W hile women’s rights may have become a major topic of discussion around the world in recent years, there are female-centric communities that for centuries have distinguished themselves by carving out their own feminist traditions in places such as China , India and Indonesia . But many of these matriarchal and matrilineal societies are now struggling to survive, amid threats posed by the modern world such as mass tourism , technology and the infiltration of ideas from mainstream patriarchal society. In China, for instance, there is a small Mosuo tribe known as the “kingdom of women”. “Key to the Mosuo culture is their matrilineal family structure, with a basic building block of only members sharing the same female bloodline making up the family … Any male bloodline is not taken into account,” says Choo Waihong, a former Singaporean corporate lawyer who has researched the community for the past decade. At the top of the hierarchy is the grandmother, who is the head of the household. “Her daughters run the home and look after all the children of the female siblings … The sons and grandsons are expected in their supporting role to shoulder the manual tasks required to maintain the farmstead,” Choo says. Researchers say that there are about 30,000 to 40,000 Mosuo people – most of whom live in the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas in Yunnan, southwest China. This unique community has come together in a series of villages dotted around a mountain and Lugu Lake, while growing numbers have moved out to work in larger towns and cities elsewhere in the country. According to Choo, author of the book The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains , the most distinctive facet of this community that sets it apart from mainstream society is the absence of formal marriage arrangements between men and women. Instead, they have “walking marriages”, where the man goes to the woman’s home, spends the night with her and then leaves the following morning. The Kingdom of Women: China’s ‘lost tribe’ of matriarchs, the Mosuo The couple can choose to have a temporary or even a permanent arrangement as partners, but they are not bound by marriage ties. If they have children, the baby belongs to the woman’s household. “In fact, the man is not considered part of the matrilineal family and his ties to the baby do not determine the social place of the baby,” the researcher says. Such a society, where women are not subjected to men and sexual freedom is an intrinsic part of their culture, is so radically different from mainstream patriarchal family structures that the Mosuo tribe has been examined and studied over time. More recently, its unique features have also become an eye-catching selling point for the local tourism industry. TOURISM INDUSTRY The Mosuo tribe used to live off the land by farming, herding and hunting. But many families now rely on tourism after the tribe’s culture and Lugu Lake became more popular and widely known. “Tour buses on fancy freeways and planes arriving at a new airport bring more and more tourists daily to turn the whole area into a busy travel playground,” Choo says. “Every household around the lake is involved one way or another with the hotel, restaurant and tour guide industries.” While the tourism industry has brought money and better food for most families as well more access to educational opportunities for their children, it is also posing a serious threat to their culture and traditional ways of life. “The greatest challenge for the tribe is their rapid transition from living a rudimentary subsistence farming way of life right into a burgeoning modern middle-class existence within a short span of 20 or so years,” Choo says. The Mosuo are now being bombarded not only by mainstream traditional Chinese values, but also by new economic values connected to money and the digital economy. “That is a lot to take in for people who had no writing to support their oral language … and only had primary schools for their children not so long ago,” she says. Older Mosuo are now being pushed to learn Mandarin in order to keep up with the younger generations. At the same time, the researcher says, “their long-held cultural beliefs and principles are evolving as the young generation gets exposed to the outside world and start to question the old ways of doing things.” How life is changing for Thailand’s Karen tribe Walking marriages are not as common, with more youngsters getting married and forming nuclear families. “Large matrilineal families which were the norm are now breaking up into smaller nuclear families. All this dilutes the traditional matrilineal Mosuo family structure,” Choo says. “The central place of the female in old Mosuo society is slowly being affected, as the male Mosuo are beginning to entertain some patriarchal outlook in the face of outside cultural influences.” China may have radically reinvented itself in recent decades, but the changes to the Mosuo tribe have been nearly as dramatic. “The world of the Mosuo when I first ventured into their midst 12 years ago is a distant past as I look [today in 2020] at how they have changed,” Choo says. PATRIARCHY IN DISGUISE There are dozens of female-centric communities scattered around the world. The Garo and Khasi tribes, which are also traditionally matrilineal societies, can be found mostly in India. In a Khasi family, the youngest daughter inherits the ancestral property, while in the Garo community, women also inherit property, but don’t necessarily have to be the youngest daughter of the family. Caroline Marak, former head of the Garo Department at the North Eastern Hill University in India, says that the Garo are female-oriented, but not female-dominated. Women “have no part in the field of administration decision-making”, she wrote in an academic paper. In recent years, the husbands of Garo women who are property owners have had a greater say over land deals, such as with government. “We are now trying to reclaim our rights from the males,” says Sume Sangma, secretary of the Garo Mothers Union NGO. “Women in the community are self-reliant and we are fighting for their real power.” Tiplut Nongbri, from the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, also says women don’t have much authority in Garo and Khasi societies. “Patriarchy is in disguise in both the communities. The societies are matrilineal only as far as descent, residence and inheritance of property are concerned,” she says. “Women are not allowed to take part in politics.” RG Lyngdoh, former home minister of Meghalaya – the hilly state in north-eastern India where both communities are based – says inward migration and the presence of Christian missionaries in the state have affected traditional lifestyles. “The old practices of equity between males and females have eroded,” Lyngdoh says. “This has led to a perception of inadequacy among the males, [creating] discord within the family, which found expression in many negative ways, such as domestic violence and abandonment of wives, which never existed within the Khasi community.” Gertrude Lamare, a member of the Khasi-Jaintia community now pursuing her PhD in anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues that “with families becoming more nuclear, women do have a huge role in the decision-making process”. Researchers have estimated that there are 1 million Garo in India and Bangladesh , and 1.7 million Khasi in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Some of them have become increasingly wary of outsiders preying on their natural resources, which are dwindling, thanks to deforestation and climate change. Another challenge these communities are facing has to do with the growing trend of mixed marriages. “In recent years, children of a Khasi or Garo mother and non-tribal father [have] not [been] welcomed. The males in the family want their women to marry within the tribal community,” researcher Nongbri says, noting that younger generations are going through an identity crisis. STILL PROUD The world’s largest known matrilineal society today is believed to be in Indonesia: the Minangkabau, also known as Minang. Their community of about 8 million is scattered around the world, but most are in Indonesia’s West Sumatra province. While traditionally animist, they were later influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, and most have since embraced Islam. But much like the others, their community is also changing. Nursyirwan Effendi, dean of the Faculty of Social and Political Science at Andalas University, says that many of those who remain in villages and rural areas still hold tight to the tribe’s values. “Women are central in the distribution of assets, such as rice fields, gardens and [houses], from their ancestors,” he says. Traditionally, Minangkabau women play an essential role in their children’s education and hold inheritance rights, while men are expected to take jobs elsewhere and occupy political and religious positions. When they do get married, the man moves to the woman’s house. But Nursyirwan, who is of Minangkabau descent, notes that many have left for bigger cities, where they do not closely follow the community’s traditions. An example of this is Afrianto Sikumbang, a 53-year-old businessman who was born to Minangkabau parents in West Sumatra province but now lives in the capital, Jakarta. Although he married a Minangkabau woman, he says they “don’t really apply” the tribe’s values in their daily life. Sonya Anggraini, 35, who also works in the capital, has got used to city life, but remains proud of her ancestral roots and hopes that Minangkabau culture will persist for years to come. “I am a member of my mother’s family, not of my father’s,” she says. ■ Additional reporting by Kok Xinghui Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.