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Understanding Patriarchy

Understanding Patriarchy

Patriarchy is undoubtedly the most-talked-about institution in Gender Studies. The widespread use of the term grew out of feminist debates about gender in 1960s and 1970s. Patriarchy replaced the earlier term sexism; emphasizing the importance of institution in gender oppression rather than individual prejudice. It is still referred to indicate a social system in which maleness and masculinity confer a privileged position of power and authority. It was taken from anthropology where it referred to a kinship system in which the eldest male, sometimes father or patriarch, was invested with authority over other men and women.

Patriarchy refers to an organization, institution or society in which power, social control, material wealth and high social status accrue predominantly to males, rather than females. According to Oxford dictionary, patriarchy is “a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line.” In other words, it is rule by a male head of social unit, family or tribe wherein the head — called patriarch, typically a societal elder — has legitimate power over others in the social unit including men, women and children. It is one of the most important concepts of gender studies and has been instrumental in the development of a number of theories primarily aimed at discussing the causes of women’s subordination.

There are a number of theories which revolve around patriarchy; however, following are the most important ones:

1) Radical Feminist
2) Marxist Feminist
3) Dual system Theory

Radical Feminist

In theories relating to radical feminist, patriarchy is dubbed as the most fundamental social division in society. The institution of family, according to some radical feminist theorists, is regarded as a key means through which male domination is achieved. In patriarchy, according to some other radical feminists, the control of male over female bodies is supposed to be important. The differences between men and women are biological, signifying thereby different reproductive capacities of women and men.

Marxist Feminism

According to Marxist feminism, patriarchy is the outcome of the capitalist economic system. It is pertinent to remark here that capitalist economic system benefits from the women’s unpaid labour in the home. Therefore, subordination of women to men is considered a byproduct of capital’s subordination of labour.

Dual System Theory

Dual system theory is in many ways a combination of Marxist and radical feminist theories. Rather than focusing exclusively on either capitalism or patriarchy, this perspective argues that both systems are present and important in structuring of contemporary gender relations. Both these systems seem to have emerged out of the criticism levelled at radical feminist theories which overemphasize patriarchy and biology and the criticism levelled at the Marxist feminist theories which overemphasize class and capitalism. Eisenstein thinks that the two systems are so closely interconnected that they have become one.

Patriarchy is a system of control and capitalism which gives a system of economy aimed at making profits. Changes in one system will inevitably bring changes to the other. For example, if there is an increase in women’s paid work due to capital’s expansion, it will exert pressure resultantly for political change because of change in the position of women. Patriarchy and capitalism, according to another version, are supposed to be interdependent which accommodate system of oppression benefiting thereby from women’s subordination.

Criticism against Patriarchy-oriented Gender Concepts

Since long, patriarchy has been one of the most important concepts in feminist analysis. It, however, has been the subject of debate as well. Considerable criticism has been levelled against gender relations revolving around patriarchy.

Firstly, theories wherein patriarchy is a central concept do not highlight and ignore altogether, at times, the historical variations in gender relations. The failure to understand historical variations is termed as ahistoricism.

Secondly, such theories are criticized for reductionism which means that patriarchy has been reduced to few factors e.g. biology or family.

Thirdly, theories in which patriarchy is a central concept reflect limited conceptualization of gender relations. Such theories do not highlight the nature of relations between men and women. So those are bound to have myopic concepts of the nature of gender relationships.

Fourthly, all the theories using the concept of patriarchy have been subject to criticism because of their tendency to universalism. They do not take into account cultural and regional variations in gender relations; rather they tend to talk that the relations between men and women are the same world over.

Theorizing Gender

Sylvia Walby, a British sociologist, in her book entitled ‘Theorizing Gender’ provides an overview of the recent theoretical debates namely Marxism, radical feminism and dual systems theory. She claims to have addressed the problems with the theories revolving around patriarchy. Reductionism, ahistoricism and universalism have been addressed in her theory. According to Walby, patriarchy is a system of social structures in which men dominate and exploit women. She identifies the following six structures of patriarchy.

1. Household production        2. Paid work
3. The state    4. Violence
5. Sexuality    6. Culture

Her theory has also taken into account historical variations in gender relations. She argues that during the twentieth century, in Britain, patriarchy changed from private form to public form. In private patriarchy, according to Walby, it is man, in his position as husband or father, who is direct oppressor and beneficiary individually and directly of the subordination of women. Whereas public patriarchy is a form in which women have access to both public and private arenas; they are not barred from public arenas but are nonetheless exploited and oppressed within them. In public patriarchy, women are exploited more collectively than by individual patriarchs. Walby maintains that patriarchy has not been defeated. Rather it has changed its form as indicated above. It would be appropriate to put in her words, “Women are no longer restricted to the domestic hearth, but have the whole society in which to roam and be exploited.”

  • Written by: M. Shahid Rafique
The writer is a civil servant.

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