In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, patriarchy used to refer to male-dominated families; literally ‘the rule of the father’ (‘patri’). Since then, patriarchy has been extended to mean male-dominated society or ‘the rule of man’. What this translates to in real life is the observation that we live in a society in which (hate to break it to you, Beyonce) men rule the world. Men hold a grossly disproportionate amount of positions of power. This power runs the gamut from the seat of government (political) to the ‘big boss’ in the office (economic) to entertainment moguls (social/cultural). Stemming from this unequal allotment of power are several insidious ideas including: 1) women are inherently worse at leadership than men, 2) men’s opinions are standard while women’s opinions only apply to their sex and 3) when women’s desires line up with the male standard it’s all just a huge happy coincidence!
Because patriarchy trickles its way, from the political to the social, down throughout every facet of life, it results in restrictions on women’s opportunities and freedom in all spheres. How does this happen? Well, it starts from a very young age when most boys and girls are told different stories about personal agency through media, schools and the adults in their lives (who learned it from their parents and so on). To give an example: boys, for the most part, are taught that they are the protagonists, the ones who make things happen, while girls, for the most part, are taught that they are the side-kicks, the passive damsels, the secondary “love interest” character. This social education continues onward throughout our lives. Its foundations are secured by rewards for compliance and by the threat of ostracization for failing to play along. So, by the time we are adults, most of us have capitulated.
Having subsumed patriarchy, we are now offered a limited way of being. One may choose all one likes but if the options available are limited to begin with then what sort of choice is that? I believe that women, in particular, get the short end of the straw when it comes to who we’re allowed to be. What’s sinister is the number of people who believe these are real choices. Besides lack of choice, patriarchy also produces violence against women and stands in the way of equality which means that, in the long run, it hurts everybody.
I do not suggest that this is a male conspiracy against women. Rather, I believe that it may have sprung up in the cave man days when might was right but that is another topic altogether. Not all societies are patriarchal to the same extent although the majority (not all) of societies is patriarchal. Not all men are patriarchs. On the flipside, a great many women are responsible for the perpetuation of patriarchy.
So, what can we do about this? To be honest, I’m hardly an expansive resource of alternative solutions. I myself am confronted regularly with my own ways of learned appeasement. I do know, however, that it is, in a sense, invisible due to its normalization. So, for now, I suggest thinking critically about social norms and our individual behavior. Examining and re-examining our choices, the way we think of ourselves and our capabilities. Once we’ve begun doing this, we may find our own alternatives and, in our own ways, refuse to play along.
Originally published in the Guyana Times, November 2011