What is Patriarchy?
One keyword in the discussions on gender-based violence is “patriarchy”.
In protests against the endemic rape crisis, domestic violence and femicide in South Africa, many voices (including this newspaper and at least one bishop) have been calling for the patriarchy to be smashed.
The resultant discourse, however, indicates that the concept of patriarchy is not universally well understood. What is it that needs dismantling?
In short, patriarchy is the social framework in which men have prevalent control over women: by law, by systemic convention, or by force. It is seen in various ways in different environments, influenced and sometimes dictated by factors such as cultural mores, economic class, and the structure of society.
Patriarchal hierarchies do not disappear when individual women assume positions of power. India and Pakistan, for example, remain profusely patriarchal societies even though they have been governed by women.
Patriarchal attitudes are still evident in societies that have actively worked to diminish male domination and gender inequality. And still, even in countries like Germany, there remains a salary gap between men and women performing the same job.
Here are some further examples, to which many more could be added, to illustrate how patriarchy is evident, in South Africa and around the world.
Patriarchy is when it is presumed that the man is the head of the household, to whom women are subordinate.
Patriarchy is when men’s primacy in the household is ascribed to nature, sometimes by the same people who are active in destroying nature by polluting and eroding it.
Patriarchy is when a woman’s value in society is dependent on her husband’s standing.
Patriarchy is when a woman’s safety is dependent on the goodwill of her male partner and male family members.
Patriarchy is when a woman is left without a home or financial security when a marriage breaks down.
Patriarchy is when sexual harassment, starting with whistling at women in the street, is seen as “just a bit of fun”.
Patriarchy is when a woman is told to keep secret physical or sexual violence against her because reporting it might cause scandal.
Patriarchy is when a discourse about violence against women is flipped to include the observation that some men are victims of violence as well. They are, but most men don’t live in perpetual fear of assault.
Patriarchy is when a woman is blamed for her rape on the grounds of what she was wearing, how she was dancing, how late she was out, her sexual history, and so on.
Patriarchy is when a saint is celebrated for having fended off her rapist to protect her “purity”, instead of respecting her powers of forgiveness.
Patriarchy is when boys see nothing wrong with sexually harassing their girl peers or even video-recording their rape. Such mindsets do not emerge in a vacuum.
Patriarchy is when a woman is expected to be a virgin until marriage, but men are expected to “play the field”.
Patriarchy is when women earn a lower salary than men for doing the same job.
Patriarchy is when a female candidate for political office is judged by her appearance as much or more than her attributes or policies.
Patriarchy is when a record of sexual abuse or alleged rape is no obstacle for a man’s election to high political office.
Patriarchy is when a man makes jokes about sexually abusive behaviour, and all the other men laugh.
Patriarchy is when a woman breastfeeding her baby in public risks being harassed for it.
Patriarchy is when the birth of daughters is seen as a disappointment; in some countries baby girls are aborted or killed because they are not boys.
Patriarchy is when the appointment of women to leadership positions in a structure is still newsworthy, as it is in the Catholic Church.
Patriarchy is when calls to present God as feminine or gender-neutral are met with loud protests by those who insist God is a man—as if God has a gender.
Patriarchy is when men deny they are institutionally privileged.
Patriarchy is when the existence of the patriarchy is denied, despite all evidence to the contrary.