Archive for January 25th, 2018


Patriarchy1Patriarchy is a social and ideological construct which considers men (who are the patriarchs) as superior to women. It considers males as the primary authority figures and central to social organization, occupying roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where men  hold authority over women and children. Patriarchy refers to the male domination both in public and private spheres.

Patriarchy is based on a system of power relations which are hierarchical and unequal where  men control women’s production, reproduction and sexuality. It imposes masculinity and femininity character stereotypes in society which strengthen the iniquitous power relations between men and women

The control is maintained by excluding women from access to necessary economically productive resources and limiting women’s sexuality. Men exercise their control in receiving personal service from women in not having to do house work or take care of children, in having access to women’s bodies for sex, in feeling powerful and being powerful.

Patriarchy within a particular society  also differs in terms of cultural, religious and regional variations. Similarly subordination of women  differs  from  society to society.

While subordination of women may differ in terms of its nature, certain characteristics such as control  over women’s sexuality and her reproductive power cuts across class, race+, ethnicity, religions and regions and is common to all patriarchies. This control has developed  historically and is institutionalized and legitimized by several ideologies,  social practices and institutions such as family, religion, caste, education, media, law, state and society, which are discussed in the later sections.

Patriarchal societies propagate the ideology of motherhood which restrict women’s mobility and burdens them with the responsibilities to nurture and rear children. The biological factor to bear children is linked to the social position of women’s responsibilities of motherhood: nurturing, educating and raising children by devoting themselves to family.

Patriarchal ideas blur the distinction between  sex and gender and assume that all socio-economic and political distinctions between men and women are rooted in biology or anatomy .

Origin of patriarchy

The origins of patriarchy can be traced through different stages of civilisation and, several views have been expressed regarding the origins of patriarchy and its universality. Its roots have been traced in history, religion and in nature. For some, patriarchy as a system has a beginning in history, is man made and thus can be ended by historical processes in the future. For others, patriarchy is a natural phenomenon, i.e., it is based on biological differentiation of human beings into male and female categories. It is understood that, patriarchy is universal, God‑given, natural and cannot be questioned. Therefore to change patriarchy would amount to changing nature. Still others, have not accepted the above explanations and have talked about the existence of a stage in society prior to patriarchy – that of a matriarchal or matrilineal society, where have had a dominant status. Evidence for such a society is quoted till today, through religious myths and symbols over different periods in history, citing examples of matrilineal heritage in some parts of India, especially Kerala.

Some people believe men are borne to dominate and women subordinates. They believe that this hierarchy has always exited and will continue, and like other rules of nature this one too cannot be changed. There are others who challenge these beliefs and say patriarchy is not natural it is manmade and therefore it can be changed. It has not always existed, it had a beginning and therefore it can have an end.

There are theories put forward by feminists regarding the origin of patriarchy and these include:

The traditionalist view of Patriarchy

Traditionalists everywhere accept patriarchy as biologically determined. According to Gerder lerner, traditionalists whether working with thin a religious or scientific framework, have regarded women’s subordination as universal, God given or natural hence immutable, what has survived survived because it was the best it follows that it should stay that way. In religious terms women are subordinate to men because they were assigned different roles and tasks therefore because their biological functions are distinct they must ‘naturally’ have different social roles and tasks. And because these differences are natural , no one can be blamed for sexual inequality or male dominance. According to the traditionalists because women produce children, their chief goal in life is to become mothers, and their task child bearing and child rearing.

Explanations which consider men biologically superior and the main providers of families have however been disproved on the basis of research done on hunting and gathering societies. In these societies big hunt provided food for only some of the time, the main and regular food supply came through the gathering activities of women and children. In hunter- gather communities there is evidence of existence of tremendous complementarity between men and women. In south Asia even today we find that in tribal societies women command a great deal of respect and the differences in the status of men and women are much less disadvantageous to women.

Aristotle theory

Aristotle propounded similar theories and called males active and females passive. For him female was “mutilated male” someone who does not have a soul. In his view the biological inferiority of women makes her inferior also in her capacities, her ability to reason and therefore her ability to make decisions. Because man is superior and woman inferior he is born to rule and for her to be ruled.

Sigmund Feud’s anatomy is destiny

Sigmund Feud stated that for women “anatomy is destiny”. Freud’s normal human was male, the female by his dentition, a deviant human being lacking a penis, whose entire psychological supposedly centered around the struggle to compensate for this deficiency. Popularised Freudian doctrine then became the prescriptive for educators and social workers.

Frederick Engel’s explanation

Frederick Engels in 1884 in his book, origins of the family, private property and the state, he believed that women’s subordination began with the development of private property, when according to him, the world historical defeat of the female sex took. He says both the division of classes and the subordination of women developed historically. There was a time when there were no class- gender differences. He speaks of three phases of society-savagery, barbarism and civilization.

In savagery human beings lived like animals gathered food and hunted. Ancestry was through the mother, there was no marriage and notion of private property.

Gathering and hunting continued in the phase of barbarism and gradually. Agriculture and animal husbandry were developed. Men started moving further in  the field to hunt, while women stayed home  both to mind the children and look after the homestead. Asexual division of labour gradually developed, but women had power, and also control over the gens (clases or communities with a common origin). Within the gens there were no classes but conflicts between one Gen and another.

When men began domesticating animals, they understood the principle of impregnation. They developed weapons for bigger hunt, which were also used in intergroup conflicts. Slavery developed. Gens started acquiring animals and slaves, especially female slaves. This led to more division among the sexes. Men acquired power over others and started accumulating wealth in the form of animals and slaves. All this led to the formation of private property. Men wanted to retain power and property and pass it on their own children. To ensure this inheritance, the mother-right was overthrown. In order to establish the right of the father, women had to be domesticated and their sexuality confined, regulated and controlled.

Modern civilization according to Engels was based on restricting women  to the sphere of  the home in order to produce heirs to inherit property. This he said was the beginning of the sexual double standard in marriage. According to him, with development of the state the monogamous family changed into the patriarchal family in which the wife’s household labour became a private service the wife became a head servant excluded from all participation in social production.

Never the less Engel’s explanation of the beginning of patriarchy has been disputed by radical feminists. According to them, patriarchy preceded private property. They believe that the original and basic contradiction is between the sexes and not between economic classes. According to their analysis all women are a class therefore the gender differences can be explained in terms of biological or psychological differences between men and women. Other radical feminists say there two systems of social classes the economic class system which is based on relations of production and the second class which is the sex class system which is based on relations of reproduction. It is the second system that is responsible for the subordination of women. According to them, the concept of patriarchy refers to the rule of women by men based upon men’s ownership and control of women’s reproductive capacities. Because of this, women have become physically and psychologically dependent on men.

While we can endlessly debate on the differing perceptions about the origins of patriarchy, it is more significant to understand the modes of patriarchal control and its institutional manifestations as it has impacted upon processes of women’s subordination in society.

Patriarchal Relations in A family ( Private Spaces)

The first lessons of patriarchy are learnt in the family where the head of the family is a man/ father. Man is considered the head of the family and controls women’s sexuality, labour or production, reproduction and mobility. In a patriarchal family the birth of male child is preferred to that of a female.

The traditional notion of ‘public-private divide’ which located politics in the public sphere and family and personal relationships in private sphere as non-political, believed that sexual inequality is natural and not political. While the political sphere was preserved for men the private sphere was reserved for women as housewives and mothers who were excluded from politics. Scholars have acknowledged that patriarchy is  man-made and has developed historically by the socio-economic

Family is therefore important for socializing the next generation in patriarchal values. The boys learn to be dominating and aggressive and girls learn to be caring, loving and submissive. These stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are not only social constructs but also have been internalized by both men and women. While the pressure to earn and look after the family is more on the man, the women are supposed to do the menial jobs and take care of their children and even other members of the family. It is because of these gender stereotypes that women are at a disadvantage and are vulnerable to violence and other kinds of discriminations and injustices. Systemic deprivation and violence against women: rape, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, female foeticide, infanticide, witchkilling, sati, dowry deaths, wife-beating, high level of female illiteracy, malnutrition, undernourishment and continued sense of insecurity keeps women bound to home, economically exploited, socially suppressed and politically passive.

In  many of the African families, from a tender age, the socialization process differentiates the girl child from the boy child.  E.g  among the Shona of South Africa, males are socialized to view themselves as breadwinners and heads of households whilst females are taught to be obedient and submissive housekeepers. The cause of such differentiation and discrimination is the fact that society views women as sexual beings and not as human beings (Charvet, 1982). McDowell and Pringle (1992) further state that, women are not only constantly defined in relation to men, but are defined as dependent and subordinate to them as well. As a result, women are socialized to acquire those qualities, which fit them into a relationship of dependence on men. These qualities include gentleness, passivity, submission and striving to please men always. In the Shona culture, once a girl reaches puberty all teachings are directed towards pleasing one’s future husband as well as being a gentle and obedient wife. Her sexuality is further defined for her, as she is taught how to use it for the benefit of the male race.

Son preference: Women who produce sons are treated better than those that give birth to daughters and preferential treatment is passed on to their children. Sons are breastfed longer than their sisters. Clinics offer amniocentesis for sex and abortion of unwanted female fetuses. In the family, the male child is preferred to the female child. In fact, males rule females by right of birth and even if the male child is not the first born in a family, he is automatically considered the head of the household who should protect and look after his sisters. The female child is further discriminated upon due to the fact that eventually she marries out and joins another family whilst the male child ensures the survival of the family name through bringing additional members into the family (Human Rights Monitor, 2001). This attitude has seen some parents preferring to educate boys to girls, because of girls’ capacity to bear children

Sexuality: They say a child’s identity is fundamentality delivered from the father. Curiously enough the inherent contradiction between the belief that men determine the nature of the child and blame attached to women who fail to bear sons is not appreciated.

Sexuality is in the desire to give and receive words, looks, laughs, caresses, attention and understanding so that meeting between bodies will be human. However we have been made to believe that there is female and male sexuality. Male sexuality is being aggressive, uncontrollable, impulse, strong and active versus female sexuality which is passive, patient, obedient, weak, dependant on men

According to the Laws of Manu in Asia, men are considered as gods and are constantly worshiped which symbolized that man is a lord, master, owner, or provider and women were the subordinates. It legitimized that a woman should never be made independent, as a daughter she should be under the surveillance of her father, as a wife of her husband and as a widow of her son.

Men control womens productivity  within the household  where women  provide all kinds of free services to their children, husbands and other members of the household throughout their lives. Men also control women’s labour by forcing their women to sell their labour or they may prevent them from working, they may appropriate what women earn, they may selectively allow them to work intermittently hence women are excluded from better jobs, sell their labour at a very low wages or work within the home.

Patriarchal relations in Cultural and State Structures

Patriarchal norms and beliefs are an important constituent of many African cultures and they often serve to mute the voices of  women who are suffering from discrimination, violence and exploitation
Patriarchy manifests through the overwhelming nature of the state and its political processes that provide a conducive environment to men as political actors. Public leadership is patriarchal because it favors males to the extent that women have to constantly justify their presence and their issues.  Patriarchy plays out in the existing cultural institutions that nurture women and men for different spaces but also give them different social capital to enable them function in these spaces.

A research conducted by Isis-WICCE on Women Political leadership in Uganda revealed that  Pader and Agago districts, the clan structure and the family have the powers to allow or disallow women’s political participation. In  Agago forexample where the research was conducted,  its only men who are accepted  in matters of inter-clan conflict resolution, reconciliation, control of resources such as land and other household properties, and other powers of decision making. Men also make up the clan and area-chief committees as chairpersons, vice chairpersons, treasurer, secretary, mobilization and other portfolios.  In all these leadership structures, women are not culturally expected. As these cultural leadership positions act as a training ground for men to perfect their leadership, it leaves women with no exposure to that form of leadership. Women’s absence in all these traditional structures makes them ill-prepared for public space political deliberations.

Many cultures express leniency on male sexual behavior but are very proscriptive when it comes to female sexual behaviour (International centre for Human Rights, 1996). Males are free to experiment sexually at will before marriage whilst females have to preserve their virginity for marriage or risk tarnishing the image of the family since the Son in law will not pay ‘mombe yechimanda’. This is a cow offered to the in-laws as a token of appreciation for ensuring that his wife preserved her virginity. This custom holds much value in the shona culture and in some parts of the country, virginity tests are still carried out up to this very day.

Patriarchal relations in the  religious institutions

Patriarchal constructions of social practices are legitimized by religion and religious institution as most religious practices regard male authority as  superior and the laws and norms regarding family, marriage, divorce and inheritance are linked to patriarchal control over property biased against women.

The bible which most Christians believe in boldly states  that women should be submissive to men. With that in mind and those beliefs instilled in cultures, women don’t stand a chance to gain strength in their gender and it’s potential in our world. Christian tradition is hostile to the idea of women taking leadership positions. Islam law ranging from strictly closeted, isolated and voiceless, subject to public flogging and death because of adultery to where women have some freedom of association.

A person’s legal identity with regard to marriage, divorce and inheritance are determined by his or her religion, which laid down duties for men and women and their relationship. Most religions endorse  patriarchal values and all major religions have been interpreted and controlled by men of upper caste and class. The imposition of parda, restrictions on leaving the domestic space, separation between public and private are all gender specific and men are not subject to similar constraints. Thus the mobility of women is controlled. They have no right to decide whether they want to be mothers, when they want to be, the number of children they want to have, whether they can use contraception or terminate a pregnancy and so on and so forth


Patriarchal constructions of knowledge systems perpetuate patriarchal ideology and this is reflected in educational institutions both formal and informational. More subtle expressions of patriarchy was through symbolism giving messages of inferiority of women through legends highlighting the self-sacrificing, self-effacing pure image of women and through ritual practice which emphasized the dominant role of women as a faithful wife and devout mother (Desai and Krishnaraj, 2004: 299).

Note: This piece of work was written  as a class assignment for the Master Class Gender and Development, 2014

Image Source:Unityandstruggle.org



Read Full Post »