In the recent history of feminism, matriarchy has often been upheld as a symbol of women’s empowerment. Instances of communities, clans and tribes where women are known to lead, have often been cited as a tribute to the strength of a woman. However, as we explore the concept of matriarchy, we unravel its clash with modern society and misconceptions associated with it.
Sociologist Dr Malathi V Gopal says, matriarchy is not too different from patriarchy. It bestows absolute power on women, both domestically and economically. In fact, it has been used interchangeably with matrilineality across cultures and geographies. However, matrilineality, a sub-set of matriarchy, is confined to lineage where the family name comes from the maternal side and the daughter inherits property from her mother. In this system, women otherwise rarely hold power outside the precincts of home.
A distinct example of a matriarchical society is Metis. According to Suchorita Chattopadhyay, professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, the First Nation people of Canada were essentially matriarchal. In fact, the women of these communities guided the French traders into the inner regions of Canadian jungles for fine fur. Men, on the other hand, stayed at home, involved themselves neither on the domestic front nor in business.
Interestingly, this social structure was short-lived. The constant influence of the European culture on this community accelerated by inter-racial marriages toppled the matriarchs. Men in this community gradually understood that the power structure outside their tribe was inverse. They then started adopting the patriarchal structure.
The global influence worked similarly for other tribes and communities too, which were matrilineal. Here’s exploring some of these tribes:
The Garo and the Khasis
The Garo and the Khasis are close neighbours and therefore have similar governance. Women in both the clans inherit properties from their mothers. However, the men hold governing position and manage the property.
The Mosuo tribe
Living in the border areas of Tibet, primarily in the Yunnan and the Sichuan provinces, this tribe is the epitome of matrilineality. In fact, it has earned itself a special classification from the Chinese government and is now part of the ethnic minority known as the Naxi. The women in the community lead their extended families and handle business. However, the men handle administration and politics.
The Akan tribe
The clans within the tribe are founded by women, but the leadership positions are held by men. However, these roles are outsourced to men by women. The man is expected to support all his female relatives, apart from his own family.
The Bribri tribe resides in a reserve in the Talamanca canton in Costa Rica. Like any other matrilineal community, the tribe determines family names from the mother’s lineage. Women have the sole right to inherit land.
Anthropologists often find these tribes and communities caught between tradition and the modern world, where they are left clueless about their status in the global picture.