By Sushmita Maryam, Bangalore, India
Patriarchy is deep rooted in cultures around the world, in all kinds of social institutions, including education. It qualifies male gender to be the head of the family or society reflecting the belief upon which it stands – male is superior of all genders.Most societies function within the patriarchal framework. The idea of male superiority is fed into the human mind at a very young age- primary feeders being the parents, immediate members of the family and teachers. Children imbibe rigid ideas of gender roles based on patriarchy that eventually become their psychological make-up and foundations of their identity as they grow into adults; men- the primary decision makers and women – the primary homemakers. They live by it further cementing the social structure and propelling biological and social evolution in that direction. The human mind has thus evolved for generations’ now preserving patriarchy; it has become the fundamental structure of living – in subtler forms in some societies of course, but always present.
Links to some interesting blogs that look at the origin of patriarchy, as I was researching the topic are here and here. Most studies point to gender roles as the origin of the patriarchal system and not to natural biology of human race. This lays bare the belief that biologically male is the superior gender suited to lead and so patriarchy is the natural order of being for humankind. Superiority of male intelligence is more an idea than a fact. No studies have been able to conclusively establish it. There sure are biological differences in the way a man’s and a woman’s brain is, structurally. Studies suggest that these differences could also be attributed to the way human brain has evolved, both biologically and psychologically owing to the repetition of roles the genders have been engaged in over generations.
It seems that gender roles in the ancient times emanated from the then circumstances when survival and sustenance were the aim of life for humans. A woman’s life was attributed more value owing to childbearing and nursing – for sustaining and further building the human community, while men were considered more dispensable in that context. Hence they were in a position to put their lives at risk fighting threats in the wilderness in the egalitarian (gender equal) hunter gatherer societies.
These roles however when extended beyond those times in which they were relevant, gradually solidified into a psychological social structure. Along the way the idea of male superiority might have set in because men may have been more visible outdoors in the wild, as the face of family and the voice of decisions in the community. This social structure that originated from need based gender roles of the past however began determining gender roles of the future, firmly hinged on the idea of male superiority, sustained by the elements of power and pleasure, spreading its roots in the human psyche as the norm.
It is only reasonable to state that man is not superior or inferior to other genders. He is, as they are. Patriarchy framing him in the image of a superior being has almost irreversibly affected human relationships and not in the best way. It has piled up the expectations of a man to unreasonable levels, coercing him to alter his sense of self, reducing it to an idea that is not realistic and does not exist. The superhero movies are exaggerated reflections of the image of the male gender and of the expectations from him– the savior, decision maker, the problem solver, the charmer, the powerful, and the doer etc
The constant pressure to live up to being the ‘man’ is a lifelong one for men. This entails hiding his natural self behind the image of a ‘super human’ and struggling to live that disconnected identity and live up to the expectations from himself and everybody around him. It is most suffocating also because it is disguised in the cloak of superiority. And that blinds him to what it does to him. To me that is the one of the biggest challenges of patriarchy; why society as a whole and men themselves are much less aware of how patriarchy impacts this gender.
The typical expectations of men (e.g. in India) are disguised as the privileges that come with being the head of the family or society. Some of these expectations, depending on which part of the world he is in, are to be the breadwinner at any cost, to financially provide for the immediate and extended family, to live with an unduly inflated ego and aggression, to be smarter and more intelligent than the girlfriend/wife, to seem superior to those around and, the worst of all, to suppress ‘human’ emotions.
Having to suppress feelings and emotions is the most unreasonable of all expectations – also because the other expectations mean that he is in a constant state of stress and confusion – a state which is not as obvious as a state of conflict because of its constancy and normalcy. Constantly suppressing emotions is a contradiction to being human and hence a prime source of inner conflict. Also severely stressful is to live a life disconnected from self to prove to oneself and to everybody around one’s worthiness to belong – in this case to one’s gender. A huge part of male aggression may be generating from this intense inner conflict which may even have become inherent to the male psyche through evolution. And what could be powering the aggression further is his resorting to his ego, reminding himself of his superiority to justify it all.
Fear of failure in conforming to the social image of ‘man’ because it would invariably lead to his rejection otherwise, may be seen as a dominant emotion that drives his action and the action of those around him. My ex-colleague was asked by his earning wife to leave home for his inability to earn a steady income; my friend and her mother bully her spouse for her not having the freedom to give up her job as his career is unstable; my friend who is well placed in his career is always struggling to reach a higher goal, compromising on his peace of mind, his present and his relationships – because he needs to be the best, as he was brought up believing. Action that comes from fear and insecurity is bound to create conflict within oneself and within one’s relationships.
Domestic abuse, dowry crimes, pornography, rape, gender discrimination, female foeticide and infanticide, prostitution, honourkillings are some of the most visible manifestations of patriarchy. The passive conflicts that patriarchy fuels, causing relationships to breakdown, whether within families, in work spaces or elsewhere, are rarely given the attention they deserve, although every person has suffered and suffers it – it is everywhere – a reflection of how deep rooted it is in the human psyche. Unfortunately, despite this, patriarchy is not explicitly addressed by educational curricula in most places, but it is an elephant in the classroom nonetheless.
One of the things that have limited the seeing of the real impact of patriarchy on relationships is looking at it through the lens of women’s rights alone. It promotes the general and popular view that patriarchy is pro men. Unfortunately, not understanding this structure and its manifestations in its wholeness is inadvertently limiting relationships, blocking the emergence of sustainable solutions for a more coherent world.
Patriarchy is as imprisoning for men as it is for women. The only difference is, as previously mentioned, for men the superiority disguise makes it almost impossible for him to see that it is imprisoning him, and in his case in his ego. To add to that the conveniences of not having to take as much responsibility for the physical aspect of raising children and not having to take equal responsibility for the chores around the house make it even more difficult to acknowledge it, even if he might see glimpses of what he is stuck in. For women it is as clear and direct as it can get when she is told that she deserves less because of her gender, that it restricts her freedom to be the person that she is.
Also important to note is, transgender persons are completely invisible in the patriarchal system, one of the probable reasons why they are not represented or actively considered in the policies and laws of many countries, and are not visible in the eyes of many people.
What is the point in patriarchy when it is completely blind to a gender (transgender individuals); forces a gender (men) to live a life of illusion and coerces a gender (women) to be the subservient one – stealing everyone’s basic freedom to be one’s own self; locking all in a lifelong struggle to cope? Individuals have different capabilities which are irrespective of their gender. However, they are to live by the rules that patriarchy lays for them – altering and manipulating their capabilities, skills, sense of self and perceptions to suit these gender norms. What is even more baffling is women and men are then expected to come together and form ideal families and build peaceful and stable societies on this shaky fragile and rigid foundation. Relationships cannot get more twisted and complicated than that, can they?
Looking at the relevance of social constructs and ideas in the context of human relationships is imperative because quality of our life is dependent on the quality of our relationships– whether with oneself or with others. We tend to discount that the chaos and conflict in society or the world is reflective of conflicted and chaotic human relationships.
Patriarchy at some point in the past may or may not have made sense; there is no way to establish the certainty of that.Spending time and energy, dissecting the past or imagining the future is not as effective in finding sustainable solutions for the challenges that we live with in the present. Let us look at situations in the present because that is where we are all the time.
Is patriarchy making sense in the present?
Is it not time that educators and other responsible adults around the world began addressing this elephant in the room?
[Editor’s note: readers may be interested in reading bell hooks’ perspective on how patriarchy affects men as well – her book The Will to Change is highly recommended — MB]
------ About the Author: Sushmita Maryam is a Mediator and a Conflict Resolution Practitioner who has co-founded the ‘We are Peace’ network that works with Educational Institutions in facilitating awareness of conflict and peace using tools of dialogue and skills of mediation among teachers, students and their parents in an effort to awaken youth to being peace promoters their personal lives, homes, communities and the world at large. Sushmita is the chosen participant from India for the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) summer school 2014 that brings together 75 youth from across the globe, to address pressing global challenges, within the context of cultural and religious diversity.