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Understanding Patriarchy

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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 (Edley and Wethrell, 1995). 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 vested with authority over other men and women.
Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary defines patriarchy as a social system or country that is ruled or controlled by men. In other words, patriarchy means rule by the male head of social unit, family or tribe in which patriarch, typically a societal elder, has legitimate power over others in the social unit including other men, all women and children (Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan, 2004). 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 (Encyclopaedia of Gender & Society, 2009). 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 that revolve around patriarchy. However, the following are the most important ones in which patriarchy is a major concept.
1. Radical Feminist
2. Marxist Feminist
3. Dual System Theory

Radical Feminist
In the theories relating to radical feminism, patriarchy is dubbed as the most fundamental social division in society. The institution of family, according to some radical feminist theories, is regarded as a key means through which male domination is achieved (Millet, 1997). 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 (Firestone 1971), signifying thereby their different reproductive capacities.

Marxist Feminism
According to Marxist feminism, patriarchy is the outcome of the capitalist economic system. It is pertinent to remark here that the capitalist economic system benefits from the women’s unpaid labour in the home. Therefore, the subordination of women to men is regarded as a byproduct of capitalists’ subordination of labour. Class inequality is a prominent feature of our society and also instrumental in determining gender inequality (Barret, 1988).

Dual System Theory
Dual system theory is, in many ways, a combination of Marxist and radical feminist theories. Rather than having an exclusive focus on either capitalism or patriarchy, this perspective argues that both systems are present and important in structuring contemporary gender relations (Walby, 1990). 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 (Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan). Eisenstein (1981) thinks that the two systems are so closely interconnected that they have become one. Patriarchy is a system of control and capitalism gives a system of economy aimed at making profit. Changes in one system will undoubtedly bring changes to the other. For example, if there is an increase in women’s paid work due to capitalist expansion, it will exert pressure, resultantly, for political change because of change in the position of women. Patriarchy and capitalism, according to some other versions, are supposed to be interdependent which accommodate system of oppression benefitting thereby from women’s subordination (Hartman, 1979).

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 in which 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. Reductionism means that patriarchy has been reduced to a few factors; namely biology or the 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, the theories 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.

Walby’s Theorizing Gender
Sylvia Walby, a British sociologist, in her book entitled ‘Theorizing Gender’ (1990) provides an overview of the recent theoretical debates namely Marxism, radical feminism and dual system theory. In this book, 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

These structures are used by men to oppress and exploit women. 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 the 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 in her theory 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 domestic hearth, but have the whole society in which to roam and be exploited (1990:201).

The writer is a Chevening scholar and studied International Development: Development Management at the University of Manchester

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