6 Modern Societies Where Women Rule

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Who runs the world? In these six societies: Girls.

By standard definition, a matriarchy is a “family, group or state governed by a matriarch (a woman who is head of a family or tribe).” Anthropologists and feminists have since created more specific classifications for female societies, including the matrilineal system. Matrilineality refers not only to tracing one’s lineage through maternal ancestry, it can also refer to a civil system in which one inherits property through the female line. While the legendary Amazons (probably the most widely known matriarchy) are relegated to mythology, there are a handful of female-led societies that thrive in the real world today.

1. MOSUO

Living near the border of Tibet in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, the Mosuo are perhaps the most famous matrilineal society. The Chinese government officially classifies them as part of another ethnic minority known as the Naxi, but the two are distinct in both culture and language.

The Mosuo live with extended family in large households; at the head of each is a matriarch. Lineage is traced through the female side of the family, and property is passed down along the same matriline. Mosuo women typically handle business decisions and men handle politics. Children are raised in the mother's households and take her name.

The Mosuo have what's called “walking marriages." There is no institution of marriage; rather, women choose their partners by literally walking to the man’s home and the couples never live together. Since children always remains in the mother’s care, sometimes the father plays little role in the upbringing. In some cases, the father's identity is not even known. Instead, the male’s childrearing responsibilities remain in his own matrilineal household.

2. MINANGKABAU

At four million people, the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia, (pictured above, during a harvest season celebratino) are the largest known matrilineal society today. In addition to tribal law requiring all clan property to be held and bequeathed from mother to daughter, the Minangkabau firmly believe the mother to be the most important person in society.

In Minangkabau society, women usually rule the domestic realm while the men take the political and spiritual leadership roles. However, both genders feel the separation of powers keeps them on an equal footing. Upon marriage, every woman acquires her own sleeping quarters. The husband may sleep with her, but must leave early in the morning to have breakfast at his mother’s home. At age 10, boys leave their mother’s home to stay in men's quarters and learn practical skills and religious teachings. While the clan chief is always male, women select the chief and can remove him from office should they feel he failed to fulfill his duties. 

3. AKAN

The Akan people are a majority in Ghana, where they predominantly reside. The Akan social organization is fundamentally built around the matriclan, wherein one's identity, inheritance, wealth, and politics are all determined. All matriclan founders are female, but men traditionally hold leadership positions within the society. These inherited roles, however, are passed down matrilineally—meaning through a man's mothers and sisters (and their children). Often, the man is expected to not only support his own family, but those of his female relatives.

4. BRIBRI

The Bribri are a small indigenous group of just over 13,000 people living on a reserve in the Talamanca canton in the Limón province of Costa Rica. Like many other matrilineal societies, the Bribri are organized into clans. Each clan is made up of extended family, and the clan is determined through the mother/females. Women are the only ones who traditionally can inherit land. Women are also endowed with the right to prep the cacao used in sacred Bribri rituals.

5. GARO

Much like their Khasi neighbors in the North-East Indian state of Meghalaya, the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Garos pass property and political succession from mother to daughter—typically, he youngest daughter inherits her mother's property. Much like the Akan, however, the societiy is matrilineal but not matriarchal: the men govern the society and manage property.

Oftentimes, the youngest daughter's marriage is arranged for her. But for non-inheriting daughters, the process can be much more complex. In Garo tradition, the groom-to-be is expected to run away from a proposal of marriage, requiring the bride-to-be's family to "capture" him and return him to his potential bride's villiage. This back-and-forth is repeated until the bride either gives up, or the groom accepts her proposal (often after she has made many promises to serve and obey him). Once married, the husband lives in his wife’s house. Should it not work out, the union is dissolved without social stigma, as marriage is not a binding contract.

6. NAGOVISI

The Nagovisi live in South Bougainville, an island west of New Guinea. Anthropologist Jill Nash reported Nagovisi society was divided into two matrilineal moieties, which are then divided into matriclans. Nagovisi women are involved in leadership and ceremonies, but take the most pride in working the land entitled to them. Nash observed that when it comes to marriage, the Nagovisi woman held gardening and shared sexuality at equal importance. Marriage is not institutionalized. If a couple is seen together, sleeps together, and the man assists the woman in her garden, for all intents and purposes they are considered married.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

Journey to the Monarch Mosh Pit

iStock/Spondylolithesis
iStock/Spondylolithesis

Each fall, millions of migrating monarchs return to Mexico to wait out winter. The gathering makes Woodstock look like a business conference. Here’s how they get there.

Mosh Pit

In the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies crowd on the branches of oyamel fir trees. The trees provide a perfect microclimate that prevents the butterflies from getting too hot or cold.

Texas Toast

After winter, the butterflies fly north to Texas in search of milkweed, where they lay their eggs. Many adults will die here; northbound monarchs generally live only three to seven weeks.

Juice Cleanse

One of the reasons monarchs love milkweed? Protection. As caterpillars, they absorb the toxins in the plant, which makes them less tasty to birds.

Connecting Flight

Eventually, a new generation of butterflies will make its way north to Canada. It takes multiple generations of butterflies to reach their final, most northerly destination.

Dine and Dash

On the way, butterflies will eat practically anything. Sure, there’s nectar—but they’ll also slurp the salts in mud.

Catching Air

When fall returns, a new generation of monarchs rides the air currents more than 3000 miles back to Mexico. They navigate by calibrating their body clocks with the position of the sun. (An internal magnetic compass helps them navigate on cloudy days.)

Latitude Adjustment

Monarchs “are one of the few creatures on Earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude,” The New York Times reports—a feat sailors wouldn’t accomplish until the 1700s.

Southern Charm

Miraculously, each generation of southbound monarchs lives up to eight months—six times longer than their northbound descendants. Their longevity might have something to do with a process known as reproductive diapause (which is a fancy way of saying that the insects won’t breed until winter ends).

9 Abandoned Islands Reclaimed by Nature

Hashima Island in Japan
Hashima Island in Japan
FROSTEYe, iStock via Getty Images

There’s something especially atmospheric about an island left abandoned. The ruined buildings, overrun by animals and climbing plants, hint at dark stories and forgotten chapters in the island’s past. Below are nine (mostly) abandoned islands that have been reclaimed by nature, and the stories behind them.

1. Ilha da Queimada Grande // Brazil

A golden lancehead viper
A golden lancehead viper
Nayeryouakim, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

Ilha da Queimada Grande is a beautiful, wild island 90 miles off the coast of São Paolo, Brazil. But this island is no paradise—it's home to between 2000 and 4000 golden lancehead vipers, one of the world's deadliest snakes. The island was cut off from the mainland 11,000 years ago when sea levels rose, and with no known predators on the ground, the snakes evolved into their own species of pit viper. The golden lancehead vipers have also taken over the entire island: Rumor has it that the only family who ever lived there (they moved to the island to run the lighthouse) all died after being bitten by the snakes. Today, travel to the island is tightly controlled, but whether this is to protect people from the deadly snakes, or to protect the critically endangered snakes from people, isn't entirely clear. Whatever the reason, this island is one that looks set to stay abandoned.

2. Hashima Island // Japan

Ruins in Hashima Island, Japan
Ruins in Hashima Island, Japan
FROSTEYe, iStock via Getty Images

In the 1950s, the 16-acre Hashima Island—also known as Battleship Island—was almost completely covered in high-rise apartments by the Mitsubishi Corporation, built in order to house the thousands of people who worked in the undersea mine beneath the island. But once the mines closed in 1974 the island was left to ruin, and the place now makes for an eerie modern ghost town. Its haunting atmosphere was put to good use in 2012 when it was used in the Bond film Skyfall as the villain’s lair. In 2015, in light of its importance to industrial history, the island was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list—a decision that involved some controversy, given that some of those who worked on the island were forced laborers from Korea.

3. Pollepel Island // New York

Bannerman Island Castle, Pollepel Island, New York
Bannerman Island Castle, Pollepel Island, New York
karenfoleyphotography, iStock via Getty Images

Pollepel Island (also often called Bannerman Island) is a 6.5-acre island in New York's Hudson River. The island was purchased in 1900 by entrepreneur Francis Bannerman as a place to store his excess stock of military surplus items. Bannerman designed an eccentric Scottish-style castle to house his wares, but construction on the building ceased in 1918 after his death. In 1920, 200 pounds of shells and gunpowder exploded in an accident, destroying part of the castle. After the ferry serving the island sank in 1950, the island and its ruined castle became effectively abandoned. New York State purchased Pollepel Island in 1967, but another fire two years later left the castle dangerously unstable, and since 1968 it has been off-limits to the public unless you're on a guided tour.

4. King Island // Alaska

An abandoned village in King Island, Alaska
An abandoned village in King Island, Alaska
Ansgar Walk, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

King Island sits in the Bering Sea, some 40 miles from Cape Douglas, Alaska. At first glance it seems impossible that anyone could have ever called this steep, rocky outcrop home, and yet for a number of years, an indigenous community of Inupiat lived in wooden huts on stilts built onto the cliff face. The village, known as Ukivok, was home to up to 200 people who spent their days hunting seal and walrus. But after the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the local school in 1959, the community began to diminish, until by 1970 it was completely abandoned. Amazingly, the wooden huts can still be seen, clinging on to the rocky cliffs, long out-lasting their former inhabitants.

5. Okunoshima Island // Japan

Wild rabbits on Japan's rabbit island, Okunoshima
Wild rabbits on Japan's rabbit island, Okunoshima
grassflowerhead, iStock via Getty Images

This tiny island in Japan was once used to manufacture and test poisonous gases, but it was deserted after World War II. Rabbits introduced to the island (possibly as test subjects for the poison gas) have, well, bred like rabbits, and now the island is home to thousands of the furry creatures. The plethora of cute rabbits have caused the island to become a popular tourist attraction, and people now flock to this once-deadly location to get their fill of fluffy bunnies. For those of a more macabre bent, the island also now features a small museum on poison gas.

6. Poveglia // Italy

Ruins on the island of Poveglia, Italy
Ruins on the island of Poveglia, Italy
Angelo Meneghini, Wikimedia // CC BY 3.0

This island is known as one of the most supposedly haunted abandoned islands in the world, and with good reason. Found in the Venetian Lagoon, Poveglia was once used to quarantine those afflicted with the plague. As a result, thousands of people lived out their last, miserable moments there and the island’s soil is rumored to be filled with human remains. A mental hospital was also built there in 1922. Poveglia has been abandoned since 1968, and the old hospital buildings reclaimed by nature, with a pervading atmosphere of death, madness, and misery still hanging heavy over the island.

7. Clipperton Island // Pacific Ocean

Remote Clipperton Island is about 1300 miles off the southwest coast of Mexico. Over the years, the United States, Mexico, France, and England all attempted to stake a claim on the island to mine the valuable guano there for use as fertilizer—but Clipperton's remote location and inhospitable, rocky coast made it difficult to access. As a result, by the 1910s the island was inhabited by just 26 people. The small settlement was soon forgotten, and supply ships no longer stopped there. With only fish, birds, and coconuts to eat, the islanders began to die, until only a reclusive lighthouse keeper, several women, and their children remained. Then things got even worse: The lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez, pronounced himself "king." For the next two years, he ruled over the island, terrorizing and enslaving the women and children. His reign was brought to an end in 1917 when one of his victims murdered him. Soon after, an American ship rescued the emaciated women and children, returning them to their families in Mexico, and leaving the island and its terrible history forgotten.

8. Hirta Island // Scotland

St Kilda, Scotland
St Kilda, Scotland
RobertKelly1972, iStock via Getty Images

Hirta is part of the St Kilda chain of islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The island is so remote it can take 18 hours by boat to reach its sole accessible bay, but rough seas and harsh weather often leave the island cut off. Archaeological evidence suggests people lived on the island beginning in prehistoric times, eking out an existence by hunting the many seabirds that call the island home. In 1930, the last residents asked to be sent to the mainland, because the inhospitable terrain, relentless bad weather, and lack of food made living there too hard. The island is now owned by the Scottish National Trust; in the summer months it temporarily houses scientists and volunteers, who study the puffins and gannets that now thrive there.

9. Ross Island // India

A Presbyterian Church on Ross Island
A Presbyterian Church on Ross Island
ePhotocorp, iStock via Getty Images

Ross Island (officially renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in 2018) is one of the 572 remote Andaman and and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. In the 19th century, the white sand idyll was colonized by the British, who built houses, a church, a ballroom, and a penal colony there to house Indian mutineers. During World War II, the Andaman Islands were taken over by the Japanese, and the British fled after releasing all prisoners. After the war, the island was left abandoned and the jungle has slowly reclaimed the grand Victorian buildings. In 1979, it was officially handed over to the Indian Navy.

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