position rarely held by women from other ethnic groups or cultures. Perhaps we can learn something from the fascinating way the Minangkabau society continues to thrive in modern Indonesia.

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