Matrilineal societies are
societies in which descent is traced through mothers rather than through fathers. In
matrilineal societies, property is often passed from mothers to daughters and the custom
of matrilocal residence may be practiced. Patrilineal descent is traced through fathers rather
than through mothers. Matrilineage is sometimes associated with polyandry
or group marriage where women have a variety of sexual partners and lines of male descent
In matrilineal societies, the
descendants of men are their sister's children and not their own, who belong to their
mother's matrilineage. Matrilineal societies existed in ancient times and matrilineal descent was recognised. Matrilineal descent
is not the mirror image of patrilineal descent.
Matrilineal societies differ from
both patrilineal and bilateral societies in that the institution of marriage tends to be,
relatively weak (Schneider and Gough 1961, Goode 1963).
In a gerontocratic matrilineal
society, women's influence and prestige tended to increase with age and were usually
expressed in informal settings, although there were offices of formalised informality such
as "mothers" of matrilineages.
Matriliny required the
subordination of marriage and conjugal duties to loyalty to and participation in the
descent group. This, combined with economic activities, farming, artisan work, and
trading, gave women considerable independence.
Women (like elders) had prestige
in the matrilineal home town, where black stools symbolised the "seat of power."
In a matrilineal society, women generally have a greater
autonomy in terms of sexuality and reproduction than their counterparts in male dominated
The woman in a matrilineal society represents the clan and her children carry on the name
of her clan.
Land Inheritance and
Schooling in Matrilineal Societies: Evidence from Sumatra - Agnes R. Quisumbing,
and Keijiro Otsuka
Abstract: This paper explores statistically the implications of the shift from communal to
individualized tenure on the distribution of land and schooling between sons and daughters
in matrilineal societies, based on a Sumatra case study. The inheritance system is
evolving from a strictly matrilineal system to a more egalitarian
system in which sons and daughters inherit the type of land that is more intensive in
their own work effort. While gender bias is either non-existent or small in land
inheritance, daughters tend to be disadvantaged with respect to schooling. The gender gap in schooling appears to be closing for the generation
of younger children.
Gough, K. (1961) "The modern disintegration of matrilineal descent groups," in
D. M. Schneider and K. Gough (eds.) Matrilineal Kinship, Berkeley, U. Calif., pp.
Oppong, C. (1974) Marriage Among a Matrilineal Elite, Cambridge University Press.
Matrilineal Society in
India - Dr. Madhumita Das
When most of the people in the world follow the patrilineal system, there exist a few
groups here and there who believed to be the descendants of Japheth (son of Noah), and are
followers of the matrilineal system (Syiemlieh, 1994).
At the global level, the existence of matrilineal society is found among the tribes of
African countries, in some part of Southeast Asia and among three groups of India. It is
the Minangkabaus of West Sumatra, Indonesia, comprising the largest ethnic group in the
world who follow a matrilineal system (Tanius, 1983).
In Indian context, the matrilineal social system is found only among small pockets of
south the and northeast India. The Nairs and Mappilles in Kerala, the tribal groups of
Minicoy Island and the Khasis and the Garos of Meghalaya are the followers of matrilineal
system. However, the matrilineal system of the African countries differs considerably from
that of the Southeast Asian groups. Even within India, the system differs from one group
to another (Kapadia, 1966).
Among these groups, difference is mostly observed in the type of residence after marriage.
The pattern of duo-local residence exists among the Ashanti of the Gold Coast in Africa,
Minangkhau of Sumatra and the Nayars of Central Kerala. However, the Khasis of Meghalaya,
generally follow the residential pattern known as matrilocal residence, where
the husband resides with his wife's matrilineal kin or in other case couples settle down
together in a new residence in and around his wife's maternal place (neolocal residence).
This work discusses the changes that are occurring among the only few existent matrilineal
setup in the world in terms of their attitudes and behaviour. Along with the qualitative
analysis, the profile of women living in original matrilineal arrangement as against those
who have completely transited in the form of percentage distribution is also presented. A
few socio-economic, demographic, and developmental characteristics of both women and her
husband has been taken into consideration. Lastly, a multivariate
analysis has been undertaken to substantiate the findings from bivariate analysis and to find out the factors, which
brought changes among the society.
In Meghalaya there exists three tribal groups, namely Khasi, Jaintia and Garo. The state
is predominantly inhabited by the Khasi tribe, who are known for their matrilineal social
The term matriarchy or matriliny has become inseparably
associated with the Khasi social organisation since
it was first used in 1914 by Gurdon to describe Khasi social customs (Das. Gupta, 1964).
Although the term is used to explain the pattern of residence after marriage among the
Khasis, it is, however, known that matrilocal residence is not an invariable concomitant
of matriarchal or matrilineal society. As among the Nayars of India, though they are also
the followers of matrilineal system, the residential system among them is duolocal, where
husband is usually the night visitor to their wife.
The Khasis have matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent. Participation in the family
religion and the common sepulchre, where bones of the members of the family are interred
after death, are the two elements that bind the members together. Besides the matrilocal
residential pattern and matrilineal descent, family property is mainly transmitted through
the female line.
Marriage is a great social institution among the Khasis, as it determines the system of
matrilocal residential pattern among them (Sinha, 1970).
Being the followers of a unique social system of matriliny, the Khasi women enjoy a
special place of status and dignity (Kyndiah, 1990). A Khasi woman is the guardian and
preserver of the family goods. She plays a crucial role in the affairs of the family.
However, she is not the head of the family, as this is left to a male member. The father
of the family has a definite role to play in the household affairs. However, his role is
limited to the final word of the maternal uncle.
The original system and moral efficacy has now a days been largely distorted (Bareh,
1994). The literature shows that a shift is taking place in the matrilineal society
towards parental or patrilineal one (Tanius, 1983; Syiemlieh, 1994). Syiemlieh (1994), in
his write-up on the Khasis and their matrilineal system has explained that due to some
basic reasons there exists a transition in the matrilineal set-up in Meghalaya. This
transition in the matrilineal society is due to the changes in the overall set-up. We get
the idea that over time these matrilineal societies are undergoing changes in its
What is interesting is that 21 per cent women following the matrilineal system live in
urban areas and also almost half of the women who have deviated from matrilineal system
continue to live in rural areas. This indicates that the transition that we witness in
Khasi society is a complex phenomenon operating at family level than merely the outcome of
urbanisation and modernisation process.
Dr. Madhumita Das - Research Officer, National Family Health Survey-2, International
Institute for Population, Govandi Station Road, Deonar, Mumbai- 400 088.