Many have described the Mosuo of southern China as one of the world's only matriarchal societies. But from what Ricardo Coler says in an interview with Der Spiegel, being a Mosuo woman isn't all that fun.
Coler, who lived with the Mosuo for two months, explains that "matriarchal" in this case means the women do all the work. He says,
Men live better where women are in charge: you are responsible for almost nothing, you work much less and you spend the whole day with your friends. You're with a different woman every night. And on top of that, you can always live at your mother's house. The woman serves the man and it happens in a society where she leads the way and has control of the money. In a patriarchy, we men work more — and every now and then we do the dishes. In the Mosuo's pure form of matriarchy, you aren't allowed to do that. Where a woman's dominant position is secure, those kinds of archaic gender roles don't have any meaning.
So having a job and occasionally doing the dishes is "archaic," while slacking off and hanging out with your friends is just awesome? Coler seemed to be saying that the most enlightened social order is one that resembles that of a pride of lions. We don't mean to criticize the lifestyle of the Mosuo, but does it make sense to call them "matriarchal?" Are women really in charge when they have all the responsibilities yet also "serve" men?
Coler also notes that "the 'really big' decisions — like buying a house or a machine or selling a cow — are made by the men," and that women do all the child-rearing, with fathers playing little to no role in children's lives. Really, this society where women are thought of as being better at chores, "big decisions" are traditionally left to men, and there are lots of absent fathers doesn't really sound all that different from our own.
So how did it get the "matriarchal" label in the first place? Perhaps because of generalizations by people like Coler. He says that "it simply doesn't make sense to the Mosuo women to solve conflicts with violence. Because they are in charge, nobody fights." We can believe that the Mosuo are an unusually peaceable group, but this still seems implausible. And wouldn't you have to live with them for longer than two months to be sure? Coler also says,
I wanted to know what happened in a society where women determine how things are done. How do women tick when, from birth onwards, their societal position allows them to decide everything? We men know what a man is, we put that together quickly — but what constitutes a woman?
He seems to view the Mosuo as a kind of curiosity, an upside-down world that might reveal some secrets to him about the mysteries of womankind. Many tourists seem to have the same idea — or an even worse idea, propositioning Mosuo women because they see them as slutty. Maybe a Western desire for novelty — for a chance to visit a "women's world" for a little while before retreating to the safety of patriarchy — is what gave rise to the image of the matriarchal Mosuo in the first place. Whatever the case, our idea of a matriarchy doesn't include doing all the dishes.
'Men Live Better Where Women Are In Charge' [Der Spiegel]