Where Women Still Rule: The (Disappearing) Matrilineal Tribes Around the World

Matrilineal tribal cultures still exist, but are facing extinction.

From Wonder Woman's Amazons to the warriors of Wakanda, the world is enthralled with societies where women take charge. Though you will be hard pressed to find the male free society of superwomen from Themyscira, there are societies around the globe whose very identity is defined by women. These long-standing cultures put women at the center of their day to day lives, pass property through daughters, and define clan membership through relations to women.

But these unique tribes are struggling to maintain their culture. Younger generations are feeling the pull of city centers that offer stable incomes, and marriage outside of their groups. Tourism has brought mixed results, offering economic growth to traditionally segregated societies, but also increases the difficulty of maintaining traditional culture and practices. Here are the last of the remaining women-run tribes in the world.

Mosuo, China

4 Mosuo women
@JaapBurggraaf

One of the most well-known matrilineal societies is the Mosuo people on the shores of Lake Luga near Tibet. This predominantly Buddhist culture is a magnet for tourists interested in the Mosuo's female-centered way of life. While men are responsible for handling the political aspects of society, women are in charge of just about everything else. They run the businesses, as well as serving as the head of household. The grandmother is held as the most powerful person in the family.

One of the most unique aspects of the culture is "walking marriages", where men visit women at night and then return to the homes of their female relatives in the morning. Women can choose to have one partner or many partners without fear of stigma. The children remain in the woman's household and retain their name. There is no requirement for the men to be a part of a child's life, though they can if they choose.

Minangkabau, West Sumatra, Indonesia

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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The largest matrilineal society of four million people put women on equal footing with men, despite more traditional roles. Men are the political and spiritual leaders while women serve as the head of the household. While men and woman rule distinct spheres, decisions are made equally. Women pass their land and houses to their daughters, though men can pass money to their sons.

Even in the formal political sphere, women still have a role to play. The chief is a male position but women are able to remove him from power if they feel that he is not fulfilling his duties. In discussing issues in public, men lead, but consensus must be achieved between both men and women.

This culture is even more unique as they combine Islam with traditional customs called adat. The Minangkabau reconcile their matrilineal customs with aspects of Islam that traditionally put men above women, especially when it comes to females possessing property.

Akan, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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The Akan people are comprised of eight groups and many subgroups. Upon birth, children belong to the group of their mother, and this does not change with marriage. Men are the leaders of these groups, inheritance is passed through the mother. Land and houses are considered lineage property and are therefore passed through the women, where men are able to pass down inheritance that was gained throughout their life.

Bribri, Costa Rica

The women of Bribri are as central to their culture as the revered cocoa, which they prepare for sacred rituals. This matrilineal culture rooted in respect for Mother Nature has been able to resist the tides of globalization through seclusion. Approximately 10,000 Bribri live on a reserve in the Limon province of Costa Rica, which marries some modern amenities with traditional living and practices. The guardian of their culture is the grandmother, who serves as the head of the family and is responsible for passing down the culture and tradition to the younger generations. The land so valued in the culture is only passed from mother to daughter, or through female relatives.

That is not to say that they have been completely successful in protecting their traditions. The intrusion of Chiquita has brought a higher demand for male labor, which is in direct conflict with their female-centered society. There have been attempts in recent years to create alternative work opportunities to banana harvesting, which can be dangerous and wearing.

Garo, Bangladesh

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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The Garo people of Bangladesh are matrilineal but not matriarchal, meaning that they trace lineage through females, but men are still in charge of the political sphere. Though similar to other matrilineal societies, they are unique in that property is passed from mother to the youngest daughter. Often her marriage is arranged, while the older daughters are free to select their own partners. There are multiple customs for marriage. The family of the daughter can "capture" her selected boy and bring him to her home. If he chooses to stay, they are married, but if not he returns to his own home that night. This process can continue until either the girl gives up or the boy agrees to marry her. The girl can also send food with a female relative to show interest. If he accepts the food, he is accepting her proposal. Upon marriage, the husband joins the wife's house and family.

It is forbidden to marry from your own clan, which is defined through female descent. But these traditions have been evolving in recent years. More Christian practices are present, and family structures are being loosened by migration to big cities such as Dhaka.

Nagovisi, New Guinea

Nagovisi
Adam Constanza @travelinspiredone

The Nagovisi live on the island of South Bougainville, west of New Guinea and north of Australia. Central to their culture is their garden. Marriage is not institutionalized and is generally accepted as existing if the women invites the man to help her garden and they sleep in the same house. If he refuses to eat anything from her garden, this indicates divorce. Women passed their valued gardens to their daughters, and are responsible for providing food for the entire clan.

Women also safeguard their currency, in the form of shells, which can create jewelry that is passed from mother to daughter. Men and women share the responsibility of making decisions equally, but in the family unit, women are at the head.

Where Women Still Rule: The (Disappearing) Matrilineal Tribes Around the World | Culture