Muslims and matriachs by Jeff Hadler
Muslims and matriarchs: cultural resilience through jihad and colonialism
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008
224 pp. ISBN 978-0-8014-4697-9
Reviewed by Becky Elmhirst, University of Brighton
As the author of this book points out, the Minangkabau people in the Indonesian province of West Sumatra have attracted considerable scholarly attention for more than a century, in part for the contradictory coexistence of a matrilineal culture, in which women’s power over the house and rice fields is a central cultural theme, and Islamic piety, which brackets women into the private sphere of home and family. Scholars have also been drawn to this region in seeking an explanation for the disproportionately large number of Minangkabau leaders that emerged in Indonesia’s turbulent 20th century political scene. The book also addresses these two themes: it asks first why the Minangkabau culture in the highlands of West Sumatra produced so many dynamic (and ideologically diverse) first-generation Indonesian leaders, and secondly, how a matriarchate survived in West Sumatra when elsewhere in Asia it was undermined by colonial and national state policies. However, these questions are recast and drawn together in an original and compelling manner, which not only addresses these questions but enables many other intriguing themes to emerge. Jeffrey Hadler draws on a wide range of textual sources to develop an argument which sees these questions as inextricably connected: tensions between Islamic reform and matrilineal customs and practices meant that in their daily lives, Minangkabau were forced to continually question received cultural definitions around home and family, and through endless rounds of debate were able to envision new possibilities and to develop the flexibility and will to make these possibilities real. This accounts for both the resilience of Minangkabau culture and practices in the face of colonialism, and the fact that West Sumatra was to be a crucible for so many dynamic first-generation political leaders in Indonesia.
The book opens with a history of the Padri War, leaders of which sought to replace the Minangkabau matriarchate with a purified Islam marked by strict adherence to the Quran. The oscillations of this history are illustrated by the author in his focus on the role of Tuanku Imam Bondjol, whose story finally is one of attempts to find a compromise between Minangkabau custom, Islamic law and the intrusions of the Dutch colonial state in the 19th century. This contested triumvirate is then explored in detail by examining how such contestations play out in three different social and cultural spaces: the house, the family and children’s education. In the final chapters of the book, these ideas are developed further as the author discusses the politicisation of gendered morality and of culture in the early part of the 20th century, framed by the destructive 1926 earthquake and a failed communist uprising. It was out of this foment in West Sumatra that a generation of Indonesian political leaders emerged.
One of the features that distinguishes Hadler’s book, and makes for a very engaging read, is his use of a collection of manuscripts catalogued as schoolschriften (school writings), written by students and native assistant teachers in the colonial village schools of West Sumatra in the late 19th century. What is intriguing about these early forms of auto-ethnography is that they focus on the everyday, intimate domestic negotiations of the period: Hadler sees in these the first sparks of 20th century modernity. Moreover, these and the other sources he utilises, allow him to draw a historiography of cultural resilience which places family, domestic lives and the agency of women centre-stage, not only in the story of West Sumatra’s cultural politics, but in the unfolding of Indonesia as a postcolonial polity. Whilst there is much in this book that is of interest to historians and scholars whose interests centre on West Sumatra, this study carries a much broader appeal. Firstly, it connects with feminist theorisations of space and power by offering a richly wrought case-study of the ways that the politics of intimate spaces (home, house and family) give shape to wider political frames. Secondly, Hadler’s nuanced discussion shows Minangkabau culture as a negotiated balance between Islam and the matriarchate, modernity and tradition that is wary of extremism. His argument that violent Islamic revivalism and foreign occupation effectively sustained matrilineal custom and a relatively egalitarian gender order offers a tantalising glimpse at how we might come to understand similar contestations in a more contemporary context, even if we accept Hadler’s closing remark that Minangkabau is a ‘hopeful exception’.