Contemporary matriarchal societies

The Nagovisi, Khasi, Garo, and Machiguenga

The Nagovisi

The Nagovisi are one of three tribes of South Bougainville, a large tropical island west of New Guinea and north of Australia. Jill Nash and her husband Donald D. Mitchell are the anthropologists of Nagovisi, among whom they have done field work in several periods from 1969 to 1973. Jill Nash tells:

"Food production in Melanesia is the basis of all wealth and, in addition to its obvious life-sustaining nature, its connection to the small family-group, its political uses, and its connections to conspicuous display and consumption at large political gatherings cannot be ignored. Women, of course, dominate in food production."

Women are the garden authorities who cultivate sweet potatoes and other food stuff, and their husbands only help them in heavy tasks like clearing the land for a new garden. "There is strong feeling that shared garden labour is almost as much a part of marriage as is shared sexuality." "Widows are sometimes denied assistance in clearing, to encourage them to remarry." Women work in their gardens three times a week, and husband's attendance is not always necessary. "One seventy-year-old groom (a former widower), who insisted on accompanying his aged wife on every garden trip, was the butt of many jokes."

"Every adult woman has the inalienable right to use some of her descent group's land for food gardens and to transfer title to her daughters."

Men are dependent on women's cultivation for food; women take pride in their gardening responsibilities. "Anyone other than a bride feels ashamed to ask another person - even a relative - for sweet potatoes." If a couple quarrels, the man will stop eating coconuts from his wife's trees, sometimes because she forbids him to eat them, and sometimes because he chooses to avoid them. A conciliatory act (usually the gift of a pig) is required. Usually the wife has to give the compensation. A refusal to eat anything from the garden would mean divorce.

To Nagovisi, a good marriage means to garden industriously, raise many pigs, and give big feasts. Because marriage is a relatively flux institutions, the signs of marriage are that the couple sleeps in the same house, the couple walks around together, and the man works in the woman's garden. They consider sex equally pleasurable for men and women.

The Nagovisi are comprehensively divided into two society-wide exogamous and totemic matrilineal moieties (halves), which are divided into numerous land-owning matriclans, which are themselves subdivided into localized, land-using matrilineages. The latter retain their localized character through uxorilocal residence (the practice, wherein a man, upon marriage, goes to live in the home community of his wife). In addition, the clans and lineages of the Nagovisi are the owners of other kinds of valuables, including shell money, and they were the focal points of most religious rituals and of much political influence. The shell money is kept as strands of shell disks or beads. Among Nagovisi the finest are heirloom jewelry, given from mother to daughter; the second best form is used in buying pigs, in marriage exchanges (if there were any), and in compensation for insult, injury, or death.

Nagovisi women share leadership with men; a strong matrilineage system having political functions exists, with women playing significant roles in decision making and ceremonialism. Nevertheless, they have a dislike of chiefs and communal efforts. "The Nagovisi indicate their opinion of leaders in the often repeated joke that the greatest 'big man' of all is 'ma', shit, because only that can make you leave your warm bed on a cold rainy night."

Jill Nash summarizes the status of women: "If all we want to know is that women in some societies are not under the oppressive control of men, that they can own property and exercise their rights over it freely, and that they can enjoy their work, even when it is not an exciting career, I can do no more than offer the evidence of Nagovisi women, for whom, I believe, all of this is true."

The Nagovisi are one of three tribes of South Bougainville. The two others are interestingly different in their social organization. The Siuai are a typical Big Man society where matrilineal clans and lineages regulate marriage, land tenure, etc., but men make use of their own matrilineage property. The Buin have a hereditary system of stratification, they dwell closest to the shore and outside contacts. Theirs is a male-dominated society with some polygynous marriages, and chiefs have slave-girls who serve as prostitutes during feasts. No stigma is attached to prostitution, though, and girls later marry. Men are brutal against wives, even infanticide has been practised. A sexual antagonism unlike among the Nagovisi is prominent. Also feast giving, trading and war are more developed among Siuai and Buin than Nagovisi.


The Khasi and the Garo

The Khasi and the Garo are agricultural peoples who live in hill districts in Meghalaya state in North-Eastern India. They practice wet rice (paddy) agriculture. As opposed to the Aryan Indians, the Khasis speak a Mon-Khmer language, and the Garos a Tibeto-Burman language. They are both known as hospitable, mild and well humoured people. Both inheritance of property and succession to tribal office run through female line, passing from mother to youngest daughter.

Among the Garo, one daughter, usually the youngest, is chosen as heiress. For the heiress, the husband is selected by her parents, and the groom ceremonially captured - the groom may even run away twice. The youngest son-in-law comes to live in his wife's parents' house and becomes his father-in-law's nokrom, or clan representative in the mother-in-law's family. If the father-in-law dies, the nokrom marries (and the marriage has to be consummated) the widowed mother-in-law, thus becoming the husband of both mother and daughter. This custom is now falling into disuse. The Garos usually live as extended families in large longhouses.

Other girls select their own husbands. 'Initiative is always taken by the Garo girl. Boys behave demurely and fight shy of entering into wedlock without social pressure.' However, no able-bodied adult must remain without mate; replacement marriages are arranged in case of death or dissolution of the marriage. Incompatible marriages can be dissolved; and illegitimately born child suffers no indignity (as the parents may marry anyway soon) if it is not a sequence of an incest within the same lineage. Marriages are exogamous, that means that the husband belongs to another matrilineage than the wife.

The managerial head of the land of the Garo lineage is the husband of the 'matron'. Village council is formed by all the adult male members of the village.

In the folktales of the Khasi, the earth Ka Blei is the mother of celestial bodies, fire and water. The sun is her daughter and the moon her son. Because of his bad behaviour against his sister, the moon was punished and his face tainted by soot forever – a very similar story to the legend of the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu and her unruly brother. The Earth Goddess has a prominent position in the religion of Meghalaya and Assam, she is often revered in the form of the Hindu goddess Durga. A Khasi clan mother is viewed as the wordly equivalent of the Primal Mother, Ka Blei. She is the most important person of the community, its chief and priestess, who administers the clan property. The high priestes of the village of Smit is the most powerful shaman in Northeast India, and she selects the dates of important ceremonies and appoints Khasi village chiefs. Every young Khasi girl takes part in a ceremonial dance where she absorbs the powers of the earth: girls dance in a large square protected by youths who wave yaks tails to keep evil spirits away. The girls' postures remain upright while the only movement is the rolling of their feet from heel to toe thus absorbing power from the earth. The forces flow through the spine into their heads. Later in their lives they need these forces to fulfill their role in the society as women and mothers.

We can see from the article which Syed Zubair Ahmed wrote about the Khasi in New York Times February 18, 1994 "What do men want" that the matriliny continues among this 800,000 strong people. According to the article, a men's right organization was founded. It says that women are overbearing and dominating. Men complain: "We are sick of playing the roles of breeding bulls and baby-sitters." "We have no lines of succession. We have no land, no business." The husband of the youngest daughter moves into the family house. Women say that they prefer to marry outsiders because their own tribesmen tend to be irresponsible in family matters. A Khasi child takes the surname of the mother."We Khasis tend to underestimate the contributions of our fathers to the family. Our fathers do a lot, but the credit goes to the mothers."

However, Khasi men had tradionally important duties as hunters and defending the community in case of war. The government administration is solely the responsibility of Khasi men. Important questions and decisions are discussed among all clan members, and most Khasi men feel that their opinions are taken into consideration. The elder men of the tribe support the fairer sex. "The matriarchal system should not be changed, or it will destroy the moral values of the younger generation," said Glorence Syiem Malngiang, a tribal king in the East Khasi hill district subdivision of Mawsynram. "We shall see to it that the custom continues," he said. (Seema Hussain, The Week, India, Mar 21, 1999)

See pictures by Ricardo Coler taken in January 2002

An excellent source of information and pictures about hill tribes of northeast India (including the Khasi):
Stirn, A. & van Ham, P.: The seven sisters of India. Tribal worlds between Tibet and Burma.
Prestel books 2000.
ISBN 3-7913-2399-7


The Machiguenga

Orna and Allen Johnson have studied the Machiguenga people of Peru, who live in the rainforest east of Cuzco, and speak an Arawakan language (11,000 speakers). They live in marginal areas deep in the jungle, in small hamlets of three to five households, together only 20-35 members. They practise slash-and burn agriculture, from which they get their subsistence because of the scarcity of fish and game in their area.

A Machiguenga myth tells how a young husband goes to live with his wife after his oncle arranges their marriage against father's will. This may be how it was earlier, but at present however, marriages are neolocal - which means that the couple builds a house of their own. Women are in charge of the cultivation and men help their wives in horticulture. Women form co-operative groups but men very seldom.

There are no male interest groups. Men come together only sporadically for beer feasts and poison-fishing, which are organized by an influential shaman.

Machinguenga family life is peaceful. Males are typically quiet, reserved, and generous with their kin. A man is loyal to both his family of origin and procreation. Men have affectionate relationships with their mothers and sisters, as well as wives and children. Fathers take care of their sons. People are shy about sexual matters and adultery is not common. A Machiguenga man is not expected to be violent and aggressive. Men who are "plenty-the-male-is" are avoided, even driven off or killed. Warfare is rare. This has been a mixed blessing during the 1990's, when the Shining Path guerillas and militias entered their grounds and made it their battlefield. Many villages have been destroyed and their inhabitants killed or captured.

More matrifocal societies on this site

Copyright Jaana Holvikivi
Last updated: 28 July 2002