Do we really want women to be in power?
Sanne van Oosten
“Where the women tell the men what to do”, this is how Lonely Planet described the Minangkabau people of West-Sumatra. When reading this, I knew this was a place that I had to visit. Is it possible? Women being in charge? Is there really such a society I can observe as to take inspiration back home? When searching the Minangkabau people on Google, numerous websites refer to the female power that is present in this region. Travel agencies advertise their tours by underlining the high position of women in Minangkabau culture and even the renowned anthropologist Dr. P.R. Sanday wrote the book “Women at the center” in which she went as far as to call Minangkabau society a “matriarchy.”
After reading all of this, visiting West-Sumatra turned out to be quite a disappointment. It turns out that in Minangkabau culture the men are still the ones who do the bulk of the work outside the house, still the ones who decide who an appropriate partner would be for their female family members and still the only ones who have political power in local decision making. The distinctive feature in Minangkabau culture that gives women more power than men is their inheritance system. In most surrounding cultures men inherit the land from their fathers, but in Minangkabau culture the women inherit the land from their mothers. Even though, in fact, is seems quite excessive to state that women are in power, they definitely are more important within their families since they are the heirs to their family’s (mis)fortunes. However, the family is the domain where women usually have more power anyway, no matter if the inheritance structure is matrilineal or not.
When rummaging through a Minangkabau library I stumbled upon a book by an Dutch anthropologist from 1923, in which the Minangkabau were analyzed (Minangkabau, overzicht van land, geschiedenis en volk, M. Joustra). The same aspects of society that I observed were observed then as well. “In Minangkabau the male is the main actor, he is the active figure whereas the woman is the passive figure. Only where the family property is concerned does she have a voice. Furthermore, it is the male who can take up leading positions within the community, he has voting power in local decision making, he acts on behalf of his female family members, and he is the one in charge of working the land that the woman inherits.”
When reading the title of this blog, you might have expected me to criticize the way in which women ruled the Minangkabau people. However, this is far from what I am going to put forward. Minangkabau women are not the ones in power, just as Western women are not the ones in power either. It would be wrong to claim that a certain set of people should be in power based on a physical characteristic, say, their reproductive organs. However, this is actually what is taking place in both Western and Minangkabau culture. Minangkabau women inherit their land only because they were born with female reproductive organs, whereas Minangkabau men make all the political decisions only because they were born with male reproductive organs.
Inheriting land is not a very relevant issue in the West anymore, nevertheless, if one takes a look at who are the political leaders, one will see this these are mostly men. As I, and many others with me, don’t believe men are inherently smarter or more competent than women, this must have something to do with the fact that they are born with male reproductive organs. I don’t think power should be distributed by the reproductive organ someone happens to be born with, but by merit. May the best (wo)man win, was it not? Up till now, neither Minangkabau nor Western culture are leaving the reproductive organ a person happens to be born with out of the equation. What you are born with should not decide what you do and who you become, but all too much, it still is of significant value in determining our future.