Alternative social relations and organizations

Hunter-gatherers North Africa West Africa
Arabia Ancient Mediterranean Pacific

Societies which are not patriarchal can be found all around the world. There are numerous accounts from different societies of women negotiating, contesting, exercising and holding power as autonomous agents and individuals rather than as dependents or subordinates of men. It may be better to speak of egalitarian socialities rather than of egalitarian societies in these cases.

For a more comprehensive discussion of power and gender, see
Peggy Reeves Sanday In Pacific Studies. Vol. 20, No. 3, pp 105-112,
Susan Kent: Egalitarianism, equality, and equitable power in Sweely, Tracy L. (editor) 1999. Manifesting Power. Gender and the Interpretation of Power in Archaeology. Routledge, London.

Many societies would not recognize the Eurocentric dichotomies of patriarchy/ matriarchy, woman & nature and man & culture. Gender roles and power relations may be of little importance, or they may be negotiable in individual cases. Sex is only one qualifier among many others. To learn more, see the list of Sources
or the site.


One of the most studied cases of hunter-gatherers are the San (!Kung) of Kalahari desert in Botswana and Namibia. They are egalitarian to the extreme. No aggressive behaviour, exercise of power, or accumulation of wealth are tolerated. Autonomy of individuals is highly valued. Like all aboriginal people, their culture and traditional economy are threatened by the global economy and local government's "development" efforts. About their fight for survival see for example:

Examples of very similar cases are the Hadza in Tanzania, the Huaorani and the Cuiva in South America, the Chukchi of Siberia, the Nayaka, Hill Pandaram , Paliyan, and the Andaman Onge in India, the Agta and Batak in Philippines, the Batek in Malaysia, the Pintupi, Warlpiri and Cape York peoples in Australia. (See the Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. Cambridge University Press. 1999)

North Africa

Berber peoples

When Arabs first attacked 'Tunis' in 683, the Berber resistance leader Kosaila, a woman, defeated them but was killed in a battle three years later in 686. She was succeeded by another woman of Jerawa tribe, whom the Arabs called Kahina (= sorcerer), an old widow who lived 127 years according to the legend. Even today, the Berber peoples of North Africa set great store by prophesies that reveal the future. It is not unusual for these prophesies to be made by a prophetess who is assumed to have supernatural powers.

The Tuareg (Twareg)

"It is highly unusual in the history of writing in that it is confined to women. Tuareg society is in fact matriarchal, and there, as elsewhere, literacy represents power." (Jean, Georges. Writing, the story of alphabets and scripts. 1992)

Among the Tuareg, women enjoy freedom of choice in sexual involvement and actively pursue romantic preferences. They may have male visitors when their husbands are absent. Women also retain custody of their children after divorce. Children are the financial responsibility of their fathers but they are considered by nature and by custom as belonging to their mothers. The tents and their furnishings are the personal property of the women. When a woman wants a divorce, she takes her bed (the only bed in the tent) to her mother's place. If she is real serious, she takes the tent as well and the husband has no place where to sleep, he must find shelter with his mother.

The Saharawi from the Western Sahara respect experienced women. In most Muslim cultures, a divorced woman becomes a social pariah. But in Saharawi culture she is both more respected than an unmarried virgin, and more alluring. "Clearly, a woman who already has experience is better than a woman who you have to train in matters of relations with men," a newly married third husband explains. Divorce is not usually acrimonious in the Sahara, the couple usually agree it is no longer working and the husband will leave. Three months after the divorce, the ex-wife will hold a party tocelebrate her new-found single status. But it does not last for long. A new suitor usually presents himself at the party. It is the result of years of nomad life, when men went off to wonder and women assumed responsibility for the camps. "In Saharawi culture we don't regard there as being any difference between girls and boys in childhood." Saharawi women also take an active role in their political struggle. In old Saharawi tradition it is women who take responsibility. They can be ministers and ambassadors.
See the whole story from BBC NEWS:
(Published: 2003/10/30)


West Africa

Bijagós islands off the coast of Guinea Bissau have a matriarchal family structure; that is, the woman is the head of the family and has the right to choose and divorce her husband at will. The husband has no claim to the children and they bear their mother's last name. The bush and the sea are predominantly the domain of the men, while the entire area of the village, the education of children and spiritual matters are the main responsibility of the women. The Bijagós are known for their elaborate religious rites and ceremonies, cosmogony and sculptural art.

The Hausa areas of West Africa were ruled by a dynasty of queens, 17 in all until around 1050 CE when it split into seven states. Later a conqueror queen of Zazzau state, Aminatu (ruled 1536-1573) expanded her state. According to the legend, she took a new lover in every town she conquered and the man was beheaded the next morning. At present time, Hausa women are subordinate to their husbands.

K. Anthony Appiah wrote in NY Times in Dec 1999: "My uncle, the king of Ashanti, died earlier this year, but I can attest that the ceremonial at his funeral and at the installation of his successor was a vast, impressive occasion (…). This time, however, the people of Ashanti were able to review the royal candidates for succession on television, before the queen mother made her choice."

In Togo, women are in charge of much of the trade. The political power rests with men, but women act as religious leaders.


The Bedouins

The Finnish explorer C.A.Wallin traveled widely in Egypt and Arabia in the 19th century. He tells how Bedouin women in the town of Dôfi, northern Arabia, "henpeck cruelly their menfolk, sit unveiled among men, quibbling and smoking their short pipes." Before the time of Prophet Mohammed, women could freely choose their husbands, even have several husbands if they wished. Yemen had several significant female rulers, the most famous of which is Belqis, Queen of Sabah. There were two important ruling queens still in Islamic times, Malika Asma and her daughter-in-law Malika Urwa.


The Ancient Mediterranean

Women in ancient Egypt seem to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as men.

Diodorus of Sicily, who had visited Egypt some time between 60 and 56 BCE, writes that the Egyptians had a law "permitting men to marry their sisters" and adds that "it was ordained that the queen should have greater power and honour than the king and that among private persons the wife should enjoy authority over her husband" (Book I, 27). Power in Ancient Egypt descended through the mother's side of the royal family. The queenship was a mortal manifestation of female power and the feminine prototype, while the pharaoh represented the power of the male and the masculine prototype. The roles of the male pharaoh and the female queen were interpreted as one element in a system of complementary dualities. 
See also:
Barbara S. Lesko, Women and Religion in Ancient Egypt:

Some women assumed the power of pharaoh, the most important of them queen Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1503 to 1483 BCE. She undertook large construction projects, and developed trade and agriculture. Her rule was known as a prosperous period, but her successor Tuthmosis III let destroy many of her statues and remove inscriptions which commemorated her deeds - or replaced her name with his own or her predecessors'. During the Ptolemaic period, Egypt had two important queens of Greek ancestry, Arsinoë and Cleopatra.

The great Meroë civilization South of Egypt, south of Nile cataracts in Nubia. from around 300 BCE till 2nd century CE had many women leaders, so many that it was believed there were no male rulers at all. Egyptians called the land Kush. The third ruler was the huge queen Bartare 284- 275 BCE, whose tomb in a pyramid has been found.

The Etruscan society

The Etruscans were "native" to Italy, and their kingdoms flourished before the Roman expansion. Contemporary accounts and their art indicate that Etruscan women held equal status with men, and they were allowed to socialize freely. Later the stress was on the married couple and their union.


The Pacific

Vanatinai of Sudest island in the Coral Sea: they are an egalitarian society without chiefs or dichotomic gender ideology, male and female tasks overlap greatly. Children belong to a matrilineage, and gardens belong to women. Women figure prominently in traditional exchange activities where women have equal opportunities of access to the symbolic capital of prestige derived from success in exchange. Lepowski has published "The Fruit of the Motherland" about the Vanatinai.

Nagovisi of Bougainvillea (a separate article)

Samoa and Tonga

Traditionally, girls and women of rank enjoyed almost godlike veneration. It was not only through their prestige that they had great influence over their husbands and relatives and through them, over affairs of state, but titles and offices, even the throne were open to them. The four highest titles in all Samoa, traced through female ancestral connections, once came under the rule and authority of one person who was a woman, Salamasina, AD 1500, held these titles. Normally, there are many more male chiefs than female. In order for a titleholder to be politically influential today, he must keep the support of his sacred sister. Her veto power within the descent group's affairs still makes her a political ally or foe. Politics is the arena for men, and religion for women. Sisters had a higher status than their brothers, moreover, young boys prepared the food for old men.

Hawaii (a separate article)

Marquesas islands

The Polynesian societies were highly stratified chiefdoms where the aristocracy and commoners had very different rights. They were known for the sexual freedom and elaborate ritual practices, for example the kapu, taboo system of avoidance and sacred. On the Marquesas (site in French)  some women, mainly of high rank, had a primary husband vahana haka'iki and, in addition, one or more secondary husbands, pekio, who were to some extent domestic servants. Cases of polyandry were varied: There were political marriages of chiefly women to infant husbands or; Men who had been the woman's partners during adolescence remained with her when she married an older and more wealthy man or; Two men sometimes jointly offered themselves to a woman, who chose one as vahana haka'iki and the other as pekio.



India: Kerala state

The matrilineal system in Malabar is based on the Tarwad-house, where all the matriclan lives. It is managed by karanavan, who is usually the eldest male; but in absence of a capable male, a woman could be a karanavan; his duties include economic management and ceremonial duties. Respect for elders is strong. "In Malabar society there was a preponderance of female celebration. The Tarwad always bestowed greater attention to the females ..." There has been speculation about the starting of a matrilineal system, but according to the present knowledge it can be traced back as early as historical records exist. Even now women in Kerala occupy very important positions in all walks of life, in fact women in Malabar enjoy equal rights and privileges with men.

India: Lakshadvip islands and Minicoy

The origin of people and language of these small islands is supposed to be in Kerala. Population is originally Hindu but Islamic since many centuries. Descent is traced through the mother and property is divided equally among the children of a woman. The matrilineage Taravad is exogamous. Birth in a Taravad gives a member the right in share of the Taravad property consisting usually of land, trees, boats and buildings. This right passes through female members; a male member has only usufructuary rights over the Taravad property. Pattern of residence is duolocal: husband makes night-visits to his wife.
The women on the Minicoy island -site

India: The Khasi and Garo, a separate article and pictures

The Tibetans

Tibetans traditionally practised polyandry where one woman had more than one husband. The marriage could have many forms: either two or three brothers married the same woman, and the eldest brother was the head of the household; or a heiress took more than one husband to live in her house in which case she was the head of the household. Also monogamy was possible.

China: The Mosuo

Some groups of the Mosuo (also called Moso, classified by the Chinese as Naxi, or Na-shi) living in the hills of Yunnan province have matrifocal residence where the lover only makes night-visits to his "wife". Children stay with their mothers, and have a close relationship with their uncles. Also adult men work on their mother's land. Property is inherited through female line. The eldest or most competent woman in the house is the head of the household, "dabu". She keeps the purse strings for all family members, and makes all economic decisions. See pictures!
An enchanting life story of a Mosuo woman is told in "Leaving Mother lake. A Girlhood at the Edge of the World." by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu. Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Read more about the Mosuo.


Indonesia, Sumatra: Minangkabau

The Minangkabau are the largest and most stable matrilineal society in the world today. Numbering some 4 million people in West Sumatra, the traditional homeland of their culture, the Minangkabau are the fourth largest ethnic group in the archipelago. They are a proud people well known in Indonesia for their literary flair, democratic leanings, business acumen, and "matriarchal" ways. The matrifocality in Minangkabau society means that families live in matrilineal longhouses and all ancestral property goes to women. Women are the guardians of economy, they keep the key to the rice house. 

Young boys and divorced husbands sleep in Mosques. Men leave their homes when married but a woman cannot leave her house. A woman stays in the place where she was born and upholds adat, the traditional law. Women are considered to be weak and that is the reason why they must be given rights. The moral responsibility resides in women. Men are in fact proud of their independence. Men deal with formal political matters and act as village leaders. Matrilineage and household are conceived as the centre of power. The legends tell about a queen, Bundo Kanduang, who is a central figure in the folklore but her historicality is unclear.
To read more, see: Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy

Evelyn Blackwood has published Webs of Power: Women, Kin, and Community in a Sumatran Village where she argues that the Minangkabau women have wide-ranging power in their lineages and communities.

Japan: Ryukyu islands

In the Ryukyu kingdom, on Okinawa, women were religious leaders as shamans and priestesses, presiding all ritual life except mortuary rituals. Secular power was devided between the king and male officials, and corresponding female officials. The samurai envoys from the Japanese island of Kyushu got very annoyed when they had present their credentials to the women of the court in 1666. Women priestesses still function today in Ryukyu villages.



Mexico: Tehuantepec Zapotec

The Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol 7 refers to "the notorious power of isthmus Zapotec women" who call themselves Tehuanas. Women are heads of households, control the purse and represent the community to outsiders. Only women go to the market. "In the isthmus bantering in the marketplace is the most notorious pastime of Tehuanas, and one which causes much laughter, especially if the object of fun is a man." The writer is offended by use of nicknames like crabfoot, turtle, city woman, marimba teeth, little pig, big testicles.
There is strong solidarity among all the women, and elders are highly respected. The majority of native curers are women. There are some clues that the culture was already strongly matrifocal before the Spaniards arrived. In 1553 Princess Magdalena, the daughter of the ruler Cosijopii, donated to the Dominicans "the salt beds of Tehuantepec, her fields, a fruit orchard half a league in length, her recreational baths consisting of crystal springs which water the orchard." At that time, Magdalena's father and two brothers were still living. During the Tehuantepecan Insurrection 1660, women were reported to take actively part.

Juchitán women in 2005, photo by Ricardo Coler.

North America: Cherokee

The Cherokee were matrilineal with a complex society. Cherokee women had many rights and privileges other than domestic duties. Not only did married women own property, such as homes, horses, cattle and fields of growing crops and fruit trees, but they also participated in both the fighting of wars and the Council of War, and sat with the Civil Council of Peace. Lineage was traced through the women's clan.

The Women's Council was influential having for example power over captives' lives.Their female warrior chief had the title of Beloved woman. The last Beloved woman, Ghighau, Nancy Ward, resigned her office in 1817. She had earned her title by taking the weapons of her deceased husband and participating into a battle. She was the head Beloved Woman of Chota, the oldest, "mother" town of Cherokee, and in this position she tried to negotiate and maintain peace with the whites, which proved impossible. It took 170 years before the Cherokee again had a female supreme chief, Wilma Mankiller, who was elected in 1987.

Canada: Innu (Montagnais)

The Innu of St. Lawrence Valley who were called Montagnais-Naskapi by the missionaries caused head-aches to the Jesuits. Let brother Fr. Paul Le Jeune report of his troubles: "the women have great power.. A man may promise you something and if he does not keep his promise, he thinks he is sufficiently excused when he tells you that his wife did not wish him to do it." "Men leave the arrangement of the household to the women, without interfering them; they cut and decide to give away as they please without making the husband angry. I have never seen my host ask a giddy young woman that he had with him what became of the provisions, although they were disappearing very fast." "They endure in the least those who seem desirous of assuming superiority over the others, and place all virtue in certain gentleness or apathy." "They imagine that they ought by right of birth, to enjoy the liberty of wild ass colts, rendering no homage to anyone whatsoever, except when they like. They have reproached me a hundred of times because we fear our Captains, while they laugh at and make sport of theirs. All the authority of their chief is in his tongue's end, for he is powerful insofar as he is eloquent; and even if he kills himself talking and haranguing, he will not be obeyed unless he pleases the Savages."


North America: The Iroquois and Huron

The Iroquois consisted of five groups whose own collective name was Haudenosaunee (= the Longhouse). "In each clan, each individual and distinct matrilineage ohwachira has one person who acts as representative for it. The women choose them and are often in this position themselves." The bestowal of an office was not irrevocable; the women retained the right to replace a leader who failed to meet their expectations. One of the matrons in each ohwachira presided over her kin group and with counterparts from other longhouses constituted the female leadership of a clan segment.

One could see a gender division of political labor: women were dominant within the village and its surrounding fields while men dealt with the outside world. But in fact, the Iroquois lived in a democratic near-anarchy which a late 17th century Mohawk leader summarized to the officials at Albany: "Brethren you know that we have no forcing rules or laws amongst us." (List of sources about North America)

North American Southwest: The Pueblo, Hopi and Zuni

These societies are characterized by high status and economic independence of women, and matrilineal and matrilocal residence.
Pueblo: "Power among tribal people is not perceived as political or economic, though status and material possessions can and often do derive from it. Power is conceived of as being supernatural and paranormal. It is a matter of spirit involvement and destiny. Woman's power comes automatically, by virtue of her femaleness, her natural and necessary fecundity, and her personal acquaintance with blood." Paula Gunn Allen
Zuni: Men need inititation ceremonies into religion but women initiate themselves through the sacredness centered in their bodies: through menstruation and childbirth they apprehended the mysteries of life and death at their source. The Zuni refer to earth as mother, corn plants as her children and game animals as fathers. They believed that they lived in the center of the world.

"Navajo culture, which is matriarchal, gives women a sense of power and independence." "In Navajo religion and culture, there is an emphasis on how you relate to everything around you. Everything has to be measured, weighed and harmonious. We call it nizhoni - walking in beauty." Dr Lori Cupp



The Saami, reindeer herders of Lapland
"In the traditional Saami society, the way of grandmothers dominate. In the reeindeer economy it is very clear that an elderly woman holds the household together and decides what should be done. She decides particularly the marriages and clothing." N-A Valkeapää, Saami writer and singer


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Last updated: 17 July 2015