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Do you really know what Matriarchy means?

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Do you really know what matriarchy means?

A couple of weeks ago I have researched about something I needed to write one of the episodes of the podcast I produce and I realised how often some important and well-known common concepts can be easily misconceived. One good example of this situation happens with the concept of matriarchy. If questioned about the meaning of matriarchy most people would almost immediately answer that matriarchy is the opposite of patriarchy, but is this the right answer? Are you really sure you know what matriarchy means?

The common association between matriarchy and patriarchy as being opposite to one another is in fact wrong and if I may, a lot simplistic for such complex term. There are, at the moment, no historical evidences regarding the existence of a society ruled by women over men in the world. The only gender dominating society humanity has ever acknowledged so far is the patriarchal society. Some of you may be shaking heads in disagreement, thinking I am wrong or that I must be, at least, out of my mind because there are, indeed, a few matriarchal societal structures around the world. I will explain myself better. I have never said this type of societal structure never existed, what I meant is that, what actually never happened, or at least no proof has been found, is that women have never, in the history of the world, ruled over men and taken advantage of their position to dominate them.

With respect to these few matriarchal societies around the world, they can be used to better understand the real concept of matriarchy, but first, it is essential to comprehend how matriarchal societies can be generally classified, in what each type matriarchy differentiates itself from the others and if there is something in common among them. Matriarchies can be assorted in three categories: Matrilineal (the kinship is traced through one’s mother); Matrilocal (families remain located close to the maternal line); Matrifocal (the mother is the head of the family). The differences among each type of matriarchal structure are pretty easy to be found just understanding the meaning of these definitions, what cannot be promptly anticipated here is what bond these three branches of matriarchy and to elucidate this aspect I will make use of the studies of Dr. Heide Götner-Abendtroth, P.h.D. in philosophy  of science at the University of Munich, Germany and researcher of matriarchal societies and cultures, in which not only she affirms what I have said previously about the misconception of the term matriarchy as opposite to patriarchy, moreover she proposes a better concept to matriarchy as “societies that are consciously built upon maternal values and motherly work […], on principle, need-oriented. Their precepts aim to meet everyone’s needs with the greatest benefit.” Taking the lead from Dr. Götner-Abendtroth it is possible to establish that matriarchal societies are not characterised by gender domination as patriarchal societies, but are instead characterised by a horizontal complementary equality gender structure. The structure of the few matriarchal societies that can be found around the world seem to confirm Dr Götner-Abendtroth’s theory, In particular the Minangkabau Community in Sumatra, Indonesia.

The Minangkabau Community, similarly to other matriarchal societies, like the Bribri community located in some regions of Costa Rica and Panama, is an indigenous community in which women despite their importance in the society arrangement, will have men in positions of complementary responsibility. This community was (and still is) extensively studied by researchers like Dr. Götner-Abendthroth, herself, and her colleague Dr Peggy Reeves Sanday, Ph.D in anthropology at University of Pittsburgh, in the United Sates, who published the book “Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy” in which she explains in detail her studies of the Minangkabau community. Other matriarchal communities that deserve to be mentioned are: the Mosuo community, an ethnic group of women located near the Lugu Lake, in China, at the foot of the Tibetan Himalayas and the Umoja community in Kenya, the only matriarchal community among those mentioned in this article where the presence of men is banned. The prohibition of male presence is justified by the fact that it was originated as a refuge for women who had faced rape, violence and sexual assault. 

As we can observe after going deeper into the study of this topic, it is clear that the usual misinterpretation of the term matriarchy as the opposite to patriarchy oversimplifies a very important and complex concept that actually needs some more background to be fully comprehended and explained. It should be clear now that when women say “down patriarchy, up matriarchy” they are actually not asking to dominate men rather than asking to stop being submissive and being able to fight for the right of a fair and equal society for everyone (men included), reinforcing the common desire to satisfy the needs of every element of the society equally and at the same time to obtain a shared and great benefit for all.

Published inAnthropologyGender dominanceHistoryMatriarchyPatriarchy vs MatriarchySocietyWomen

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