The # MeToo tsunami has hit the world. The campaign has not only brought to the fore the magnitude of the problem of harassment & assault faced by women everyday, but even as the movement has grown, so has the use of the word “Patriarchy”. Until very recently, “patriarchy” was not something men were even supposed to believe in, let alone hold forth with such apocalyptic relish. It was a word that if spoken, publicly marked its speaker out as a very particular type of person – an iron-spined feminist of the old school. A word that over time became forgotten, which soon even feminist theorists left behind.
However, in the wake of # MeToo, there is a new urgency to name what women are still struggling against.
Patriarchy literally means rule of the father in a male-dominated family. It is a social and ideological construct which considers men (who are the patriarchs) as superior to women. Sylvia Walby in “Theorizing Patriarchy" calls it “a system of social structures and practices, in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (Walby,1990, p. 20).
The oppressor consciousness, as Paolo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed pointed out, equates its ‘being’ with ‘having’ - and being in the class of the ‘haves’. It craves to possess and dominate - things, people - indeed, the entire world. Thus a patriarchal society functions as a perfect abode for men to manifest their dominance both in public & private spaces and works with the single objective of keeping women dominated & subordinated.
Patriarchy is based on a system of power relations which are hierarchical and unequal where men control women’s production, reproduction and sexuality. It imposes masculinity and femininity character stereotypes in society which strengthen the iniquitous power relations between men and women.
Patriarchal constructions of knowledge perpetuate patriarchal ideology and this is reflected in educational institutions, knowledge system and media which reinforce male dominance. More subtle expressions of patriarchy was through symbolism giving messages of inferiority of women through legends highlighting the self-sacrificing, self-effacing pure image of women and through ritual practice which emphasized the dominant role of women as a faithful wife and devout mother (Desai and Krishnaraj, 2004, p. 299).
Society further builds various mechanisms to make sure the power dynamic never shifts in favour of the women, and that their inferior position is always maintained. It employs various ingenious practices & deep-rooted epistemic constructs to control women.
According to Uma Chakravarti the mechanism of control operated through three different levels. The first device was when patriarchy was established as an ideology and women had internalized through stri dharma or pati varta dharma to live up to the ideal notion of womanhood constructed by the ideologues of the society.The second device was laws, customs and rituals prescribed by the brahmanical social code which reinforced the ideological control over women through the idealization of chastity and wife fidelity as highest duty of women.(By Brahmanical social code, I mean the social norms formally written down as Scriptures by the priestly castes who alone, according to Chaturvarnya, were divinely allowed to read and write.) Like Gerda Lerner she believes that patriarchy has been a system of benevolent paternalism in which obedient women were accorded certain rights and privileges and security and this paternalism made the insubordination invisible, and led to their complicity in it. The relationship between women’s purity and caste purity was important and central to brahmanical patriarchy and women were carefully guarded and lower caste men were prevented from having sexual access to women of higher caste. The third was the state itself which supported the patriarchal control over women and thus patriarchy could be established firmly not as an arbitrary decree, but as an actuality (Chakravarti,U. in Mohanty, 2004,p. 285). Therefore gender relations are organized within the structural framework of family, religion, class, caste, community, tribe and state.
There exists a strong cultural systemic design of isolating women from the community of women, instead pairing them as subordinates to individual males, thus preventing them from becoming strong & powerful human beings who might hamper the stability of a patriarchal society. For the men to maintain their dominance over women it is very important to keep them isolated; and not allow them to see the issues that afflicts them in ‘totality’ but only in ‘fragments’. Following the age old concept of ‘Divide & Rule’ society makes sure the women are kept isolated from each other as it’s easier to possess a divided group than a united one.
Isolation of women is achieved both at a physical & psychological level. Physically our marriage practices guarantee that a woman is cut off from her near & dear ones - her family (the network of support) and is made to feel absolutely alone in her new marital home. And to achieve psychological isolation “Women are trained not to trust, furthering their sense of isolation. Men are dangerous and women untrustworthy. Since there is no one left, this ensures aloneness. The cruelty lies in this paradox: women are trained to feel alone and isolated but their very survival depends on their being in relationships as caring relationship experts. Filled with fear women don’t trust others, so their world shrinks. Isolated from the world of information, contacts and support, women start to feel unsure and alone. They stop trusting their own capacities. So they shrink their own world.” (Narayan, 2018, p. 166)
“While women may be aware of the deep power inequality with men, they have not yet made the connection between power inequality, and women’s negativity towards other women or, their unthinking conclusion that men are “naturally” better than women. They just perpetuate the negativity without realizing that this is the most brilliant part of the cultural strategy to keep women powerless, alone and afraid.
When women judge women as a group negatively, the systems that devalue women win. When women feel alone, the systems that thrive on women’s aloneness win. And it is precisely because women are diminished collectively as a group that the personal becomes the collective problem and requires collective solutions.” (Narayan, 2018, p. 189)
“It is easier to control women physically and mentally when they are alone rather than when they are with other women that support them. When women live in enforced isolation, they start to lose trust in their own judgements, they feel helpless and they blame themselves if anything bad happens to them. They try to adjust to a bad situation rather than to question cruelty, injustice and unfairness”. (Narayan, 2018, p. 164)
Living constantly in a dehumanized state, these women begin to doubt all their abilities - their very humanity. With their freedom snatched and rights curbed, society’s reiterations that they are ‘good for nothing’, becomes their own belief about themselves. And feeds their fatalism.
They are further kept in their place of self-doubt and lack of self-worth by systemically using the tools of humiliation and degradation. “Humiliation in such a society is an integral part of its system of domination.” In such societies, “... humiliation is … routinized and woven into the language in which subordinated groups are talked about ... such a society does not generally need to resort to blatant acts of humiliation except [to provide these oppressed humans with] periodic reminders of their inferior status … The dominated groups might sometimes be treated with kindness and even respect ... ”, but this kindness and respect is “based on the unspoken assumption that the recipients will not … seek to get above” the limits society has already drawn for them. (eg, woman as devi) (Parekh, 2009, p.33)
There is another important characteristic to note about the consciousness of these dominated groups: their fear of freedom and risks. While on the one hand they may recognise the injustice of their condition, they may become so inured to a ‘prescriptive’ life, that the thought of autonomy and responsibility may even terrify them (initially). They (may) come to see their yoke as their crutch and thus fear their own liberation.
Our cultural design system is based on “Fear training” of girls - a training that is built with the intent of making sure that we fill a girl with fear & flaws so that she goes into hiding and to be alone. From her childhood she is handed over a list of No’s & Dont’s - told what she can’t or shouldn’t do. It’s not an occasional boundary-setting no”, but a constant unrelenting “No”. This leads to a girl having very little practise in testing herself in life and as she grows up this also makes it difficult for her to say “No” to other people in her life. All these restrictions lead to a girl/women feeling that she is not trusted and that she doesn’t even have the capacity to take care of her own self. This leads to her becoming more fearful and even after the restrictions are removed she still feels scared, insecure and hesitant to make her own decisions.
Fear thus becomes a powerful tool (for society) to get women to surrender to their authority and control. They constantly strive to breed fear in the hearts of women as fearful women are easier to control, and they listen and obey to whatever is told to them in exchange for protection from society.
But as Deepa Narayan points out “The protection offered by society comes at a very high price for women, their freedom. The current assumption is that society cannot be made safe for over 600 million girls & women, but that women should be made safe for society by keeping them locked up at home as much as possible, by restricting their movement, by regulating their clothes and by isolating them from the world of men as much as possible.” (Narayan, 2018, p.46-47)
The laws of Manu insist that since women by their very nature are disloyal, they should be made dependent on men. The husband should be constantly worshipped as a God, which symbolized that man is a lord, master, owner, or provider and women were the subordinates. It legitimizes that a woman should never be made independent, as a daughter she should be under the surveillance of her father, as a wife of her husband and as a widow of her son (Chakravarti,2006, p.75).
It is really sad to see that Women are isolated, locked up, held as prisoners in their own homes under the pretense of “their own protection.” Various restrictions are put on them from the very clothes they wear, to the way they move in public spaces, the way they interact with people of the opposite sex, the language they use etc. But disguised as ways of ensuring women’s safety these things do nothing more than restrict a women’s freedom and contribute to her non-existence. In our society a woman is where shame lies and man is the protector of this shame. And if ever a woman tries to break-free of the restrictions imposed on her, she further becomes a target of humiliation and degradation. Society refuses to accept such women and if something awful happens to them they are told it is their own fault and not the failure of their protectors.
Patriarchal constructions of social practices are legitimized by religion and religious institution as most religious practices regard male authority as superior and the laws and norms regarding family, marriage, divorce and inheritance are linked to patriarchal control over property biased against women. A person’s legal identity with regard to marriage, divorce and inheritance are determined by his or her religion, which laid down duties for men and women and their relationship. Most religions endorse patriarchal values and all major religions have been interpreted and controlled by men of upper caste and class. The imposition of parda,restrictions on leaving the domestic space, separation between public and private are all gender specific and men are not subject to similar constraints. Thus the mobility of women is controlled. They have no right to decide whether they want to be mothers, when they want to be mothers, the number of children they want to have, whether they can use contraception or terminate a pregnancy and so on and so forth (Bhasin K.1993, p.6). Male dominated institutions like the church and the state also lay down rules regarding women’s reproductive capacity.
In his long experience of interacting and working with the oppressed, Freire had come to see that years of subjugation, exploitation and manipulation had scarred the very ‘consciousness’ – the way of thinking and looking at themselves, others and the world – of the oppressed. They are often characterized by a ‘duality’ which “establishes itself in the innermost being” (p. 48).
On the one hand, despite the immense weight of oppression, their soul still militates against the un-freedom that they find themselves caged in; on the other hand, under years of subjugation they ‘internalise’ the image of their oppressor. These, thus, ironically, become the models of humanity for them. And they are torn between their inherent need for liberation and their desire to mould themselves (their way of thinking, their belief system, and their ethics) in the cast crafted by the oppressors; and thus, to identify with them.
This blatant denial of society to a woman’s right to freedom leads to a further strengthening of its dominance over her. Instead of society teaching its men to learn self-control and respect women, it teaches the women to control their feelings and desires, to not question the authority and if they face any problems to hide it to keep the family’s izzat intact. “This suppression of feelings and hiding of problems isolate a girl from others, and eat away at her own mind and aliveness.” (Narayan, 2018, p. 97).
Women’s problems are classified as personal rather than systemic and therefore political, because let’s agree that if the problem was ever classified as political it would become worthy of public attention but by categorising it as personal it becomes each woman’s individual responsibility to deal with it. And in dealing with it alone a woman often feels depressed, this further completes the circle of keeping women in control and making sure that they do not hamper the stability of the society, as “a depressed woman is no threat. Millions of depressed, helpless, malfunctioning, even screaming and isolated women are no threat.” (Narayan, 2018, p. 164). Society effectively functions the way it always has with men at its helm.
Systemic deprivation and violence against women: rape, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, female feticide, infanticide, sati, dowry deaths, wife-beating, high level of female illiteracy, malnutrition, undernourishment and continued sense of insecurity keeps women bound to home, economically exploited, socially suppressed and politically passive (Bhasin, 1993, p. 13).
One of the greatest obstacles that women face in their struggle for liberation is the ‘submersion’ of their consciousness in their oppressive reality. They are often engulfed in and entrapped by their immediate context – the here and the now; and thus find it difficult to see their existence in the totality of time and space (socio-cultural-historical context) or to perceive the larger ‘order’ put in place by the society to keep them entrapped.
Thus they tend to perceive their condition as a given and unchangeable reality – from which there is no escape; and their oppressors (men) as magical, invincible beings. And this, in turn, leads to rationalization, submission and fatalism (in the guise of destiny, fate, fortune and God).
Patriarchy eventually wins and manages to make women have “Shut minds. Shut mouths. Shut bodies.” ( No Agency, Lack of language, Isolation)
As V. Geetha in her book “Patriarchy” points out, “knowledge about patriarchy cannot be easily separated from a feminist desire to produce and deploy such knowledge”’ (2007,p.4), since while we all ‘know’ that patriarchy exists it requires a feminist curiosity and perseverance to unravel its multifaceted existence in our everyday lives. Men are not going to write critically about a system that has always worked for them.
Bhasin, K. (1993).What is Patriarchy?. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Chakravarti, U. (2004).Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State in Mohanty, M. (ed.) Class, Caste, Gender . New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Chakravarti, U. (2006).Gendering Caste Through a Feminist Lens. Calcutta: STREE.
Desai, N. and Krishnaraj, M. (2004). An Overview of the Status of Women in India in Manoranjan M, (ed). Class, Caste, Gender. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of Patriarchy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Narayan, D. (2018). Chup: Breaking the Silence about India’s women. New Delhi: Juggernaut Books.
Ray, S. Understanding Patriarchy. New Delhi: University of Delhi.
V. Geetha (2007). Patriarchy - Theorizing Feminism. Krishnaraj,M. (series editor). Kolkata: STREE
Walby, S. (1990). Theorizing Patriarchy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.