Peggy Reeves Sanday has done an excellent job with her description of the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, who are by far the largest matrilineal society in the world today.
"Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy" has much to recommenend anybody interested in studying peoples different from their own. We see clearly the way in which Minangkabau culture works and why it has held together as well as it has amidst such influences and Islam and modernity, as well as being shown the character of the ancient law system that still forms the heart of Minangkabau culture. The remarkable thing, as Sanday points out, is that the Minangkabau have always seamlessly blended such opposites as matriliny and Islam.
Sanday shows exactly how the Minangkabau contrast so much with classic patrilineal cultures, most especially in the way in which women have such an important role in their culture's most important ceremonies. Throughout "Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy", she looks in very good and effective detail at how these ceremonies are carried out, and why they are so important to their own identity.
Women in Minangkabau culture have a very important ceremonial role, despite the spiritual power of the male "penghulu", who are clearly discussed in a separate chapter. We gain a good insight into the role not only of food and land, but also of song in Minangkabau culture to show how each individual relates to the society as a whole. This is also seen in the lengthy, but reasonably clear, discussion about how Minangkabau people marry - and how this has been changed in recent decades. Sanday is so practical that she will illustrate very clearly some actual examples of modern Minangkabau people and how they have married to prevent any reader misunderstanding them.
Overall, this is a highly recommended text for those interested in anthropological studies. it is clear, well-written and in no way sentimental. Most importantly, its understanding of the questions it looks at cannot be denied.
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