Matrilineal society, also called matriliny, group adhering to a kinship system in which ancestral descent is traced through maternal instead of paternal lines (the latter being termed patrilineage or patriliny). Every society incorporates some basic components in its system of reckoning kinship: family, marriage, postmarital residence, rules that prohibit sexual relations (and therefore marriage) between certain categories of kin, descent, and the terms used to label kin. A lineage is a group of individuals who trace descent from a common ancestor; thus, in a matrilineage, individuals are related as kin through the female line of descent.
Matrilineage is sometimes associated with group marriage or polyandry (marriage of one woman to two or more men at the same time). Anthropologists have provided different perspectives and interpretations about kinship and its role in society. Under the influence of Charles Darwin’s theories of biological evolution, many 19th-century scholars sought to formulate a theory of cultural evolution. The theory known as unilineal cultural evolution, now discredited, suggested that human social organization “evolved” through a series of stages: animalistic sexual promiscuity was followed by matriarchy, which was in turn followed by patriarchy. The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, the Swiss anthropologist J.J. Bachofen, and the German philosopher Friedrich Engels were particularly important in developing this theory.
The consensus among modern anthropologists and sociologists is that while many cultures bestow power preferentially on one sex or the other, matriarchal societies in this original, evolutionary sense have never existed. However, some scholars continue to use the terms matriarchy and patriarchy in the general sense for descriptive, analytical, and pedagogical purposes.
Matrilineal societies are found in various places around the world, such as in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and India. Specific cultural practices differ significantly among such groups. Though there are similarities, matrilineal practices in Africa differ from those in Asia, and there are even differences in such practices within specific regions.
The Asante, or Ashanti, of Ghana are one of the few matrilineal societies in West Africa in which women inherit status and property directly from their mothers. The Minangkabau of Sumatra, Indonesia, are the world’s largest matrilineal society, in which properties such as land and houses are inherited through female lineage. In Minangkabau society, the man traditionally marries into his wife’s household, and the woman inherits the ancestral home. Matrilineal societies in India are typified by the Khasi and Garo in Meghalaya state and by the traditional Nayar in Kerala.
Among those groups, the main difference is observed in matrilocal, duolocal, and neolocal residence patterns. The pattern of duolocal residence (the husband and wife occupy different homes) exists among the Asante, the Minangkabau, and the Nayar.
Another matrilineal society exists in a lush valley in Yunnan, south-west China, in the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. An ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists called the Mosuo, they live in a surprisingly modern way: women are treated as equal, if not superior, to men; both have as many, or as few, sexual partners as they like, free from judgment; and extended families bring up the children and care for the elderly. It’s a society without fathers; without marriage (or divorce); one in which nuclear families don’t exist. Grandmother sits at the head of the table; her sons and daughters live with her, along with the children of those daughters, following the maternal bloodline. Men are little more than studs, sperm donors who inseminate women but have, more often than not, little involvement in their children’s upbringing.
Khasis, the majority of this tribe resides in the state of Meghalaya. Given the hilly terrain and dense forests of the region, it is relatively isolated from the societies residing in the plains. Though women of the tribe still lack any representation in the political arena of the state, the affairs of the tribe as well as domestic affairs are controlled by the women of the house. Following the matrilineal law of inheritance, the youngest daughter of the house will stay with the parents and inherit the house that is named after her mother. The husband is expected to leave his house and live with his wife in his mother-in-laws house.
The Khasi generally follow the matrilocal residence pattern (the husband moves in with his wife’s matrilineal kin) or neolocal residence pattern (the couple sets up home in a new residence in or around the wife’s maternal residence).
A Garo family is headed by the mother of the house but the father is responsible for providing sustenance. The tribe is divided into sub tribes and clans, with marriage outside the tribe highly discouraged. The daughter of the family carries the clan name throughout her life, whereas the son takes up his wife’s clan name after marriage. If the marriage doesn’t work out, the couple can get separated without any social stigma. Similar to the Khasi tradition, the youngest daughter in a Garo family will inherit the property and if there is no female inheritor within the immediate family, the property passes to the daughter of the mother’s sister.
Kerala has the best sex ratio of the country, a fact which is not only to be credited to the high literacy rate, but also to the fading culture of a matrilineal society. Officially, the state has banned the matrilineal/matrilocal family structure through the Joint Family System (Abolition) Act, 1975. The act was passed by the Kerala State Legislature. Compared to the previous two social formations, Kerala is surrounded with states that have a strong culture of patriarchy, resulting in the fading of matrilineal families. On the other hand, women in Kerala enjoy a higher political stature compared to most women across the country, as well as the two aforementioned tribes. A few families still follow the matrilineal tradition of carrying the mothers name throughout their life.