What if Western perceptions of matriarchal societies are all wrong? What if they weren’t about pursuing dominance over men? And what if their structures inspired all societies to achieve true gender equality?
German philosopher and researcher Heide Goettner-Abendroth has dedicated her life to answering these questions, and talked to HuffPost France last month about what she has learned.
Her seminal book, “Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe” — which made its debut in Germany in 2010, in the English-speaking world in 2012 and this year in France — offers an unprecedented, comprehensive account of matriarchal societies. It draws on decades of research to blend theory with fieldwork and shed light on a topic widely ignored by ethnologists.
Matriarchal societies predate patriarchy, says Groettner-Abendroth, who founded the International Academy HAGIA for Modern Matriarchal Studies, an association that focuses on matriarchal societies, mythology, medicine and spirituality. She created the academy after she became fed up with the male-dominated power structures at conventional institutions, and she has no problem saying her approach centers women.
Goettner-Abendroth discusses the local communities she has studied — from China to Africa, from Indonesia to North America — that are all either complete or nearly complete forms of matriarchy. This means that they are either matrilineal, whereby lineage is traced through the mother, or matrilocal, in the sense that new couples go to live with the young woman’s community. Some of them have abandoned these fundamental pillars but still practice rituals and impart values that draw direct inspiration from their matriarchal origins.
HuffPost France talked to Goettner-Abendroth about her research, the philosophical roots that underpin these societies, and what it means to live somewhere where respecting women is not optional.
In your view, what is the founding principle of each of these matriarchal societies?
It is the power to give life. If women do not give life, the society dies out. In our societies, this power is not considered very valuable. Women are left to their own devices and have to tackle maternity alone. They are not respected. Matriarchal societies are anchored in maternity. An abandoned child or woman is unheard of within them.
In the Minangkabau culture in Indonesia, everyone is a mother. Men distinguish themselves when they behave properly toward children; they are praised for being “good mothers.”
What values do these societies represent?
They are egalitarian, considerate and nurturing, in the sense that taking care of others and their well-being is self-evident. In the Khasi culture in India, the clan mother ― the chief of the village ― is chosen according to her ability to help her people.
Everyone is respected, regardless of their age or sex. They take care of the elderly until their death. There are no hierarchies among people. Decisions are made by consensus, unanimously. They conduct a sharing economy and condemn the concept of accumulation.
But isn’t it easier to create this kind of harmony in clans of so few members? In a nation of several million inhabitants, unanimity is difficult to achieve.
Certainly, some of the clans are small and consist of roughly 100 people, but others, like the Minangkabau in Indonesia, count 6 million members — almost as much as the population of Switzerland. They are not strictly matriarchal, because the current political authority has imposed patriarchy, but the matriarchy is still manifested through cultural practices.
The Mosuo of China have 250,000 members. When plans emerged to build an airport in their region, which threatened the community, they managed to push back against the project by consulting with each member of the various clans. And they only gave their response once they had achieved unanimity. It took them three months.
The Minangkabau in Indonesia had a similar struggle, but the government forced its will through and Sumatra now has an airport.
In these societies, do women abuse their power at men’s expense?
No. They do not consider it power as such, but responsibilities they are obligated to assume. They do often have control of the purse strings, not to keep the money for themselves, but to distribute it fairly and to ensure that the clan will never lack the things it needs.
Their societies are organized in such a way that the idea of domination simply doesn’t exist. These societies are largely peaceful, but they do know how to use weapons to defend themselves — for example, in the indigenous communities in the Amazon and North America. It’s not that they are better than us, but the way their societies are structured facilitates a state of peace.
Does prostitution exist in matriarchal societies?
No! Not in the least. The same is true for rape. Women, their sexuality and their power to give birth are respected. No man would dare touch a woman against her will. The clan system protects each woman.
Is homosexuality permitted?
It’s difficult to respond to that question because I personally have not been able to broach the subject over the course of my encounters. It’s a very difficult aspect to study. One of my colleagues reported that children of the Juchitan clan in Mexico can choose their gender. All they have to do is tell their mother, who will reply to her son, for example, “Oh, how wonderful, I’m going to have another daughter.” She will proceed to give him girls clothing. The same goes for girls who want to become boys.
In your description of the Kashi in India, you recount that the love interests of young women can be beaten by her brothers, kidnapped and held prisoner at the home of the woman who wants to enter into a sexual relationship. Isn’t this a case of a power relationship that negatively impacts men?
(Laughs) What I described there is nothing more than a game among young people. It may seem brutal, but in reality, they’re having fun. Sexuality in these societies is experienced as a game. No one tries to make others feel guilty for having the desire to make love. Once a woman becomes infatuated with someone other than her husband, she separates from him, without creating a stir. Monogamy is considered a form of repression against women. They are not polygamous, but they do regularly change partners.
Which in turn influences parenthood.
Absolutely. Women have several partners over the course of their lives, so when they do have children, it is not their biological fathers who take care of them, but rather the brothers of the women. Men become the fathers of their nephews and nieces. Of course, if a man requests to play a more significant role in the life of his biological child, the clan will implement a system that grants him that role. But it’s the mother’s bloodline that counts.
You classify the Tuaregs as a matriarchal society, but women are the keepers of the familial tent, while men spend their days outside. Isn’t this just yet another variant of the patriarchy?
Not at all. The Tuareg women maintain control of the family finances. Everything men earn outside is brought back to the tent. The oldest woman divides and shares the money in equal parts. She is the holder of the clan’s fortune. She is the one who safeguards it, because she represents security, a guarantee. She does not own the house. Tuareg men attest that they give the money to the women because they are the givers of life and doing so secures their future.
What issues do matriarchal societies address?
First of all, these societies have the advantage of reconciling every type of feminism. We are dealing with too many diverging perspectives, which are obscuring the movement’s initial objective. Today, matriarchal societies can help us adjust our point of view, especially regarding women’s pleasure. We can use them to create a new narrative, one that frees us of the burden of guilt.
Western feminism does not view male-female relations in their entirety. It only takes into account the women’s viewpoint, but this is a paradigm that leads us nowhere. We have to go further and propose solutions that are more in line with the foundations of matriarchal societies.
Then, we need to push ourselves out of the current era, which I call the “super patriarchy.” It is a mix of neoliberalism, militarism and commercial exploitation of nature. It’s a path bound for self-destruction. Since the “super patriarchy” is incapable of putting a stop to itself, it’s up to us to turn toward alternatives, led by radical feminists, indigenous peoples and supporters of the sharing economy. There are so many of us who no longer want this world we’ve created, so if we band together to form a community, we can try to create a different experience.
Maybe one day we’ll even manage to install our own matriarchal system.