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JuchitÓn and Matriarchy
Written by Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen   

This is a machine translation of the Spanish article:

Teoría y metodología de investigación para sociedades matrifocales - discutido referente al caso de los zapotecas del Istmo (The original article in Spanish )
If you are able to translate the original or correct the machine translation, we would appreciate if you send it.

Report by Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen for the internal seminary of the Ciesas Isthmus, Oaxaca 5 of December 2005

The question of the concept of the matriarcado one is first of all a methodologic question. Of course, that is also an empirical question, but before empiría the methodology comes, that is as it watches at the social relations and the reasoning of because he is useful to use such approach and that concept. This is exactly what I go to do in this test. I am going to give the reasons for which he is useful, to undertake the study of the society istmeña with the approach of `Studies of the Matriarcado' and their respective concepts. In order to discuss it I am going away to base on my investigation of the zapotecas of the Isthmus, particularly of Juchitán in 1990 - 1993. Simultaneously I am going to both summarize the results of great congresses, the First and Second World-wide Congresses of the Studies of the Matriarcado, 2004 in Luxembourg and 2005 in San Marcos/Austin, Texas.  
To use the concept `matriarcado', generally means to confront itself with two deceits very spread.

1.) One is that `matriarcado' is understood like the exercise of being able from the women on the men and 
2.) the other is the idealización of the image of matriarcado like a society the one hundred pacific, egalitarian percent, with a nonextractive relation with the nature.

With this image, by the way, it is excluded from the beginning from which it can have matriarcales societies in our times; and according to my opinion, also in times last, because I doubt that such ideal society never will have existed.  In fact, one of the popular ideas on the matriarcado one consists of which there has been a matriarcal era in the early history of the humanity, the MATRIARCADO, in capital letters, that “has been defeated” - therefore the expression of Federico Engels - by the patriarcado one and replaced by him since then; that is from 4000 or to more take 2000 before Christ. I have my problems with this idealización, with this dream of the mystical one was gilded matriarcal:
• Because, I repeat, I do not believe either that the neolithic old matriarcados ones have been this Earth sky, and  
• because such concept, aside from being ahistórico, stops being a useful tool of social analysis: Thus we will not be able to not even identify in contemporary societies matriarcales characteristics or structures, and with this we will not look for either by such characteristics empirically, that is, by real and living foundations to oppose them to the patriarcado one.
As far as the second deceit, the matriarcado one understood like a society where the women subjugate the men, is easy to recognize that it is only an extrapolation of which he is the patriarcado one. It seems that our patriarcal socialization does not let place to imagine a society in which no sex presses and subjugates to the other. Paradógicamente has had even feministas who dreamed about the totalitarian power of the woman on the man and until they used biologistas arguments as Elizabeth Gould Davis in his book “The First Sex” of 1971, maintaining that masculine sex was a mutation of the feminine human being. These absurd theses have contributed to discredit to the matriarcado concept of. What referring to the book of Gould Davis it is even a pity, because contains simultaneously very valid reviews of archaeological and historical investigations and contributions to the discussion on the matriarcado one.  

Very against such totalitarian dreams it is exactly the nonopresora structure that calls to each other in the most recent works like a main characteristic of matriarcales relations. Thus it express the same word already. And as he would say to Ernst Bloch in his voluminous analysis of the ideas on social justice and the fairness through the different historical times, Straight natural titleholder “and human dignity” (Naturrecht und menschliche Wuerde, 1966): It says, the concept of `human fairness' - opposing it to the one of `social justice' that postulates and accepts hierarchies, aspiring to that they are amortiguen - is based on a conscience, of which all the beings we are equal because we left all a mother, we come all from the mother (mater-arche). This also calls Bloch `straight natural' or `straight of mother' (that is, the concept of right based on the mother).   

Foundation of any patriarcal ideology however is exactly to make disappear this perception and replace the origin concept, descendants and of maternal fertility by the one of the masculine original fertility. Maurice Godelier has given an excellent description us of the ritual practices through which the Baruya de Nueva Guinea (1982, Production DES Grands Hommes. Pouvoir ET domination masculine chez them Baruya de Nouvelle-Guinée), imposes a simbología that says: The children are born of the men. To invest the reality of this form is not obtained but with violence against the women.

Then, and only then, he is correct that the component `arche' means `dominion' and `to be able', that is in the patriarcado word yes, but not thus in the word `matriarcado'. (The analysis of ampler ethnographic material Is also seen, under the point of view how the hierarchic inequality between sexes is constructed, by Peggy Reeves Sanday: Female Power and Male Dominance. On the origins of sexual inequality, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1981).

In patriarcado capitalist the fertility productivity is called   and it is monopolized by the man whereas the work to take care of and to nourish is considered feminine and unproductive. Equal like between the Baruya, this one to invest of the reality reproduces by means of rituals and symbols and are based on the power and the masculine dominion. In this process the social roll assigned to the woman, the housewife, plays a key role.

Through the policy of the development the housewife as social place of the woman has prevailed anywhere in the world. The new outbreak of the economy which we are living now with the economic globalización has its roots in this one type of sexual division of the work and its referring simbología. The economy more and more conceives blatantly as a battlefield of them, the soldiers without mercy, which is possible only since it assumes that the human feelings are taken care of and nourished by the woman in the private thing.  

With this brief test on two patriarcados different ones, the one of the Baruya and the one of globalisado Capitalism, I want to make understand that the mechanisms to eradicate to the feminine and maternal fertility like, are different in different societies and historical times. As well as the patriarcales structures are general and simultaneously historically specific, therefore they are it the matriarcales structures.

In Juchitán and the Isthmus zapoteco are no housewives.   This does not mean that we do not find one or another woman housewife, but the social process to transform to the woman into an employee of the money of the man, of so called “to breadwinner” of the policies of the development, has not occurred.

The women are in the first place retailers, but also craftswomen and profesionistas and perceive economically strong they themselves as and are considered like such by the men, that is they are considered `productive'. But its socioeconomic position is not strong in the capitalist sense, nor either in the sense of the metropolitan .feminism, which would mean that the women have works such, such income and the same seats in the wage-earning work like the men, or even better, high positions in the professional hierarchy. With this, the metropolitan woman tries to free itself of the housewife - what by the way she does not obtain really and what has taken to the diffusion of mini-jobs type assembles. But this is another discussion, that I do not want to take here.  

In the Isthmus the process of `amacasaización' has not occurred and with this the economy of the society zapoteca istmeña in its totality maintains a character different. Economy and society are oriented towards the subsistence, that is, culturally it dominates the value of which it works to gain the necessary thing in the life, and so does not stop called a standard one of elevated life more, as usually it is in the economy oriented towards the profit.

The local and regional circulation is rooted more and better than in other regions of the country, which means mainly that the created values remain in the zone and with this goes to them economically rather well to the zapotecas, comparing them with other indigenous groups. Of which the local and regional circulation, that is the system of regional market, lasts, it must to the sexual division of the work not insignificativamente. The man farmer, fisherman, wage-earning craftsman and gives his product to the woman and she works it and commercializes, instead of which it gives his product to a monopolistic one of outside.  

This structure - therefore it would be possible to be alleged - is one of the simple mercantile economy and with this it does not distinguish itself of other economies of this type in other parts of the country. Although it is certain, that the regional market of the Isthmus has much similarity with a simple mercantile economy (this expression more I like than `economy informal´), which the difference of other simple economies mercantile of Mexico and South America is despite the position of the woman in her.

The juchiteca and the zapoteca of the Isthmus work by its own account and it does not stop the account of a man, and also has an independent position within the festive economy of prestige.   Others/other investigadoras/os of the Isthmus are in agreement with the description up to here done of the economy and of the culture istmeña, despite is against to conceive it like `matriarcal'.

Then,  is or it is not justified to call to the society zapoteca of the matriarcal Isthmus?   

My answer is:  
1.)  Yes, because it is useful; useful by analysis aims and to sharpen the perception for phenomena that of another way escape frequently at sight and hair nets stay.  
2.)  I say yes also, because there are many other economic and cultural phenomena more, than the society zapoteca istmeña shares with other societies in other continents, those that also assign to the woman a fertile and productive paper, like also the high social prestige, and where the mother determines the affiliation. These societies have been called matrifocales, or non patriarcales matricéntricos and also `matriarcales'.

To give him to preference to the concept `matriarcado', equal like establishing a called matter internationally Studies of the Matriarcado, this was adopted around the First World-wide Congress in Luxembourg in 2004 after long discussions from international a scientific community, women and men, of different disciplines like anthropology, history, archaeology, philosophy, linguistic economy and. One treats, without a doubt, of a decision that can be called policy, in the sense of a policy of science or the knowledge.  

What means this?
Explaining it referring to the Isthmus of Oaxaca it would say that the debate tour, nor would not have to turn, around the question if the society istmeña is or he is not matriarcal, but around the fact, that our knowledge and our sensitivity for the especifidad of the Isthmus increase considerably when we studied it with the analytical tool of the Studies of the Matriarcado. Although it is certain that the matter `Studies of the Matriarcado' just does 2 - 3 years was baptized with this name, is despite equally certain that there is a very long tradition of discussions on societies in whose center `is located to the mother under the term matriarcado'.

It is another argument in please his use that is older than `matrifocal' or `matricentrico' and that is much more discussion on the economic weave, religious, cultural like a specific social unit that under `matrifocalidad' or `matricentrismo'. In these two last cases the analysis usually takes under the concept of `characteristics'. And not finally, the word `matriarcado' does not have the olorcito to fear or not to dare at least to think about a nonpatriarcal society.  

He is interesting to notice that all and all in Luxembourg there present had happened through the how difficult experience has been to establish Studies of the Woman but inspirador, revealing, and also how useful to center the efforts. What would be today of History, Sociology, the Philosophy, the Economy etc. and also of Natural Sciences without this specific approach of the Studies of the Woman, - `approach' also in the center sense, light concentrated on the social relations like relation between sexes. This experience contributed to that a called field would be formulated Studies of the Matriarcado.  In order to give an idea of the rich field for the comparative analysis that is being opened, I at least want to name the different ethnic groups on who investigations appeared in

Second World-wide Congress of the Studies of the Matriarcado in Texas in October of 2005 

North America: 
• Seneca, Iroquois;  
• Okanagan, Canada    

Latin America: 
• My communication on the zapotecas of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec 
• A communication on: “The zapotecas of Sierra Juárez like cultural matriarcado”;  
• the Kuna of Panama;    

Africa of the North: 
• Tuareg (Imajaghen) /Sahara;  
• Kabyle - Berber of Algeria;    

Western Africa and of the South: 
• Akan (Ashante) of Ghana;  
• Khoekhoe, Namibia;  
• Khoisan, South Africa;    

India, Sumatra, China: 
• Khasi, Northeast India;  
• Nayar, Kerala, Southwest India; 
• Minangkabau de western Sumatra;  
• Mosuo, China of the South;  
• on different societies of Polynesia in comparison with and specifically of Samoa   

Archaeology and History: 
• Joan Marler on Marija Gimbutas and its work on neolithic Europe;  
• Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum on the Madonnas black, Catares and the hunting of the witches;  
• the German theologian Christa Mulak on the “matriarcales Structures of the hebraica Bible;  
• and many other communications with net comparative aspects.

I now want to return to speak of Juchitán, and to more explicitly expose my reasons of pleading for the matriarcado concept `' for the society zapoteca of the Isthmus.  

The society istmeña is different from the other indigenous and nonindigenous societies from Mexico as far as the economic and social position from the woman. This, according to all the tests that I have read and according to everything what I have spoken with colleagues, is not questioned, but it is consensus.  

However, I fear that without an approach and a specific concept that exactly points towards the study of this difference as far as the relation between sexes and the social position of the woman, that will not be taken properly into account, but rather hair net will be made, as so many times already it has happened. My fear is based on the experience with the problems that the anthropology, like science in general, they have of in case with the difference phenomena and still more when women it is. Anthropology and other sciences, legitimate daughters of their time, see the societies of their studies with the evolucionista lens, that is that if more or less they are developed, if they are impregnated with the values and the institutions that take to a growth economy, etc.

Against this background one tends to describe to the differences in form of deficiencies, in form of a catalogue, that begins with `lack of'.   As my son said after a class on Nicaragua in his German school, alternative, with teachers of left, when solidarity, by all means, he was. My son bothered itself: “For my teachers the Nicaraguans are all only poor, no longer is people.”  What in fact it is necessary, than nothing, is more that there are presentations that emphasize the own value, specific, of the societies that differ from the western model, that is the description in positive terms.

I know that already there is an attitude within several disciplines that stops being tutelary and that asks exactly reason why these towns can say to us, perhaps to even teach, to the western ones. But one occurs slowly, too much slowly, mainly from the same people. Because without a doubt it is difficult to recover self-esteem, pride, confidence in the own force within the towns, after the trauma of colonialista, imperialistic, desarrollista, patriarcal the violence. But it is known that this process occurs every time with more insistence. The anthropology can support this process and in fact often it is doing it. But little it does until now referring to the women.  

When the anthropology or other disciplines analyze to the situation of the woman within the societies p. ej. natives, make the anthropologists generally feministas. Most of the cases they do it with a western feminista perspective, that asks for the equality of the women with the men, as much in the work, the policy, the properties, the schooling etc.

The western feminista perspective is generally desarrollista.  Applying this one perspective to Juchitán several problems arise immediately. The society zapoteca istmeña maintains a division sexual of the quite rigid work: The commerce for example is subject of women, also the administration of the money, not only of the money of her, but also of him. So the wage-earning man gives his money normally to the woman.

There is even a symbolic gesture that represents this during the ceremony of the wedding. Soon, the sexual identity occurs by means of the type of work that a person is exerting. Man who is retailer in the market is considered muxe' (mushe), that is a man that is identified with the social paper of the woman, which muxe' in this case does, exerting the feminine work of retailer. 

Istmeño of the sexual division of the quite rigid work is exactly the concept that supports to the fortified position of the woman in the economy, even protects it against the competition of the men, the one that is to be expected within the patriarcal context of the national economy, to which Juchitán is inserted and of which it comprises. That is, equality between sexes in the work would considerably debilitate the economic-social position of the woman; it would also debilitate to the local market and regional front to the national and international market, as also it would debilitate to the position of muxe' s that in the Isthmus socially is well integrated. 

Trateré, finally, of the neuralgic point when the social position of the woman one is, the violence. 
We can analyze to the society istmeña with the concepts of Studies of the Matriarcado although there is violence of men against women in Juchitán? Proque yes is it, unfortunately - Juchitán is not a pacific island within a full world of sexual violence -, but thanks to God it also has that worry specially about this one problem. There is a regional refuge from the Center of Attention to Mujer Istmeña (CAAMI).

After my visit to this refuge I am convinced that to the people of the personnel the social workers who make a work of social attendance valuable, would help them much, if existed a specific analysis and a ampler speech on the socioeconomic structure under the point of view of the relation between sexes specific. Then surely they would not reach conclusions as I personally have heard one.  

Deploring a case of domestic sexual violence against a girl, the following thing was said: It is not to be astonished that this happens, if the mother must go to the market to work there of retailer, and must only leave to her children the care of a grandma. In order to remedy this problem, thus diagnosed, seam courses are offered or to write in computer so that the mother can remain with her work in the house, near the children.

So political of social attendance it is oriented in the model of the housewife of the western middle-class, and it would not surprise to me if it were financed with support of some agency of the development.  In fact there has been and there is in Juchitán enough protection against domestic violence as much against children, children and women like against men, exactly by the nondivision between private and the public, as it brings with himself the amacasaización. In the alleys there is very little privacy and there are no cars either and the children run under the eyes of many people.  

In 1991 I in detail investigated on the pattern of establishment and the relations of kinship in several alleys and within a alley not far from the central market. Most of the people living in the 17 houses of the alley they were related; only two last names were repeated, those that all the last names brought like a component. It could in some cases of reconstructing that the daughters had constructed their house in the land of the mother. In a case, the mother was about to to construct the house for her married daughter, who still lived in the house of the mother-in-law, mother of her husband.
Shortly, the alley showed similarity with the type of matrilocal establishment of the matrilineal clan for example of the Mosuo of China, the Minankabau, the Khasi, the neolithic people of Çatal Hüyük etc. 

Now which I returned to Juchitán in these days at the end of 2005, after 5 years without visiting the place, the alley was closed, divided in 2 parts. From a house, where a man lives, during many years member of the city council, an enormous horse armor had risen that covers the free access to the alley and prohibits the free internal communication. “ And because they allowed it, because did not protest” I asked. “ That we go to be able to do against the political power” it was answered to me. It surprised to me that this says the ladies to it who had known like extremely peleoneras in years 90. 

That is the typical control on the masculine political power from the peleoneras ladies, this one base, we say democratic, seems to have suffered. Typical it would be or it is east control, because well it is known of matriarcales societies that the political representation outwards is the paper of the men, but that they are controlled from inside by groups of already great women, institutionalized like for example in the advice of matronas between the Iroquois that described Morgan in century nineteen.  

In this sense it also interpreted I at that time (in the empirical investigation of 1990-92) to the answers of some ladies of because they did not put with position the municipal advice of the COCEI, being they obvious leaders of public opinion. “It is man paper” said to me. And I was present at to the control of the political power of the municipal president, when around 20 ladies of the market the stairs raised the presidency to always clarify that yes they were arranged to pay more to its positions, when firstly had been painted and renewed this part of the market. And thus it was made.  

I personally then arrive at the opinion, that to refortalecer to the influence of the woman in the policy in Juchitán, more effectively would be made refortaleciendo the institutions of the ladies (greater) in the alleys and the districts, that through positions of women in the formal policy.

That could contribute the anthropology?  

Then, to do more transparencies to them to the members of the society zapoteca istmeña as is the specific weave of its own culture, its own economy, its own relations between sexes.  
I am very in agreement with the position that exposed Youngest child here Maldonado Alvarado in its communication of the 11 of October. It pleaded for an education in “the Communitarian Integral Baccalaureates of Oaxaca” that supports to the members of the indigenous towns in exploring the own society.

A programmatic one seemed could be developed in front of the Isthmus, and I am convinced that the matter “Studies of the Matriarcado” will be able significantly to contribute to investigate its socioeconomic structure with encouraging inovativos results and for women, men, muxe' s and other sorts.




"Today's Matriarchies From the Newest View"

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Users asked:
Is there another term for matriarchy?

Other expressions use by scholars (mainly 19th century) for matriarchal societies are:

  • traditional societies
  • primitives, primitive peoples
  • tribal peoples, tribes
  • aboriginals
  • savages
Terms introduced in the second half of the 20th century
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