Unfortunately, the practice of a patriarchal or male-dominated society has been prevalent in the world since quite a long time. Even more unfortunately, it was unopposed till recent times, and even now, it still hasn’t quite disappeared from our lives.
Man, born of woman, has found it a hard thing to forgive her for giving him birth. The patriarchal protest against the ancient matriarch has borne strange fruit through the years.
― Lillian Smith
As history has demonstrated time and again, almost every society in the world has been (and mostly continues to be) a male-dominated one, with the marked exception of very few cultures. Though social institutions did not look down upon women in the very ancient times, the concept of marriage and family changed over the years. From being ‘equals’ or ‘partners’, to ‘man and wife’, the concept of an egalitarian marriage, of equality between a couple, disappeared as though it had never existed. Though it is slowly being accepted in developed cultures now, the developing and under-developed cultures are still struggling to accept the role of a woman as something other than a womb.
This male-dominated society is also called a patriarchal society. Patriarchy took firm root in society, and what is probably worse is that it had blended so firmly in the mindsets of both men and women, that nobody thought there was anything wrong with it. The following sections of this article will be covering the definition, characteristics, and examples of this society in order to help you understand it better.
As the term itself suggests, a patriarchal society is a male-dominated social system wherein males are the supreme authority figures and hold primary and maximum power. Literally translated, patriarchy means ‘the rule of the father’. In a patriarchal family, it is the father who controls every economic, social, and moral decision regarding everyone else in the family.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a patriarchal family 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”. Thus, the father or the eldest male holds complete authority over the lives of every other family member, including the women, children, and younger males. Patriarchal societies also often give all property rights to the males of a family, meaning, a woman is excluded from all rights regardless of her position in the family, whether wife or daughter.
Traditionally, patriarchy was perceived to be the rule of a man in a family. However, the term is now explanatory of all male-dominated social systems.
✦ A patriarchal society believes that it is only the men who are capable of running social, moral, political, and economic life. Women are believed to be weaker, both physically and mentally, and thus incapable of making important decisions on behalf of others.
✦ Obedience is one of the key essentials in a patriarchal society. Every wish and order of the husband or the man of the house is to be strictly adhered to, and humility, restraint, respect, and obedience must be directed towards the man at all times. Women and children are not expected to go against anything the patriarch says or does.
✦ In such a society, decisions such as the marriages of the children are decided by the man of the family alone. In some rare cases, some advice or suggestions by the patriarch’s wife may be permitted, though it is highly unlikely. Marriages are fixed based upon property and economic conditions of both parties.
✦ Women are expected to move from their family home to their husband’s home after marriage. There is no kind of compromise or adjustment of any kind from the husband’s side. It is always the wife who has to adjust, without any objections or complaints from her side.
✦ A patriarchal society permits domestic violence, though not very openly. Women are expected to be meek and submissive at all times, which may lead to horrifying physical abuse, such as rape. Defiance of any kind can lead to physical and mental harassment from the husband to the wife or children.
✦ Patriarchal societies instill the idea of ‘masculinity’ within boys from a very young age. Boys are told to preserve and flaunt their masculinity, and steer clear of any behavior that is deemed to be feminine. For instance, crying or weeping is considered to be a feminine trait, and boys are discouraged from doing so from a very young age. This leads to boys being convinced of their supposed superiority over females from childhood. Sons often get preferential treatment over daughters in the same house.
✦ In this society, the legal system too is biased towards males. Legal provisions and laws are mostly in favor of men, which leaves the women with neither rights nor resources if need be. In case a marriage has to end, the custody of the children remains with the father, and the wife is neither entitled to custody nor alimony.
✦ Many patriarchal societies frown upon the concept of divorce. Women, no matter what marital atmosphere they’re struggling in, are encouraged and in fact, even expected to stay married to their husbands since they are the ones who ultimately get the custody of the children. The idea is that a woman cannot survive on her own, and will be subjected to abject poverty and a constant threat to her chastity and morals if she tries living without a husband. Similarly, no matter how violent or unstable a man may be, patriarchal societies believe that a father’s presence is necessary for the child. Hence, divorce is largely opposed by cultural norms.
✦ In case of inheritance, only the male children of the family receive their share of the family property, finances, jewelry, or anything else. The inheritance is only meant for the male lineage. The women and the daughters of the family are not entitled to any form of inheritance.
✦ Looking at the bigger picture, a patriarchal society offers positions of prestige only to men. Apart from the family, these positions exist in the political, social, and economic systems of a country. For instance, traditionally, it is men who have been expected to be a part of the political system and are perceived as ‘fit to rule’. Similarly, professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers are largely male-dominated. However, this scenario is slowly changing now.
✦ Though this contradicts the general belief, patriarchy has not existed in society since ancient times. The very first social systems were believed to function upon the base of equality, where the men were hunters and women were gatherers. Both roles were equally crucial for the survival of the group as a whole, which is why equal importance was given to both.
✦ The exact time of the origin of the concept of patriarchy is still unknown. Some experts suggest that it may have been sometime around 4000 BC, when the idea of fatherhood began to take root in society, though this is a debated issue. Records of ancient writers and philosophers talk about the superiority of men over women and how the role of a woman is to bear children and take care of the household, while the man presides over other important tasks.
✦ Another theory of the origin of patriarchy states that initially, to manage the population because of the high death rates, women tended to give birth to several children. As a result, women’s focus began revolving around taking care of a number of children as well as the household, while men began to take responsibility of tasks such as hunting, gathering, and providing the family with food. Thus, males ultimately began to assume dominance over the women and children, and women were pushed more and more into the background.
Patriarchy Around The World
✦ Though it isn’t largely patriarchal anymore, the American society was traditionally a male-dominated one. It was in the 20th century that things began to change, and the concept of egalitarian society began to emerge again, albeit slowly. Though women today are working alongside men and are making their own life decisions, we can still see instances of a male-dominated world where women are subordinates.
✦ Some studies suggest that the average American woman earns only about 75-80% of what the average American man earns, despite working the same, or even more. In fact, around the world, less than 20% of the top-management positions are held by women.
✦ Women workers are less likely to be promoted over male workers as they are perceived to be more emotional, thus incapable of handling stress that might accompany that particular job.
✦ In many families, the father has the last word. The word of the mother is not paid any heed to by the children.
✦ In relationships, it is mostly the woman who has to ensure that the relationship works out. She is expected, albeit not openly, to give up her own dreams in case she has to make a choice between her dreams and her partner’s wishes.
✦ In many countries that are still largely orthodox, women who have crossed a certain age are looked down upon if they’re single. The fact that a woman may willingly be single and independent does not cross the minds of the society. A single woman in her 30s or 40s is seen as someone who is lost and lonely. Such social beliefs additionally tend to demoralize an otherwise strong and independent woman.
✦ A woman, no matter how smart or kind she may be, is looked down upon if she is overweight or does not conform to the concept of conventional beauty. Women are encouraged to use make-up, wear good and expensive clothes, and promote themselves in order to be attractive to men. This is patriarchy in a hidden form, wherein the woman has to change herself only to please a man.
✦ The Chinese society too has traditionally been patriarchal and male-dominated. The culture traditionally demanded that women were supposed to be subordinate to their fathers, husbands, and eventually, their sons. Today, women in China face most of the contemporary problems that are faced by women in patriarchal societies all over the world. Additionally, women in China face the pressure of getting married before attaining the age of 30. Similarly, the concepts of ‘feet binding’ and ‘forced abortions’ have ensured that a woman practically has no control over anything, including her own body.
We can find instances of a patriarchy in our daily lives, as is explained below.
A wife is expected to stay at home and take care of the children and the household, while the husband works and provides money. When a woman is doing this out of sheer choice and nothing else, it may not be deemed as patriarchal. However, when social expectations lead her to do so, it can be assumed that what she is a part of, is a patriarchal society.
Another example of patriarchy is the last name that is given to a child. Children born to a couple traditionally have always been given the family name of the father, and never of the mother. Similarly, even when a man and woman get married, the woman is traditionally known to take on the family name of her husband and abandon her own family name. However, men are not known to take on the names of their wives’ families. Though this practice is slowly lessening now, it still is widespread all across the world.
In many families, children get permission to do a certain thing only after the father says yes or agrees, regardless of the mother’s opinion. In case a mother deems something inappropriate for her children, the father may grant them permission to go ahead and do that very thing, which lessens the importance of the mother. This is an instance of patriarchy in a family, where the father has the last word.
Even today, many perceive the role of a doctor to be taken on by a man, while the role of a nurse is handled by a woman in a hospital setting. This isn’t something that is deliberately planned or perceived, but is a notion that is subtly yet firmly set into the human mind. Though more and more women are becoming doctors today, men are still frowned upon or ridiculed if they choose to become a nurse instead of a doctor. This is an example of patriarchy, where a man cannot play the role of a nurse, one that is supposedly less authoritative than a doctor.
In recent times, women are breaking barriers and taking on different roles. But patriarchy still exists in the mindset of the society. It is up to us to realize when and how we’re pushing women into the background, and strive to avoid that. An ideal society cannot be one where a woman rules or one where a man rules. An ideal society is one where both are given equal importance, only then can we say we’re civilized, in the true sense of the word.