Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar 1/3 Matriarchy in Madagascar: myth or reality? Back on the pre-colonial society.

04.07.2020

Writter by Koloina Andriamanondehibe
Translated by Aurélie Bugnard

 

At the dawn of the celebration of 60 years of the return to independence of Madagascar, cultural and identity revendications start to take an important space in public and citizen’s debates – a process including the rejection of what is perceived as an attempt of imperialism of the West on the current Malagasy society.

Anti-feminism supporters hide behind this traditionalist rhetoric in Madagascar. The patriarchal system and social norms centered on men are inherent in the Malagasy culture, and the values promoted by feminist movements are “artificial, even unnatural, in any case contrary to traditional culture because they are imported from abroad1]RABENORO Mireille, « Le mythe des femmes au pouvoir, arme de l’antiféminisme à Madagascar », Cahiers du Genre/Recherches féministes 52/25, 2012, p. 91, online : https://www.cairn.info/revue-cahiers-du-genre-2012-1-page-75.htm ».” From a historical point of view, this erroneous postulate is based on a partial knowledge of Malagasy culture. Through this series of articles, we propose to go to the root of these preconceived ideas, which are strongly prejudicial to initiatives in favor of gender equality in Madagascar today, in order to deconstruct them in the end.

According to Durkheim, traditional or “archaic” societies are found in small communities where social organization is governed by traditions and the sacred2]MULLER Hans-Peter. « Société, morale et individualisme. La théorie morale d’Emile Durkheim », Trivium n°13, 2013, online : https://journals.openedition.org/trivium/4490. In addition to this definition, we consider that traditional society is also defined by a civilization devoid of any external influence. We start from the assumption that the real “modernization” of Malagasy society only really began in the era of Christianization and colonization in the 19th century. This first article proposes to report how social relations between genders where articulated before this period, and to define the true traditional place of the Madagascan woman.

Cultural influences of the Malagasy population

In order to understand the traditional relationships between men and women in Madagascar, it is necessary to go back to the origins of its population. Madagascar is an island in the Indian Ocean, separated from the South East African coast by the 400 km width of the Mozambique Channel. Its population, estimated today at 26 million inhabitants, finds its origin in several waves of immigration coming mainly from Africa, Southeast Asia and even from the Middle East. According to Michaël Randriamaniraka, a Malagasy anthropologist interviewed for this report, it is particularly the Austronesian and Bantu crossbreeding that would have played a preponderant role in the identity of Malagasy civilization, including the determination of gender relations in society. The Madagascan culture thus became a continuity of the “Bantu matrilineal belt3]“The Bantu Matrilineal Belt” stretches from the Atlantic coasts of Angola to the Mozambique Channel. Anthropologists who have studied the region have observed that most of the groups inhabiting this region rely on a matrilineal and matrilocal system. (Source : Mouvement Matricien. « Bantous matriarcaux (ethnic group) : un grand courant civilisateur de l’Afrique noire ». matricien.org, s.d., en ligne : https://matricien.wordpress.com/geo-hist-matriarcat/afrique/bantou/) ” as well as of the Indonesian matrilineal cultural matrix4]ALLIBERT Claude et RAJAONARIMANANA Narivelo. « L’extraordinaire et le quotidien », Éditions Karthala, 2000, p. 282.

Indeed, the social organization of the Bantu from Central Africa and the Austronesians from Southeast Asia is characterized by the adoption of a “gynecostatic5]PAUL Jean-Luc, « Au-delà de Femmes, Greniers et Capitaux », Journal des anthropologues, 2009, p. 6-7” organization where women settle and occupy the land to indulge in agriculture, while men adopt a nomadic lifestyle and live by hunting and fishing. According to Jean Luc Paul, this system establishes the socio-economic domination of women, seen as the nurturers of the community, as well as the dependence of men on them. As a result, women have authority over these sedentary societies they make up, since they hold the means of production and wealth there and are not oppressed by men. On the other hand, as there is no “permanent” presence of men in the villages due to their nomadism, the social order is based on maternal parentage and authority. These characteristics are linked to the true definition of matriarchy, which is often wrongly seen as the domination of women over men, in literal contradiction with patriarchy. As Peggy Reeves Sanday reminds us: “The ethnographic context of matriarchy does not reflect female power over subjects or female power to dominate, but female power (in their roles as mothers and ancestors) to conjugate, weave and regenerate social connections in the here and now and in the hereafter6]REEVES SANDAY Peggy. « Le matriarcat comme modèle socioculturel. Un vieux débat dans une perspective nouvelle », Robin-Woodard, 2008, en ligne : http://robin-woodard.eu/spip.php?article13&lang=fr. “.

Therefore, when we talk about the traditional matriarchy in Madagascar, we are not assuming that women have been the sole holders of power – but rather that they have played an important role in different spheres of society. It is through this synthetic description of the cultural influences of Madagascar, and the reminder of what we mean by “matriarchal society”, that we will try to deconstruct the idea that Malagasy culture has always been doomed to be centered on men.

The pre-colonial matriarchy in Madagascar and the influence of women

Today, when we talk about the place of women in Madagascan society, defenders of the female condition point to the abuses and discriminations against those who are affectionately called Andriambavilanitra (“The Princesses of Heaven ”). Patriarchy is often implicated in violations of women’s rights, which makes the fight against the abusive domination of men the spearhead of local feminist associations and activists. However, the social inferiority of women as we know them today has not always existed in Malagasy society.

Colonial administrator Garbit observed that women were naturally seen as equal to men in the family unit, if not more. The education and ownership of children belong to them, giving them a more privileged role7]GARBIT Hubert Auguste. L’effort de Madagascar pendant la guerre : au point de vue financier, économique et militaire, A. Challamel, 1919, p. 11.. The Malagasy man indeed had little legal authority over his household. Polygamy – both that of women and that of men – was widely accepted in yesteryear  communities. DNA tests were invented only centuries later, making it difficult to confirm the paternity of a child and thus to ensure its legitimacy to inherit from its mother’s partner. Therefore, like the African and Indonesian gynecostatic communities, the Malagasy inheritance rules followed a matrilineal order: very early in the history of Madagascar, wealth was transmitted to the maternal side and the children belong to the clan of the mother.

In addition, a Madagascan adage says that “it is the uterus that colors the child8]LETOURNEAU Charles. « Sociology Based Upon Ethnography », Chapman and Hall, 1881, p. 385 ». Another proof of the father’s legal absence is the non-existence of the patronym. Men do not give their names to their wife or children; the former being free to keep her maiden name and the latter usually bearing names of circumstance9]Le Mouvement Matricien. « Matriarcat Sakalava et Vazimba (Madagascar) : la royauté matrilinéaire d’une île multi-ethnique », matricien.org, s.d., en ligne : https://matricien.wordpress.com/geo-hist-matriarcat/afrique/malgache/ .

The weakness of the paternal authority did not mean, however, the absence of a “male figure” in the life of a Malagasy child. Traditional Malagasy society is a follower of the avunculate, also called Zama by the Malagasy, which is a practice where the mother’s brother is responsible for the education of a child and assumes his social authorship. Here again, therefore, the maternal line prevails and confirms the presence of a social system organized around the mother’s family. It is, moreover, these matrilineal practices that will allow certain great Madagascan monarchs to reach the throne. For example, King Andrianampoinimerina, the initiator of the reunification of Madagascar in the 18th century, was designated as the legitimate successor of his maternal grandfather Andriambelomasina; King Radama II inherited the Malagasy throne from his mother Ranavalona I; Ranavalona II succeeded his cousin Rasoherina and was herself followed by his niece Ranavalona III. The rule of the “first born male” therefore did not prevail in the Malagasy devolution.

This demonstrates several things: first, as opposed to current public opinion, the advent of a woman in power was not seen as an incongruous or progressive fact in political life; secondly whether or not they are at the head of the kingdom, women have often played a vital role in the rules of succession and the transmission of power.

In conclusion, matriarchy is much more than a myth in Madagascar, provided the correct understanding of the meaning of this concept. From the earliest primitive societies to Western acculturation, the Madagascan woman demonstrated social superiority and authority similar to those found in the African and Asian civilizations from which Madagascar originated. Matriarchy and matrilineality then combined for centuries in favor of values, norms and practices favorable to the interests of women. As Randriamaniraka defends, current feminism is only claiming the rights and benefits that Madagascan women once knew.

In the next article, the main upheavals undergone by the society during the western introduction in the 19th century will be discussed as well as  the resulting fracture in gender relations in Madagascar. This analysis will trace how we went from a matriarchal society to a sustainable patriarchal society in a matter of a few decades and will explain above all why the struggle for equality between women and men is today more difficult and even inconceivable for the public opinion.

References   [ + ]

1. RABENORO Mireille, « Le mythe des femmes au pouvoir, arme de l’antiféminisme à Madagascar », Cahiers du Genre/Recherches féministes 52/25, 2012, p. 91, online : https://www.cairn.info/revue-cahiers-du-genre-2012-1-page-75.htm
2. MULLER Hans-Peter. « Société, morale et individualisme. La théorie morale d’Emile Durkheim », Trivium n°13, 2013, online : https://journals.openedition.org/trivium/4490
3. “The Bantu Matrilineal Belt” stretches from the Atlantic coasts of Angola to the Mozambique Channel. Anthropologists who have studied the region have observed that most of the groups inhabiting this region rely on a matrilineal and matrilocal system. (Source : Mouvement Matricien. « Bantous matriarcaux (ethnic group) : un grand courant civilisateur de l’Afrique noire ». matricien.org, s.d., en ligne : https://matricien.wordpress.com/geo-hist-matriarcat/afrique/bantou/)
4. ALLIBERT Claude et RAJAONARIMANANA Narivelo. « L’extraordinaire et le quotidien », Éditions Karthala, 2000, p. 282
5. PAUL Jean-Luc, « Au-delà de Femmes, Greniers et Capitaux », Journal des anthropologues, 2009, p. 6-7
6. REEVES SANDAY Peggy. « Le matriarcat comme modèle socioculturel. Un vieux débat dans une perspective nouvelle », Robin-Woodard, 2008, en ligne : http://robin-woodard.eu/spip.php?article13&lang=fr.
7. GARBIT Hubert Auguste. L’effort de Madagascar pendant la guerre : au point de vue financier, économique et militaire, A. Challamel, 1919, p. 11.
8. LETOURNEAU Charles. « Sociology Based Upon Ethnography », Chapman and Hall, 1881, p. 385
9. Le Mouvement Matricien. « Matriarcat Sakalava et Vazimba (Madagascar) : la royauté matrilinéaire d’une île multi-ethnique », matricien.org, s.d., en ligne : https://matricien.wordpress.com/geo-hist-matriarcat/afrique/malgache/

Check the rest of the series “Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar”
2/3 Western acculturation and social gender relations in the 19th century: breaks and transformations : https://igg-geo.org/?p=1686&lang=en
3/3 (Re)conciling feminism and society, the new militant challenge in Madagascar : https://igg-geo.org/?p=2153&lang=en

To quote this article : Koloina Andriamanondehibe, “Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar 1/3 Matriarchy in Madagascar: myth or reality? Back on the pre-colonial society.”, 04.07.2020,  Gender in Geopolitics Institute.

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