You can’t escape “The Patriarchy” — nearly all conversations about feminism allude to the term. There are numerous arguments about what it truly means, whether it exists or even existed and how we can escape it if we can. Interestingly, the term patriarchy, which now dominates everyday parlance — as seen on T.V and T-shirts, headlines and hashtags — fell into disrepute in early feminist discourse as it seemed to be a careless oversimplification of a more nuanced and complicated reality of oppression. While it has burst out on the public scene, many academics do not use the term to describe the modern problem of male domination and female subordination.
Technically speaking, the term “patriarchy” as is used today is a misnomer, at least, if we want to be pedantic. Patriarchy literally means the “rule of the father” over his household, which includes wives, sons, and daughters, and in historical conditions — slaves and serfs. When the sons marry, they lead their own households and when the daughters marry, they are led by their own husbands. This familial setup is only a piecemeal portion of feminism’s concern. There is a larger and more systemic issue being agitated against and the literal meaning of patriarchy fails to fully encapsulate it. But even though the problem is misnamed, it is not misrecognized. The real issue that the term seeks to contain and explain, at a basic level, is a societal structure that perpetrates and perpetuates male supremacy at the detriment of women. While the word patriarchy, as currently used, has deviated from its original meaning, it still serves as a good shorthand and provides useful service.
So if we agree to use the term “patriarchy” as a proxy to discuss the existence of a social system in which men hold a disproportionate amount of power and women are systematically excluded. What are we really talking about when we use the term? We are not saying that all men at all instances in history have had absolute power over, and have been oppressive towards, all women. We are not saying that all women at all times are or have been passive victims of male will. That would be an extravagant exaggeration of history and an unsophisticated understanding of the impact of class and race in our society, both modern and ancient. It would also be blind to the power that women have often held in interpersonal romantic relationships, or the control that women have often exerted in the domestic realm, even though they likely didn’ wilfully choose that position to exert control. Instead, we are talking about customs, values, and institutions. We are referring to the fact that even when our conscious actions are purified of sexist impulse and when our individual intentions are good, institutions that were founded with a particular telos of female subjugation continue to exert their influence. We are saying that male domination, rears its head in explicit and violent ways but also in unremarkable and mundane ways. We are not saying this is something that only men desire and uphold, but that it is so ingrained as the norm — ballasted on tradition, education, and religion — that even women who are more adversely impacted often uphold the same system.
It is fair to ask for evidence of this patriarchy that we speak of. It is not sufficient to merely state that the sceptre of patriarchy is everywhere and nowhere at once, even though it is. True, the power of insidious oppression is its ability to remain invisible and nimble, making it hard to measure, and even harder to root out. There are a few indices to consider. In Nigeria for instance, women constitute approximately 45% of the labor market but are more represented in the informal economy — vendors, domestic workers etc, which consigns them to lower incomes. They are also more likely to work in agriculture, comprising somewhere between 60% and 79% of Nigeria’s rural labor force, but are five times less likely than men to own their own land. This can be traced to the wide education gap — the exclusion of the girl-child from quality education — that used to exist and is, thankfully, closing up. There is a myriad of reasons for this exclusion. Early marriage is a crucial one — 73% of Nigerian women with no formal education were married before 18, compared to only 9% who had completed higher education. There is also the pervasive traditional view, arguably a vestige of colonial ideologies of female domesticity imposed on African consciousness, that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and that she ought to stay at home and learn to take care of the family instead of attending school. The ramifications of these attitudes can also be seen in political leadership. Nigeria was ranked 180 out of 193 countries for women in the national parliament. Women of the eighth National Assembly comprise only 8 out of 109 senators and 16 of 360 representatives. This is from about 9% in 2007 to 7% in 2011, and to 5.11% in 2015. Perhaps this underrepresentation stems from a misguided perception that women do not know how to lead or from a fear that, “When we give them opportunity outside, when they control us outside the home, they will capture everything” as Muhammed Kazaure, a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives stated in 2018. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too shocked; this is the same country where the president publicly and unabashedly said his wife belonged in the kitchen and the “other room.”
The patriarchy is pervasive enough to warrant an explanation. When Anthropologist Martin King Whyte studied the sex differences in political participation across 93 nonindustrial societies, he found that in 88% of the studied societies, only men were political leaders, in 10% of societies some political leaders were women; however, men held more positions or had more power. In only 2 societies were women said to have roughly equal political power as men and even those came with a qualification in another study. So how did we get here? There are a few theories as to how we came to be this way. One is that patriarchy is a hangover from our agrarian origins. For most of our history, the story goes, we were hunter-gatherers and during this time in our history, patrilocal residence — where a married couple settles near the husband’s parents — was not the norm. In this setup, after a coupling, women would have had the choice to stay or migrate to where they were best supported. But 12,000 years ago when we pivoted to agriculture and long-term settling down, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers began living near each other and inheritance became patrilineal and this caused the erosion of female autonomy.
Another theory is that patriarchy stems from our reproductive strategy. Women bear more costs in the reproductive process — having a limited supply of eggs, and having to gestate and lactate — and as such have to be extra selective in their choice of partner. The impact of this is two-fold. First, this selectiveness from the female incentivized males to pursue prestige and power. This set up a path where men were disproportionately involved in the political sphere. Second, the time, effort and pain that it costs women to gestate and lactate inadvertently excluded them from the opportunity to power-play and negotiate the structures and laws of society. Men, on the other hand, were able to forge and strengthen male-male alliances, and society was thus crafted in the male image.
These are mere hypotheses. We don’t know the true origins of patriarchy, but we can’t deny that it exists. It is certainly possible that there used to be evolutionary benefits to how we set up society, but those conditions that warranted that setup have changed. It is high time we changed alongside them. There is certainly some benefit to understanding how we got here, but we must be careful that we do not confuse the “is” with the “ought”, or appeal to “tradition”. We must not fall victim to the belief that there is some necessity to the way things are. That there is a biological essentialism that prompted the status-quo and should be left untampered with or else we risk ruining a delicate cosmic balance. Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume already cautioned that we can’t necessarily derive an “ought” from an “is”. That things are the way they are doesn’t mean that is how they ought to be.
An accurate prognosis may not be relevant to how we solve the urgent problem at hand. We don’t always need theories of origin to solve problems, as complex issues often mutate rapidly and present emergent forms that can’t be reduced to the radix from whence they came. For instance, you can’t necessarily reason from Darwin’s evolutionary first principles to how to treat a bacterial infection — you just use antibiotics. There is no easy antibiotic pill for patriarchy, however. While the concept of the patriarchy serves as a thread that connects seemingly disparate female experiences across race, nationality, class, and sexuality in different aspects of life, and allows us to speak coherently about the underlying problem, it is not a simple thread that we can just snip. It will take a lot of work to unlearn.
Ideally, the fact that half of our population is affected by this should move us to act, but if that is not sufficient, perhaps I should appeal to our selfish interest and urge us to not look at this as a female problem only. Patriarchy has damaged men too. It has often stifled male emotion by saying “boys don’t cry”, leading many men down physically and emotionally destructive paths. It has hypersexualized men by demeaning many men for craving emotional intimacy over wanton sexual expedition. It has cordoned off child-rearing and left that to women, depriving men of having a rewarding relationship with their children. There is no question that the patriarchy, on aggregate, benefits men in disproportionate ways, but the social strictures are suffocating, even for men. And we see this play out in devastating ways. Men suffer from mental health disorders and complete suicide at higher rates. It is, thus, all in our best interest to dismantle this system that seeks to box and cage women and cast men as the enforcers of this prison.