A glimpse inside the matriarchal societies where women rule the roost
You've heard the song, you've got the t-shirt, you've probably tried the dance - but if you really think about it, it's kind of hard to argue that girls actually do "Run the World". For at least the last thousand years, cultures all over the world have been dominated by patriarchal societies, one's in which moral authority, social privilege and financial control all rest in the hands of men in the first instance. From dowry marriages to the current gender pay gap, even the many waves of feminism haven't quite change the fact that in many (most) countries, men still get a much easier ride than women.
But once upon a time, it is believed that the world was overflowing with just the opposite kind of societies - matriarchal ones, where women called the shots. Officially defined as a society where females lead family groups, tribes or states, these actively prioritise a woman's role and opinion in the family, business or political spheres. Although few and far between today, there do still exist a few cultures in which women still do run the world - and they’re more different from one another than you might think.
How would your husband feel about moving in his mother-in-law, forever? That’s exactly what happens in the culture Khasi people, in the Indian state of Meghalaya. Once married, a man is at the mercy of his wife’s mother and must do as she says, whether that’s washing the dishes or taking the bins out. Although it might sound hellish to many, Khasi women are in high demand; as an officially designated ethnic minority, the Khasi receive privileges such as lower taxation, which for some men makes it a price worth paying. Although land and family names are passed through the female lines, it’s not all plain sailing for women, as any major decisions made must be endorsed by a maternal uncle. But, in a country that doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation when it comes to the treatment of women, it’s certainly a more fortunate position than many people find themselves in.
The Minangkabau people are the world’s largest matriarchal society, numbering four million people in total. Although religious and political affairs are both male responsibilities, the mother is, by far, the most important figure in society and men cannot make final decisions without authority from their female equals. In contrast to many other societies, being graced with daughters is considered a blessing, not a curse. As with the Khasi people, family name, property and land all pass down from mother to daughter and so the female bloodline is fiercely protected. In some particularly traditional families, married women remain living at home with their mothers while their husbands are granted visiting rights only; in more modern ones, women live with their husbands but must return each morning for breakfast with their mothers.
Inheritance and brunch? Doesn't sound too bad!
The right of women to choose their own partners - and to change them as they wish - is often considered to be a modern development, but for the Mosuo people, this has long been the norm. In the Mosuo world, there is no need for marriage because only the influence of the mother's family is regarded as useful. Individuals live in their matriarchal home all of their lives, with partners only permitted to visit at night, something often referred to as a “walking marriage”. Here, men are seen as little more than handy sperm donors, manual labourers and babysitters, although they sometimes have a say in familial decisions - but only with the permission of their grandmother.
Aka, Central Africa
In many Western countries, it’s mum that gets lumbered with doing the weekly food shop, but for the Aka tribe, who live in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, things are a little different. Instead of shopping, mum goes hunting, even throughout her pregnancy. Although not strictly matriarchal, this is believed to be one of the most equal societies on earth, owing to the belief that anything a man can do, a woman can too. This works both ways of course, with Aka fathers spending more time with their children than any other fathers on earth, and even offering their babies their nipples to suck on while mum’s away - which solves the age old mystery of why men even have nipples, really.
Bribri, Costa Rica
A small indigenous group of this Central American nation, the social structure of the Bribri people is organised into matrilineal clans, featuring extended families based on the mother's own background. With a culture centered around the idea that society should work in harmony with Mother Earth, knowledge and cultural traditions are predominantly passed down by grandmothers, who are held in especially high regard. Women also often hold senior positions in society, such as owning businesses, although spiritual leadership roles are reserved for men. As a mark of respect though, only women may prepare the cacao used in sacred rituals. While men are permitted to pass on knowledge such as trade, it may only be to their female relatives' sons, never to their own.
It's widely acknowledged that matriarchal and patriarchal societies can be as damaging and oppressive as one another, but that doesn't mean it's not refreshing to see a granny's opinion holding the most gravitas once in a while. For better or for worse, many of these matriarchal traditions are now slowly fading away as younger generations migrate to cities and mix with people from other backgrounds; all we can hope, is that in our own cultures, life starts to level out a bit. Let's keep the brunch thing though, please.