Volltext: Zeitschrift für Ethnologie der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde und der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, 115.1990

Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 115 (1990) 
To return to Cambodia, another piece of evidence adduced in support of the matri- 
lineal hypothesis is the appearance of me ‘mother’ in such phrases as me sruk “village 
headman", where sruk means "village" and me “chief”. In Martini's view (1951:202): 
Si l’on songe que les sociétés primitives mon-khmères était du type gynécocrati- 
que, il n’est pas surprenant que ce soit le mot ‘me’ ‘mère’ et non le mot ‘ba’ [“father”] 
qui ait servi à qualifier les chefs. 
However, the connection appears to be purely linguistic, not sociological. As the 
author himself realizes, many other phrases occur in Khmer with the word me as a key 
element, where it generally has the apparently derived meaning of *mistress", whence 
“origin”, whence “principal, eminent, chief”. The link between the two seems to have 
more to do with a semantic connection between "origin? and the concept of mother- 
hood than with any particular lineal bias in Khmer social organization. As Martini also 
realizes (ibid.), mi, me, ma, etc., mean "principal" as well as *female, mother" among 
many other Southeast Asian peoples, e.g. Malay, Thai, Lao, White Tai, Black Tai, 
none of which are in any sense matrilineal (Schrock et al. 1972: 50, 495; Bunnag 1973: 
17). Another example comes from the Sa’dan Toraja of Sulawesi, where indo’ 
“mother” appears also as the title of one of the adat chiefs of Kesw district, and in the 
term to indo’ padang, lit. “mother of the land”, i.e. *rice-priest" — and this society is or- 
ganized in ramages of a patrilineal tendency (Nooy-Palm 1980: 142, 145). 
Finally, Porée-Maspero resorts to an etymology to support her view of a matrili- 
neal order in traditional Cambodia. She suggests ‘que l’un des plus hauts titres de l’an- 
cien Cambodge, kamtvan, dériverait de tan, le dôn actuel, et désignerait “un descen- 
dant en ligne maternelle"? (1969: 863). The derivation itself may be correct, but the 
author's choice of the conditional verbal mood to describe the situation suggests that 
she herself is not entirely certain of it, nor of the conclusions to be drawn from it. In- 
deed, the use of this term as a respect term may well reflect not matrilineal descent but 
the relationship between sister’s son and mother’s brother — a relationship often of a 
marked character, even where descent is not matrilineal. This is true, inter alia, of 
modern Cambodia, where “l’importance de l’oncle utérin” is recognized, even though 
descent is cognatic (Martin 1977: 109). 
2 The status of women 
Women in Cambodia have always had a more important position in respect of affairs 
outside the family when compared with the patrilineal societies of China and India, 
but there has been much confusion over the significance of this fact. Sharan has no he- 
sitation in stating that “Cambodian families were mainly matriarchal”, which seems to 
be related to his view that the early kings “allowed unrestricted freedom to the wo- 
men”; yet he admits that the genealogy of the father was more important (1974: 172, 
191, 193). Equally confused is this passage by Puri (1956b: 91): 
Women seem to have enjoyed a high and respectable position in society. This was 


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