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Home >> Across Cultures  >> Blurring the gender lines

Blurring the gender lines

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.


In this tribe women are chiefs of their families. They are also custodians of the tribe’s properties, which they inherit from their mothers. Women head the domestic realm and men play leading roles in politics and spirituality. Although the clan’s chief is always male, he is elected by the female. This gives the latter power to dethrone the former if situation dictates. This Indonesian tribe is the largest known matrilineal society in the world.

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. However, their exposure to the world outside has definitely brought a change in their outlook of their own societies.

Taking the example of the Nair community in Kerala, Dr Gopal says, “The matriarchal social structure in this community was a social adaptation. Men here were warriors and were never home. Therefore, all the responsibilities–be it financial or domestic–had to be carried out by the women. They inherited properties from their parents because there was no one else to look after them. However, things are changing now. There are no tribal wars to keep men away and therefore they are equally involved in the household affairs.”

She further points out how matriarchy and matrilineality are gradually becoming redundant. There is, however, one outcome which is noteworthy. “Unlike women from patriarchal societies, women from matriarchal or matrilineal societies are more vocal about their opinions. They are more respected in such communities, even though they do not hold absolute power,” says Dr Gopal.


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