Matrilineal Descent, Patrilineal Descent
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
In matrilineal societies, the descendants of men are their
sister's children and not their own, who belong to their mother's matrilineage.
Matrilineage is sometimes associated with polyandry or
group marriage where women have a variety of sexual partners and lines of male descent are
Ancient societies are known to have recognised matrilineal
descent. Matriliny is not the mirror image of patriliny.
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
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
Women (like elders) had prestige in the matrilineal home
town, where black stools symbolised the "seat of power." (Bartle).
In a matrilineal society, women generally have a greater autonomy in terms of sexuality
and reproduction than their counterparts in male dominated societies.
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, however, appears to
be closing for the generation of younger children. - capri.cgiar.org/wp/capriwp14.asp
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 (neo-local 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. In order to discuss the
changes, the existing literature has been reviewed and they are supplemented by in-depth
interviews of a few key informants. The key informants include eminent academicians,
elderly persons of different localities, local heads, social workers and persons
representing the younger generation. In addition, two focus group discussions (FGD) were
done with women from different age groups. The idea behind this exercise is to clearly
identify those features that have been characterising the matrlineal system of the Khasi
tribe these days.
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.
The basic aim of the study is to understand the structure of matrilineal system and the
changews that has taken place in it over the period of time among the Khasis of Meghalaya.
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 sample design adopted was a multistage design, fitted to the study requirements.
Given the resources available, it was decided to cover 600 eligible women (currently
married Khasi women age 1549 years), all from (erstwhile) East Khasi Hills district.
The choice of East Khasi Hills over West Khasi Hills was purely purposive. According to
1991 census, little over 33 per cent population of the East Khasi Hills district live in
the urban areas. Thus, it was decided to cover 200 eligible women (33 per cent of 600)
from the urban areas and the remaining 400 women from the rural areas.
The Khasi Matriliny: An Overview
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.
Before we begin to understand the nature of Khasi social organisation, it becomes
necessary, to clear that the general rule of matrilineal system is that females inherit
property. However, it must be noted that at the outset the system of inheritance is
governed by some code of rules, which, if taken in its totality and richness, can hardly
be described as simple. In fact, the Khasi society is more complex and vivid than what is
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.
The children of the male do not belong to the family. The youngest daughter, Ka Khadduh,
in a Khasi family is in charge of the family religion. She cremates her mother and inters
her bones in the common sepulchre (a place where the bones are kept with a huge stone over
it which is different in shape for males and females). 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.
When Christianity came, the Khasi family was faced with the question whether a Ka
Khaduh could hold the family property if she would convert to the Christianity. In
1918, the Government ruled that Christian converts should be allowed to inherit the
Property is thus divorced from religion. Though religion was divorced from the traditional
rules, because of the modernisation process, such as, educational development along with
the spread of Christianity, that had somehow changed the traditional system in many
respect (Roy, 1964).
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. Such
changes can be the result of factors like the intermingling with other neighbouring
patriarchal communities, the advent of missionaries and spread of Christianity among these
tribal groups. The spread of urbanisationand urban development along with the spread of
Christianity have changed the perception and attitude of people among the Khasis (
Kapadia, 1966; Syiemlieh, 1994).
Thus from the above review we get the idea that over time these matrilineal societies are
undergoing changes in its characteristics. On the basis of the above literature, each
characteristic feature has been given weightage to categorize the sample women in two
groups, viz., Traditional: Women fulfilling all three criteria or those who possess at
least ownership right along with matrilocal residential pattern or matrilocal residential
pattern and descent through female.
Transitional:Women who follow none of the criteria or only descent. It is found from the
above categorisation that 55 per cent of sample women are from the traditional group while
the remaining 45 per cent are from the transitional group. The Traditional women will be
refereed to as traditional women, whereas women in Transitional group will be
referred to as transitional women. It may be relevant to mention here that
these nomenclatures are used for the purpose of conceptual categorisation of these two
groups of women according to their characteristics assessed at the time of survey. Yet
another issue that needs to be kept in mind is that the term traditional is
not used as opposed to modern. It may be emphasised that women in traditional
group are the followers of all the three or the first two important characteristics of the
matrilineal system, i.e., property ownership right, matrilocal residence and/or family
name through mothers side.
Socio-economic and Demographic Characteristics ofWomen in Matrilineal Set-up
Type of Residence
Type of residence is one of the important determinants that has its effect on the changes
that take place in any society, as well as, on the changing perception of people towards
traditions. Women from traditional group are mostly concentrated in rural areas (79 per
cent). What is, however, more 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.