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The Minangkabau
Visiting relatives at the Minang

Western Sumatera is the habitat of about four milion Minangkabau (normally called Minang), an energetic population which is known all over Indonesia for their strong relations, it's sharp mind of trading, hot kitchen and strong believe in Islam. The Minang are also travelers and migrants, because of their tradition of merantau, young people trying to find their luck elsewhere, it's most likely there are more Minang living outside than inside their original habitat.

Still all of them consider these beautiful highlands, the darek, as their home. The Minang belong to the most friendly people in Indonesia and they like to talk about their unique culture to foreigners. Visitors who try to learn the uses and traditions of the Minang can be accepted as a member of the clan very fast, instead of strangers from a far-away country.
Adat and Islam

The Minangkabau keep on fascinating anthropologists because of their unusual combination of family relationships through females and Islam. They are one of the few communities in the world which have a relational system through the female side where the females decide where the male stands. In this way, every Minang belongs to his of her mothers descendance, and the rice-fields as well as the longhouses (rumah gadang) belong to the women. A married female traditionally stayed in the house of her family.

Men spend much time in their mothers house and had more responsibility for the children of their sister than the ones of themselves. This old system is lost in the 20th century, but in many villages the houses still belong to the sisters or other relates females.

The Minangkabau are organized in woman-related clans (suku), and in every village, a number of suku has power. Traditions told there were only four clans, but over the time they got separated, and now there are about twenty-five, everyone with it's own name. In every village a few suku have power.

The suku, again, are parted in different descendance groups or paruik (lit. uterus), which consist of descendants from a single ancestral mother. The suku and descendance groups were only allowed to marry people outside their own clan of group of descendance. This relational structure is no longer important for younger Minangkabau, especially those who moved outside the area, and is slowly disappearing.

Land, houses and some precious goods belong to the group of descendance and are not allowed to be sold but only under strict regulations. Sale of land nowadays is more common than it used to be in the past. Male representatives from the group of descendance, like the penghulu or 'leader', are responsible for the organization of public possessions, but the women have the right to use it and the right to give it away to their descendants. The oldest woman owns a piece of land which will be divided when she dies or she will divide when she's to old to work on it herself. The economical position of the women is very strong. On the other side it's not so special as it used to be; the growing population and economical changes didn't do any good to it.

However the Minangkabau women are strong Muslims on the whole, only a few ask themselves whether the female relational ties are right for the islam. 'Adat (normality right) is based on sharia (Islamic laws), and sharia is based on the Holy Book (the Quran)', they say. Minang intellectual and religious leaders however have declared this matriarchal system as wrong for what Islam laws concerned, they tell that sons have the right to get two-thirds of an heirloom, and daughters only one-thirds. The result of these kinds of disputes is that the goods owned by heir are divided by traditional rules, and the goods owned by working for them are divided by Islamic law. This is still not very common, and many houses are still being heired by the daughters.

Forms of leadership

One of the most known Minangkabau legends is about the battle between two heroes, Datuk Ketumanggungan and Datuk pepatih Nan Sebatang, about the right way of ruling. Both lost. Some families follow Ketumanggungan and supported the aristocratic system. They were known as laras Koto Piliang, and the village Sungai Tarab in Tanahdatar was their location. The houses of the families which belonged to the lasra can be recognised by the raised floor at both sides.

Followers of Pepatih Nan Sebatang supported the way of governing which praised equality and formed the laras Bodi Caniago. Their headquarters was Lima Kaum, which ruled a big part of the Agam. Their houses have flat floors. Maybe this legend has an historical background; it's probably pointing at the rupture which was caused by new ideas which were brought in by the half-Javanese prince Adityavarman in the 14th century.

The rule over the village was the same in the two styles. However had the rule over the possessions, the men leas the village meetings (at least in public). There was a council of only men (penghulu) from all groups of descendance in the village which had the same ancestral mother, and the oldest brothers of the oldest women from every house (mamak). Every suku in the village also had an own leader. The system was rather difficult, with spread rule and the need of frequent discussions and a preference for meetings as anywhere in Indonesia. The city council or balai used to be one of the most important buildings in the village, and many old balai are perfect expressions of traditional Minangkabau architecture.
Living a family house

Earlier, every household consisted of three to four generations of descendants from one single ancestral mother, which all lived under the same roof. Household had a common character; the members worked together on the rice-fields and shared the harvest. The house was the center of the social life of the women. The sleeping rooms were used by the just-married young women of the family and their children.

On her wedding day a daughter got the best room in the back of the house, while the older sister or niece that was living there, was moved to another room. Women above the past their fertile age didn't have their own room and slept near the fireplace most of the time. Small children slept with their mothers, and young girls in the big open space at the front of the house, which was also used as living room and room for receiving guests.

The house was in all manners more a women's place than a men's place. The men spent most time outside the house. Boys slept in the surau, the Islamic house of prayer where they got religious education. Older men also stayed here a lot. Married man went to their wives home at night, to return to the house of their mother before sunrise the next morning. They were called 'visiting husbands'.

This association of women with the house and the men with the public life caused prohibitions between sexes. Men and women, especially unmarried girls, which did not belong to the same household or clan, were not allowed to meet each other. A father was not allowed to hug his daughter, and family-in-law was not allowed to sit on the same sofa as their family related by marriage, or eat from the same banana-leave in the fear that their fingers would touch each other.

Inside the rumah gadang there was a difficult hierarchical relationships. The oldest women had as head of the household the power over the internal affairs. When she became too old, the next oldest women would fulfill her tasks. She was assisted by a male member of the family of about the same age, the mamak, or 'mothers brother', which was responsible of the health of the children of his sister and raising them. External affairs were handled by the men.

The family role of the man was primary targeted at his mother and her children, his sister and her children and his role as a father and husband were very little. A man didn't have much power over his own wife and children, and little obligations towards them. This was not very plausible for the meaning of marriage and polygamy and divorces were very common.

The merantau tradition

The Minangkabau are known for their very high mobility throughout Indonesia. This, together with a strong feeling of work. This is the cause that you will find hot Minangkabau restaurants all over Indonesia.

The mobility of Minang men probably originated from the fact that they slept outside the house before their marriage and did only have little tasks. Because of this relational system the men did not have big interest in the village since land and house belonged to the women. Minangkabau men are especially famous because of their sharp trading mind. Ever since the ancient times they traded with harbors along both coasts of the island, low plains which are called rantau (now used for every area outside the highlands).

Already before the 19th century it was common for a young man to leave the village for one or two years to get experienced and to collect wealth. When he came back, he was ready to marry, and his worldly possessions and manners made him a much better husband than a man who had stayed home. Therefore, migration was limited to the men, and was always temporary.

In the 19th century, when the population was increasing and a shortage of cultivated soil developed, this habit became more common and a staying brand of the Minangkabau society. Men in the productive age, married or not, left to find better work. Many took wife and children with them and only returned to their village for short visits. Nowadays it's even common that singe females migrate on their own.

This migration has a strong influence on the Minang village life. What the visitor will notice almost instantly when visiting rural areas is that there are a big number of females for every male in the village. Nowadays females can add up with their husbands in the rantau, but who will take care of the land and the house then? This is what they say themselves. Many women do the household on their own, while men and sons are living elsewhere. Some come home on a regular base, others do visit the village rarely.

On the whole the females see the departure of the men for earning money as a good rule, however it's very important to keep contact and getting money from them every once in a while. When there is no message for a long time, a wife can ask for divorce. But still most Minang are very happy about their village, how far they are away from it. As a Minang proverb goes: 'Even if it rains gold in the rantau and stones in our village, my love goes to the village'.

Successful migrants often take care of a part of the development of their village; some villages which have a high grade of migration own roads, mosques, houses and rich ceremonies paid by rich, but far away village members.

The Minang developed a number of unique forms of art, their own pencak silat included, the combination between dance and martial arts which is known all over Indonesia. Traditional drama's like Nalam Sijobang, Randai Simarantang and Bakaba are hardly performed anymore. Gracefull womens dances with names like tari piring (dance of the plates), tari payung (dance with the umbrella), tari saputangan (dance with the scarves), tari kerbau jalang (wild buffalo dance) and tari gelombang (gulf dance), look like dances from other parts of Sumatra.

The Minang know a traditional form of poets, pantun. Just like other Sumatrans they were very handy in making those poets of four sentences just at once, especially while they were making court, when improvising a pantun. was very important for imposing the loved one.
To the modern world

The Minangkabau family has changed a lot over the last century, this due to demographic, economic and ideological changes. The fast pace of population increase lead to a shortage in soil, and a growing market- and money- economy nowadays is very important in their daily life. More and more people, men especially, work outside the agrarian sector. This started an exodus of Minangkabau men and women to cities all over Indonesia. The reinforcement of Islamic laws and the modern ideal of a family have always played a role.

Following the Islam and the modern family model, the husband, and not the uncle or the female is the head of the family. That's why rumah gadang has lost it's meaning as a center of the big family, and the modern family is much smaller. Even on the countryside there are many families which only consist of mum, dad and their children. Here, the father is the ruler with economical responsibility, and no longer the 'visiting husband'.

Nowadays men become more often permanent residents in the houses of their wives, unless they migrate outside the village. Divorces and polygamy are far less than they used to be. Due to better education and other job opportunities the women gained access to public life. Men and women are not that tough as they used to be.

The changes do not mean that the female descendance is not important anymore. Most Minangkabau are proud of their heritage, and traces of their old family structure are still visible. The right on heir still is clearly based on matriarchal rights and the group of descendance is still very important in the daily life. Closely related women, like sisters, mothers and daughters, still live close to each other.

The role of mamak is partially taken by the husband, father, but men still feel they are responsible for their sisters and their children. And however men from the countryside often life in the houses of their wives, their status is still very unimportant. The new one-family houses that are build all over the highlands, do not mean that the Minangkabau do not hold on their traditions.

Last revised on November 02, 2009
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