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Matrilineal or patrilineal?

Huzaima Bukhari

“Matrilineal succession is the only thing that makes sense as far as I’m concerned, since you always know who the mother is, and the father could be anyone. Most of the royal dynasties of the world didn’t agree with me though, which is why history is filled with idiot kings.”April White, “Marking Time”

While learning grammar, we were told that there are nouns or names as we understand. Nouns are further divided into common and proper. Common nouns are the generic names for men, women, place, things, cities, countries etcetera while proper nouns actually help to identify someone or something belonging to these categories such as Ali (man), Asma (woman), Islamabad (city), Laptop (computer), Pakistan (country). In short, a name distinguishes one from the other and helps in pointing out to one out of the many. Other than that, it really hardly matters whether a person is Tom, Dick or Harry.

However, we human beings become highly sensitive when it comes to our families, their history and tracing of our lineage as if this would impact our personalities as we are today. Nonetheless, this calls for certain clarifications like unilineal lineages can be matrilineal (through mothers) or patrilineal (through fathers). In earlier times, people would create family trees and pass onto the next generation. These scrolls were considered valuable to determine whether a person belonged to ‘high gentry’ or came from the ‘common class’. These also proved vital in guarding ‘purity’ of blood. Even in this modern era there are many who give preference to lineage rather than individual’s character and in doing so, many a times end up facing adverse consequences but then that is the cost one has to pay for one’s beliefs.

“A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.”

–adding ‘…not on paper either’ to this wonderful quote by Charles Spurgeon.

Having evolved on patriarchal basis, the human society has a tradition of tracing patrilineal genealogy with the result that children are given their father’s name which, majority females discard, appending their husband’s name after marriage. Interestingly, contribution of males in the process of procreation is to the extent of lending their sperms but the females have to bear the heavy brunt of conception, pregnancy and pain of delivering and then taking care of the new-born yet, they neither seem to have any importance nor fit to have an identity of their own. Another twist to this story is that fatherhood could be doubtful which can be ascertained today through a DNA test but there can be no qualms about the veracity of the mother who physically gives birth.

With such a heavy load to carry, females are still treated as nothing more than properties owned by males. Their overwhelming existence appears to have no significance. Their desires, sacrifices and pains are meaningless before the acts of their other halves so much so that they are not even allowed to continue with their maiden names once they marry and each time that they divorce and marry another. Why then would they be considered deserving to let their names be carried on by children, who are products of their own wombs?  

Perhaps this injustice was taken care of by the last holy Prophet, Hazrat Muhammad Mustapha (PBUH) whose lineage was determined not by a son but his daughter, Bibi Fatima Zahrah (AS) and to this day Syeds proudly claim their connection with the Prophet (PBUH) through her yet her descendants fail to appreciate this subtle point giving sons more importance over daughters. They need to understand that Syeds derive their ancestry from the offspring of Hazrat Fatima (AS) and Hazrat Ali (AS) whose children from later wives are not Syeds even though he is held in high esteem after the holy Prophet (PBUH). This alone speaks volumes about the importance of females which unfortunately has somehow shifted to the backburner even though, according to Islamic teachings, on the Day of Judgement, people will be called out by their mother’s name.

In the West, the concept of giving children their parent’s name, known as “patronym” goes back several centuries as a symbol of familial fealty for the purpose of enjoying privileges typical to a particular family that included inheritance and/or for continuing business owned by it. The sons (generally the first-born) got the name and property. Usually royalty and upper gentry of the society adopted these measures but masses that as a rule try to mimic such people, also began to follow in their footsteps causing this tradition to gain momentum. With the males enjoying all rights, the females remained deprived in most of the cases.

It goes without saying that after World War II and rise of feminism, this tradition is gradually dying down. Emancipation of women has overcome a lot of out-dated customs with male dominated fields being taken over by females. With rapid changes in family compositions, live-in relationships, adoptions, single-parent tendencies and now rise in lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) communities, it has become all the more important for prompt identification that children should carry their birth mother’s name.

Even today, this practice prevails in some places of the world. As per Britannica:

“The Asante, or Ashanti, of Ghana are one of the few matrilineal societies in West Africa in which women inherit status and property directly from their mothers. The Minangkabau of Sumatra, Indonesia, are the world’s largest matrilineal society, in which properties such as land and houses are inherited through female lineage. In Minangkabau society, the man traditionally marries into his wife’s household, and the woman inherits the ancestral home. Matrilineal societies in India are typified by the Khasi in Meghalaya state and by the traditional Nayar in Kerala.”


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

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