Today, we discuss the term “Fanaka malemy”, an expression used to design women in Madagascar but shocks many people. It is an expression derived from the Bible (1 Peter 3:7), and it was not intended to objectify women at all. The sense was lost in translation.
In the common language, woman means “vehivavy”. In other circumstances, “Andriambavilanitra” (Andriambavy = Queen, lanitra= sky, heaven), the Queen of heaven, is another name to call women, a name which implies that the society puts the woman at the level of a queen, someone who decides, rules, and who is praised and respected. Another name used to call women is “fanaka malemy”. While many rush to conclude that fanaka malemy is uniquely used in a negative connotation (a weak object that stays at home), the “soft furniture” implies that the woman is the beauty in and of the house, an image of the household, or someone who decorates one’s home, represents the tenderness in the house, as opposed to the brutality of a man, and a softhearted person who needs to be treated with care. The expression comes from the Bible (1 Peter, 3:7) where “weaker partners” is translated to “fanaka malemy” in the Malagasy version. Only the original translators of the Bible know why it was done so.
A matriarchal society is defined as a “form of social organization in which the mother is the head of the family, and in which descent is reckoned in the female line, the children belonging to the mother’s clan.” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary of American English 2021). If today, the Malagasy woman occupies a somewhat inferior place in the society, it was not always the case, the Malagasy society used to be female dominated. The two expressions, “Andriambavilanitra” and “fanaka malemy” seem to define two different views of the Malagasy women depending on the era, before and after the arrival of Christianity.
Before the introduction of the Christian religion, the Malagasy society was a matriarchal one. There were a number of queens in Madagascar: Rangita, Rafohy, Ranavalona, Binao (Queen of Sakalava), Rasoherina, … At that period, the woman was in charge of the household, she held the values of the Malagasy society, and the national citizenship was transferred from the mother’s blood alone. “Country” means “firenena” in Malagasy, the root of the word is “reny” (mother), and it gives all the weight of the mother in the Malagasy society. It was not mandatory for a newborn Malagasy to take the name of the father; the baby would even take the name of the maternal grandfather. Inheritance also was transmitted through the matrilineal order, and in certain tribes, the Sakalava for example, the children belong to the mother’s clan. Today, according to World Atlas, “the Minangkabau is the largest matriarchal society in the world. They are the indigenous tribe of the Sumatra region of Indonesia which is made up of 4.2 million members. Ownership of land, as well as the family name, is passed from mother to daughter whereas men are involved in political matters.” That should not come as a surprise because the Malagasy is believed to be of Indonesian descent.
Things started to change during the reign of Ranavalona II (1868 – 1883) during which the westernization of the country accelerated. She declared Madagascar a Christian nation in September 1869.
Interestingly, the place of the Malagasy woman in the society today, being submissive to her husband that is, seems to correspond to what is commanded in the Bible. To cite just a few: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12); “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3); “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16); “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (1 Peter 3:1-2)
The Malagasy woman today is expected to look after her husband, she will be buried in her husband’s family grave (some exceptions apply), the children do not have to take their father’s name, but usually they do. Since the colonization (Ranavalona III was the last Queen of Madagascar), no woman has occupied the highest rank in the executive branch of the Malagasy government, except for Mrs. Cecile Manorohanta who was acting Prime Minister for 2 days, from December 18, 2009 to December 20, 2009.
Despite all of that, do you know Henri Ratsimbazafy’s song titled “Ny Lehilahy” (The Man) in which he says “men are strong…but when you (women) look at them, they are speechless”? Check it out the video below!
N.B: researchers found that lemurs communities are matriarchal. What a coincidence!