A quick glance at politics and business in almost every country in the world, and it is pretty obvious that men are the predominant movers and shakers. The same goes for cultural traditions like marriage or inheritance, where a husband’s name is passed down to a child rather than the mothers, or a first-born son will inherit a family company, property, land, or even a kingdom.
Simply put, in much of the world having a Y chromosome can generate an easier path to power,wealth, and property than being without one. But in some, often isolated and remote, communities around the world, the roles are reversed. Some of these communities are ancient like Costa Rica’s Bribri tribe where children take their mother’s name and not their father’s; while some are far newer such as the Umoja in Kenya, a self-sufficient village founded as a safe haven from male violence. All, however, offer us a fascinating insight into what the world may look like if women were in charge.
The Mosuo may only make up 50,000 of China’s mammoth 1.3 billion population, but the way their society is set-up is remarkably different from the rest of the country and the world.
Mosuo women control finances, are entitled to land, and head the household, while decision-making in the south-Chinese community is evolved around a settlement-head – a woman –who helps govern her village and region as a whole.
Not only that, but the “Kingdom of Women,” as the society is sometimes termed, is also matrilineal – that is, property and inheritance is passed down to daughters and not sons. And unlike most countries around the globe, the name that is carried down to the next generation is that of the mother, not father.
The women in this society can also take as many lovers as they want, and even have their own private room – called a babhuago – for intimate meetings with the opposite sex. In fact, often women will not know who the father of their child is. But this is not seen as problematic –parental duties are carried out by the grandmother, rather than the mother.
In Umoja village, women are not just in charge, they are also the only inhabitants – men are completely forbidden.
Umoja – situated in the grasslands of northern Kenya – was set up by fifteen women in 1990 as a refuge after suffering horrendous sexual violence at the hands of British soldiers.
Finding themselves homeless after being forced out of their homes by husbands who did not want a wife who had been raped, these brave women set up their own village where violence and men were banned. Later they started taking in orphans, abandoned children, and children with HIV.
Three decades on and the community numbers around 250 women and children, and has taken in women fleeing female genital mutation (FGM) as well as those seeking safety after suffering assault and rape.
The women – all members of the Samburu people – now live a completely different life from those who live around them. They make community decisions together, have jobs and earn an income, and live without fear of male violence or FGM.
Straddling the border between The Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic is probably one of the most equal communities on earth. The Akan people, who call themselves “The People of the Forest” are a hunter-gatherer society where both men and women pick-up bow and arrow to hunt.
The Akan have created a society where women are in charge just as much as men, while roles in the community and household are so interchangeable there is absolutely no stigma attached to any of them – in fact men can even be found “breast-feeding” by letting children suckle on their nipples while the child’s mother is away hunting.
Cooking, cleaning and parenting duties are all split, and anthropologists claim that because of this equality, Akan men spend more time with their children than fathers anywhere else on earth. One survey even claimed that children are within arms reach of their father an impressive 47% of the time.
Noiva do Cordeiro
Noiva do Cordeiro, an almost all-female Brazilian town founded in the1890s, continues to go from strength to strength, and now has a population of six hundred.
Accused of adultery after leaving a forced marriage and subsequently ex-communicated from the church, Brazilian Maria Senhorinha de Lima set up the town of Noiva do Cordeiro in 1891, in order to create a haven for women where men could not control them.
That town in the southeast of Brazil continues to survive to this day. Populated by hundreds of women who work the land and work for each other, the community believes their town is more organized and peaceful than if men were in charge.
So what about marriage and husbands? Well some of the residents are married, but their husbands almost all work in large cities far from the village, so only manage to return at the weekend. With that being the case, the day-to-day running of Noiva do Cordeiro, is almost exclusively done by women. Men are allowed to live in the town, the women say, as long as they abide by the female-led rulebook.
The Khasi people of Meghalaya in India, have adhered to matrilineal practices for generations, and this ancient tribe is thought to be the oldest matrilineal culture in the world.
Custom in the Khasi community stipulates that the youngest daughter inherits all the property, however in return she must look after her parents when they are old, as well as any unmarried siblings.
Women are celebrated here and have ample opportunities for education and career advancement, while the birth of a daughter often brings more joy than a son. In fact many words in the Khasi language even echo this bias, where nouns will become feminine when they are turned into something useful for the community, for example the word“tree” is masculine, but “wood” – which can be used for building and cooking –is feminine.
But some men are not happy. A male suffragette movement has sprung up in recent years, demanding men are treated as equals, and claiming that this matrilineal culture has bred alcohol and drug abuse among males in the community.
In the spectacular mountains of southern Costa Rica and some of the tropical islands below, the indigenous Bribri people – who believe in a vulture king that can fly to the top of the universe – have been practicing a matriarchal community for centuries.
Divided into clans that are made up of one large family, a child is born into their mother’s clan and not their father’s. Here, only women inherit land, just like other women-led communities around the world, and women are the only ones allowed to prepare a sacred cacao drink that is used in community rituals.
There is one ancient custom involving Bribri women that has fascinated outsiders for decades though – the isolated society is a community with no midwifes and practices a tradition of sending a woman out of the village alone to give birth. Only once a cleansing ceremony after birth is completed is the new mother allowed to be seen and rejoin the rest of her family again.
Travel to the Highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia, and be prepared to come across an extraordinary community – the largest matrilineal society in the world.
The Minangkabau people, numbering eight million, live quite differently from most communities around the world. Children take their mothers name, and property such as homes and land, is inherited solely by daughters. Women are the head of the household, and they are in charge of resolving disputes. Men are involved in religion and politics, but so are women too.
So what about marriage? Well a dowry sometimes exists in Minangkabau society, but here the dowry is dictated by the bride’s family and is dependent on the job and educational-level of the husband-to-be. If all is agreed, and the marriage goes ahead, the newly-weds will move into the home of the bride.
In Nagovisi society the role of a woman as head of the household all comes down to her relationship with the land.
Living among nature in West Guinea, Nagovisi women are the ones who work the land and produce food – and as this production is the basis for all wealth in their society, women are the main breadwinners. Land is handed down to daughters, and men are dependent on women in order to eat. However,while women take the main lead in community and local politics, men are not excluded.When a man helps out in the garden, it is often seen as an intimate act, and when a woman and man sleep in the same house (the woman’s house) and he helps her in the garden, they are regarded as married. If at some point he refuses to eat food from her land that would equal divorce.
In one hundred acres of rural northeastern Alabaman land sits Alapine, an all-female community borne out of the 1970s lesbian separatist movement, and that continues to survive in Bible Belt America.
Alapine only numbers a dozen or so members these days, but what the women have created here is not unique. There are around one hundred lesbian communities like Alapine throughout North America, often termed “womyn’s land”, where men are banned and co-operatives of women farm and tend to the land.
However many of these communities are dying out, and despite the small population, Alapine is actually one of the largest remaining.
Out of the ruins of the Syrian war, a group of women who have suffered at the hands of ISIS brutality have created an all-female village and refuge called Jinwar.
Based in the north of Kurdish controlled Syria, called Rojava, the village was founded in just 2017 and the women see it as an opportunity to create their own self-sustainable community.
Living off the land, the women of Jinwar believe they must separate themselves from the male-dominated violence in the country, and inequality between men and women in Syria, if they are to have a life where they can reach their full potential.