Situated in the Special Region of Aceh the northernmost provincial-level unit of Sumatra, the more than four million Acehnese (2000 census) are most famous throughout the archipelago for their devotion to Islam and their militant resistance to colonial and republican rule. Renowned throughout the nineteenth century for their pepper plantations, most Acehnese were rice growers in the coastal regions in the early 1990's.
Acehnese do not have large descent groups; the nuclear family consisting of mother, father, and children is the central social unit. Unlike the Javanese or Balinese family, the Acehnese family system shows marked separation of men's and women's spheres of activity. Traditionally, males are directed outwardly towards the world of trade. In the practice of merantau - going abroad or away from one's birthplace - young adult males leave their homelands for a time to seek their fortune, experience, and reputation through commerce.
This may involve travel to another village, province, or island. This maturation process among males is viewed as growing out of the domestic female-dominated world of sensory indulgence and into the male world of reasoned rationality, whose practice is expressed through trade. One model of Acehnese family life is that a woman sends a man out of the house to trade and welcomes him back when he brings home money. When he has exhausted his money, she sends him out again. Meanwhile, women and their kin are responsible for working the fields and keeping the gardens and rice fields productive.
This oscillating pattern of migration encountered some difficulties in the 1980's as increasing numbers of men failed to return to the Acehnese homeland, but instead remained and married in remote locations, such as Jakarta and Kalimantan. In addition, northern Sumatra experienced important changes because of the influx of temporary workers seeking employment in the oil and timber industries.