• Mayuri Chaudhuri

Patriarchy Through the Layers of Time - The One Common Struggle of Every Woman Around the World

Let’s start with visualizing some professions in mind: a farmer and a teacher. What did you see? Most probably a man for a farmer and a woman for a teacher. That is exactly how our society is structured and perceived.


A woman holding a sign that reads "Equal?"
A woman holding a sign that reads "Equal?" (International Women’s Health Coalition)

The repetitive image of man hunting through the forests and crackling rocks against to create fire whilst women stay inside and sift through the foraged food that men gathered, is instilled in us since childhood.


The importance of a head male figure in the family is such a popular mandate that it is impossible to argue with the saying “man of the house”. It is also misleading to say that today empowerment is non-existent, but when you look closer to the roots where the primary books are sitting fathers at the head of the table, that is where we have failed.


“Hijab, Niqab, Veils, Sindoor and Mangalsutra are all religiously-flooded tools for showcasing sexual markers and male authority over women.”

What is patriarchy?


A patriarchal society is the one where the male is a natural leader and he exercises his power to his advantage either to establish legal dependence on him by other constituents of the clan - the women and younger ones or subjugate them. It is justified to be their absolute right and should be inherited by other preceding males of the clan, family, or social system.


Inheritance or Invention?


I came across a theory named “exchange of women” by Claude Levi-Strauss wherein anthropologists (one who studies aspects of humans in past and present societies) quote that the society was purely perceiving women as property and a way to cement alliances. The division of labor certified women as “producers of life” while men were the opposite i.e. “producers of good”.


A painting of humans in ancient times.
A painting of humans in ancient times. (zmescience.com)

As depicted in the picture, men are carrying hunting equipment while women ground grain.


The new wave of feminist social science has established in modern times that women were inventors of agriculture, pottery, and other storage facilities related to the former.


Gerda Lerner states that this structural division was natural and elders were heading the younger while men over women in lineage society. Although she quotes about matrilineal societies (tracing inheritance through female line rather than males) in Sumerian culture, displaying the dominant goddesses heading their religion.


Mesopotamians


The civilization had a very ardent patriarchal structure. Men always occupied the highest societal regard as fathers, kings, and warriors. However, women weren’t the same but were considered second-class citizens.


Under the Babylonian rule, they were pushed to be layout men’s mere property. Although the earlier society was ruled by a council of members incorporating both men and women, in later periods schooling and education were only prescribed for the former.


The statue of Burney Relief.
The statue of Burney Relief. (Wikipedia)

The Statue of “Burney Relief” is a Mesopotamian terracotta figurine depicting the winged goddess with bird talons perched by two lions.


The Greeks


Zeus (ruler of all gods) was the patriarchal head of the pantheon. Although the culture constitutes female goddesses like Athena (war goddess) possessing heroic qualities however the story of her originating from the head of Zeus reinstates his authority. They were under their fathers and connoted as an infidel. The civilization also marks the beginning of slavery and hence women were easily tradeable.


Depiction of Spartan Women.
Depiction of Spartan Women. (arcgis.com)

Depiction of Spartan Women - they were physically strong, educated, and held equal status as men.


The Romans


The renowned Roman historians didn’t even perceive it as important to lay out women’s existence in their history. The depiction of their roles has been displayed in poems, satires, or comedies through men’s eyes. They weren’t entitled to legal and voting rights as men.


Daughters were answerable to their fathers even after their marriage over failing in performing their daily duties. A woman could own property and dispose of it after the death of her father.


How is it so natural?


It is widely unnatural to interpret such a society without some base.


Why do most of us consult every decision with our fathers or male head of the family before moving ahead?


Why do the women of the family eat after the men and kids have finished their food?


Why do men perform the last rites of the deceased?


These questions have been asked repetitively. Let’s analyze some possible answers.


Biblical Patriarchy


It is a set of beliefs in Reformed Evangelical Protestant Christianity that delineates God sees himself as a masculine character and he has ordained distinct gender roles. Thus a God-honoring society will maintain male headship in civil and other spheres while women as helpers of their husbands are commanded to be “fruitful and multiplying”.


Sociobiological Aspects


This streak of ideas deals continually with the passed-on functions of social institutions through ages that are deterring each gender’s status. Goldberg explains male dominance to be biologically sound. Another view emphasizes that as women invest most of their energy in bearing children, they are mere resources.


A family picture from the 1880s.
A family picture from the 1880s. (courses.lumenlearning.com)

Family Portrait of the early 1880s - Notice how the fathers and males stand as commanding authority and others beneath them.


Religion and its teachings


Every religion constitutes a basic patriarchal nature. Their holy books and treatises are strict in consideration thus paving the path for eternal discrimination of women.


In Islamic culture, menstruating women are forbidden to touch the Koran (holy book), whereas similarly in Hinduism, they are denied entry into temples and even their kitchens.


Religious texts are dominated by male gods, saints, and heroes and written by men as well, but with some exceptions.


A sign in front a temple reads, "No entering during the menstrual periods."
A sign in front a temple reads, "No entering during the menstrual periods." (Women planet)

The sign in front of a temple implies women are impure during menstruation and hence are restricted to perform rituals.


Biological Theory


Many anthropologists consider male dominance to be culturally universal and thus the norm makes sense. Other determinists claim that women are more fit to rear children rather than making it to the high profile decisive roles such as leaders of battles.


Hormones also play an important role wherein men constituting testosterone are dominant and aggressive while women with estrogen are opposite. The argument has been forwarded over to a stage wherein practices have evolved due to different stages such as an increase in male alliances, more authority of men over resources, and languages developed to reinstate the ideology.


Most common examples of patriarchy that you didn’t know


Age of science


Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić was a Serbian Physicist and Mathematician. The debate over her contribution to Einstein’s work has been highly controversial.


Abram Ioffe went on to name Annus Mirabilis Papers as Einstein-Marity conforming with her enormous contribution in the same. Albert himself referred to the same as “our” work/”our” theory. Yet she remains forgotten and statements about her husband’s work are misinterpreted as “folklore”.


Provided this was a time when patriarchy marked its peak and education for women had to be attained after being fought for. Lack of evidence because educated women were subject to taboos further fades away from her presence in world-famous scientists’ theories.


Albert Einstein with his wife Mileva Marić.
Albert Einstein with his wife Mileva Marić. (Wikipedia.org)

Empress or Temptress?


You might know Cleopatra as a temptress who lured Caesar and Mark Antony into her fold because she was a woman Pharaoh, being an unusual occurrence in Egyptian patriarchal regimes.


What is not usual is the knowledge that she knew seven different languages, wrote scholarly papers on science and mathematics, was a ruler of the entire Mediterranean coast just at the age of 18, guided it through plague and famine, commanded armed and naval forces for war, and built many temples, including ones for Jews.


Her diplomacy and political intelligence are often overshadowed by the reduction of her status to a simple seductress. Appraisals for her beauty have become more popular later than during her tenure as a conqueror.


Relief of Cleopatra as a goddess at Temple of Hathor, Egypt.
Relief of Cleopatra as a goddess at Temple of Hathor, Egypt. (Britannica.com)

Shakespearean epic - Romeo & Juliet


Juliet, the female lead is displayed to be an innocent, obedient and respectful adolescent as high-class ladies should be portrayed. Her behavior throughout the drama is a perfect display of duties that had to be carried by a daughter in a male dominant society.


But as she meets Romeo (the male lead), the play starts projecting her as rebellious and deceitful to her family as she stands up to her family for the cause of her love.


Romeo however is shown to contain his masculinity while in love with her and when he offers forgiveness, he gets criticized for his weak nature. Despite all the toxic patriline, the story depicts female autonomy, a rare concept during those ages.


Feminism and Patriarchy


Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex explains that as much as man is responsible for subjugation but so are other women who support patriarchy. They are oppressed because they are made to assume their deprived status right from childhood.


Consequently, drawing from the breakthrough work other Phenomenological Feminists take this further to situate conditions where women are conforming to the societal norms of a “perfect lady” or restricting their physical activity because they never did so earlier.


The other radical approaches claim that if a man is a symbol of a powerful entity then a woman is powerless, if he is aggressive then she is submissive and the list goes on.


Is it harmful to men?


“I try and laugh about it, Hiding the tears in my eyes Because boys don’t cry, Boys don’t cry.”

Quoting the lyrics from “Boys don’t cry” by The Cure, I wonder how familiar it is for us to normalize that men being sensitive are just weak and feminine. Men are never born violent or aggressive but are heeded into the norms of being “the tough guy.


Such constant reminders push them to adopt practices like violence and alcoholism to reinstate their identity. They are laughed at, especially the men who perceive themselves as gay.


A group of young boys holding a sign that reads, "Teach your sons to respect women."
A group of young boys holding a sign that reads "Teach your sons to respect women." (Voice Male magazine)

Teaching younger boys about the freedom to choose and become what they want to be will automatically make them stand against the patriarchal customs.


It is of no question that men’s sexuality is too outspoken. Women are expected to abide by the same and dress or act accordingly to either save themselves or please the former.


The homes majoring in excessive domestic violence are another cause of either mentally disfiguring the younger males or teaching them how to treat other women in the family.


Additionally, a female is expected to take care of the newborn and the father is restricted to sustaining breadwinning, stripping off the chance to be sensitive and caring around the children.


Matrilineal societies


We live in a world with innumerable possibilities. As much as it is unique, these matrilineal lineages showcase diverse power structures headed by women.


Mosuo, China


A group of women belonging to a tribal community in Tibet.
A group of women belonging to a tribal community in Tibet. (The Diplomat)

The ancient tribal community of 40,000 Tibetan Buddhists is constituted of superior women who are the power-wielding authority of the family and society, as well.


Bribri, Costa Rica


Women from Costa Rica.
Women from Costa Rica. (Getty Images)

The 12,000-35,000 membered society hands down the land inheritance to women. They are duly revered and thus also the initiators of sacred processions.


Umoja, Kenya


Women in Umoja, Kenya, where only members of the female sex are allowed to stay.
Women in Umoja, Kenya, where only members of the female sex are allowed to stay. (NBC News)

This Kenyan village only allows women to reside in it. It was founded by 15 rape survivors from local British soldiers, which to this date is abandoning social norms of child marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation), domestic violence, and rape.


Khasi, India


Women from Khasi, India, in their traditional clothing.
Women from Khasi, India, in their traditional clothing. (dw.com)

The 1 million inhabitants of this community have a lower number of men than women. Men have to move in with women after marriage. Men are not entitled to attend family gatherings and only mothers can look after children.


Sexist advertisements over centuries


Just with a click, my browser was filled with hundreds of such advertisements which are strictly conforming toward discriminating against women. The visual media has been a powerful medium to educate as well as destroy minds. These ads might leave you wondering if we are shallow even today?


Women's work - poster from World War II,  Australia, 1943.
Women's work - poster from World War II, Australia, 1943. (the Collective Blog)

The advertisement here from Schlitz depicts women as stupid and sensitive, whose nature is to cry over petty things.
The advertisement here from Schlitz depicts women as stupid and sensitive, whose nature is to cry over petty things. (fleurmach.com)

The emphasis on questioning a woman’s capabilities yet being the household chores' owner is highly ironic in this ad from Del Monte.
The emphasis on questioning a woman’s capabilities yet being the household chores' owner is highly ironic in this ad from Del Monte. (Business Insider)

When a distinguished brand like Van Heusen is spreading such ideas, you can’t expect anything better from elsewhere.
When a distinguished brand like Van Heusen is spreading such ideas, you can’t expect anything better from elsewhere. (medium.com)

These kinds of self-help books were getting circulated in the 1900s to guide the married lives of so-called educated men.
These kinds of self-help books were getting circulated in the 1900s to guide the married lives of so-called educated men. (medium.com)

Check this article from Business Insider for more such sexist and discriminatory ads that would've never seen the light of day in today's age.


Call it patriarchy, sexism, or gender inequality, nevertheless, it is not going to erase the oppression of women through centuries nor will it decrease criticizing male emotions for explaining masculinity.


It wasn't easy to research the distinguished women intellectuals and rulers I mentioned above, not because they weren’t important. The information was scarce to find even over such an enormous world of the web.


If ancient tribal communities can practice matriliny, empowerment in modern times is not so far to reach. It is the time to dive into the basics and start reconstruction right from there as it is.


  • Quit telling your girl to “throw like a man,” she can throw it better than anyone else can in her ways.


  • Teach your girl to help you with car repair than only teaching her how to make food in the kitchen.


  • Question every picture/advertisement/phrase/lifestyle practice you see that offends the gender balance and analyze it.


  • Let the men speak and cry their hearts when they want to.


  • Let the woman be bold enough to raise her voice about the discrimination she endured rather than marginalizing her to be fake and unsocial.


Children playing in a school.
Children playing in a school. (Unicef)

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Mayuri Chaudhuri is an Indian-based History Honors Graduate and a Content Writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability, who is seeking cognizance of varied issues in the world through the power of a pen. She is currently pursuing her Master of Letters in History, at the University of Dundee, Scotland.


Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.