Sometimes we need to stop and question the social structures and norms that we are part of and contribute to. Why? Because society and how it operates becomes so much part of our every day life that we do not even ask ourselves why it exists the way it does or consider alternate possibilities. We simply accept what is.
When you look around today you will notice that the domination of women is somewhat of a global reality to varying degrees. Patriarchy is a social structure in which men have a monopoly of power and women are expected to submit. It is a system of inequality organised around gender categories. “The crucial thing to understand about patriarchy or any other kind of social system is that it’s something people participate in. It’s an arrangement of shared understandings and relationships that connect people to one another and something larger than themselves.” There are some who claim that there have been early civilisations that were matriarchal. However, no anthropologist or archaeologist, feminists included, have found evidence of such societies. “The search for a genuinely egalitarian, let alone matriarchal, culture has proved fruitless,” concludes Sherry Ortner.
This male-defined culture has not always been so fixed. The hunter-gatherer or foraging society is believed to have had fairly equal relationships between men and women. It was the division of labour that began to introduce domestication, civilisation and global domination. Suddenly the care of offspring was no longer a shared responsibility, as seen in the early hunter-gatherer societies, but became a specialised role in isolated family settings. Women fulfilled that specialised role, while men focused on provision – which meant hunting, raiding and waging war. Historian Gerda Lerner argues that patriarchy is therefore neither natural or biological, rather, it is a historical development that began in the second millennium B.C. in the Ancient Near East. She concludes with the idea that as it is a structure created through historical process it can also be ended that way (summary).
Carol P. Christ would agree with Lerner, “The system I am defining as patriarchy is a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence. It is a system developed and controlled by powerful men, in which women, children, other men, and nature itself are dominated. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that it is in the ‘nature’ of ‘men’ to dominate through violence. Patriarchy is a system that originated in history, which means that it is neither eternal nor inevitable. Some women and some men have resisted patriarchy throughout history.” Early human history shows a shift from women experiencing autonomy and relative equality in small, nomadic groups, to being controlled and considered property, in large, male-dominated settlements.
Today, the effect of patriarchy is evident when you spell it out like this. Patriarchy is:
- The rule of the father or patriarch, in a sense, rule of men.
- Existing at ideological and material levels.
- An ideology of women’s subordination.
- The underlying basis that men are superior to women and women are part of men’s property.
- Interacting with other systems (economy, class, race, ethnicity, caste and gender) in the construction of social institutions like culture, the state and law.
- Establishing male dominance and control in personal relationships, the family and society at large.
- Based on a material basis that benefits men.
- Perpetuated through institutional beliefs and structures, which are kept in control through violence.
- Not static, keeps changing over time, varies historically, in different socio‑econ‑political contexts, and with different classes, race and ethnic groups, etc.
Patriarchy has been the source of inequality and abuse in many parts of the world. Especially when you couple these ideals with religion. Conveniently, the three major religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – all have had a tendency to support this patriarchal power structure. Many women have been told exactly what the Bible says about women, how submission to a male authority figure is a ‘godly’ virtue, and how this pleases God. There is ample evidence to show how a theology that upholds patriarchy has been a source of domestic violence, abuse, and domination. Patriarchy ties this violence to God.
It was many years ago that I first read the Bible. It was the book of Luke. I quickly became engrossed in the story of a remarkable revolutionary. In the words and life of Christ, I found a compelling blueprint for societal and cultural transformation. The words of Jesus, to me, were not some wise sayings of a benevolent Jewish rabbi. They were dangerous words – subversive and highly political in his context. This Gospel of Jesus’ kingdom was the great equaliser. This revolutionary attacked the very heart of political and religious powers that dominated others. Over the years many interpretations and hierarchial structures have made the Bible impossible for many. “The Bible tells me so” has become the catch cry for all sorts of ugliness, including the justification of patriarchal ideals. However, there is a growing chorus of theological voices that protest these ideals and interpretation.
I am hopeful for a different tomorrow. A future where people will begin to recognise these imagined structures and the power they wield. I believe in equality and in freedom. I believe in mutual respect. I believe in responsible care for our planet. As a follower of Christ I also agree with a man called Paul from a different era, who wrote a letter to believers in Galatia: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” The essence of a revolution lie in those words.
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