Some Thoughts on Patriarchy

By Anjum Altaf

Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities.

The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes. I do know for certain of women who have internalized patriarchy to the extent that its weakening makes them insecure, the lessening of domination being interpreted as a fatal lack of interest. The characterization of this type has become embedded in conversation, men often being advised half jokingly to seek brides from rural areas because they serve without expectation of return. The phrase kuTTe gii vii te kuT vii khaaey gii translates roughly as ‘would serve and won’t mind being beaten,’ its purported cleverness residing in the different meanings of words with a common sound, kuTTe and kuT.

Another saying, maarey gaa vii te chhaveN suTTey gaa, takes us further along the evolutionary ladder of patriarchy. It does not consider physical abuse of women inevitable but something to be expected and prepared for, the translation being ‘even if he mistreats you, he would show some consideration by leaving you to recover in the shade.’ This provides the rationale for marriages within extended families (first cousin marriages being very common in Pakistan), the family connection offering a degree of protection denied to an outsider. Those who know the blistering summer heat of Pakistan can appreciate the value of being allowed to recover in the shade.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have yet to come across relationships in Pakistan characterized by complete equality of gender relations. Rather, what I see fairly often are relationships that consider themselves equal but where there is an unconscious accommodation to patriarchy by women. Their actions are shaped by what males would approve without the latter ever having to state their preferences explicitly. Lives are lived in the unacknowledged shadow of patriarchy.

Patriarchy is also obvious in the strong preference for sons and manifested consequently in family sizes larger than would be the case without gender bias. This may be the result of expectations articulated by men but there is little doubt that mothers themselves favor sons over daughters in the allocation of household resources, including food.

The not-so-obvious observations include the fact that the existence of a patriarchal system does nothing to prevent a very large proportion of relationships in which women are actually in the dominant position. The concession to patriarchy comes about only in the social contempt for the men in such relationships – the ‘hen-pecked’ husband, for example.

And while it is true that mothers discriminate in favor of sons, the same mothers do not seem constrained by patriarchy in the advice they offer their children at the time of marriage. It is interesting that the advice of many mothers to their about-to-be-married children, male or female, is strikingly similar; ‘dabaa ke rakhnaa’ which translates as ‘stay on top of the spouse.’

There is little doubt that patriarchal norms are in transition partly because of access to global media and partly because of the independence resulting from the growing participation of women in the economy. There is an increased stress in families as a consequence of changing expectations of the rights of women running into resistance on the part of men. However, a new social equilibrium remains quite far away, the slow movement exacerbated by the absence of any serious discussion on the subject and the backlash of increased conservatism in society. Women articulating ideas of redefinition are considered forward and men expressing support are labeled as sell-outs to Western lifestyles.

My own sense is that gender equality is not something that would emerge by itself simply because a new equilibrium characterized by equality is unstable. Relationships tend to slip into familiar and comfortable moulds where people know what is expected of them and act accordingly. Thus it is either the male or the female who ends up in the driving seat; once the terms are known, life can proceed without the constant friction caused by uncertainty over who has to do what on any particular occasion.

Knowing the terms of a relationship is the key and these are mostly defined at present through an unconscious process of trial and error or a conscious silent dance of probing and subterfuge. But there seems no reason why some of the terms and expectations cannot be discussed openly and explicitly. For example, a husband and a wife could agree that only expenditures above a certain amount would need a joint decision; all others would not need to be justified. Similarly, there could be an agreement on who each spouse could interact with, how late each could stay out, and what kinds of assets they could dispose independently.

Simplistic as it may appear, it would be the process of engaging in such discussions about expectations that would help the articulation of new norms and lead social structures to converge on new equilibria that are stable in the context of specific societies and social groups. In the absence of open discussion, the level of social conflict and tension would only increase without yielding benefits that are commensurate with the costs.


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23 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Patriarchy”

  1. Vinod Says:

    I also find it interesting that women who haven’t quite entirely internalized patriarchy can show a stark disregard for social norms in their artistic preferences, such as their favourite movie actors. My mother, a regular conservative woman who has dutifully followed the social norms of patriarchy, likes as a favourite an actor who is known for open display of sexuality in movies.

    Some of these apparently conservative women can surprisingly come out in favour of social rebels. I have noted my mother come out in my favour as I rebelled against the ideal of ‘the dominant male’ in a marriage openly propagated by the patriarch of my extended family.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vinod: When we look at life as it is really lived instead of projecting from abstract theories, very often we find interesting nuances and contradictions. Real life is full of surprises; it rarely conforms to overarching narratives. It would be interesting if you get chance to ask your mother to explain her preferences. They must fit into some worldview that makes complete sense to her and is a puzzle to us.

    • Vinod Says:

      My mother yearns to be showered with affection openly and publicly from my father who is a man who has trouble hugging his own son(s). My father cannot explain his emotional unexpressiveness except by referring to the treatment he got from his father from whom he does not recall getting a single hug.

      She has always yearned to be modern looking and enjoy the freedoms of the modernity but has constantly limited herself because of the discontent it may create in my father.

      I had a very candid discussion of sex with my mother recently, something that few adult sons or for that matter even daughters have with their mothers. I realized that sex is a duty for my father devoid of much emotion and sex is a transcendental ascension for my mother – very polar views.

      I can to some extent see that extreme patriarchy, as manifested in my grandfather’s generation does a lot of damage first and foremost to men. Men lose the capacity to love and their relationships become one of duty devoid of emotions, a hard and reliable structure where individual hearts reside lonely and desolately.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Vinod: Thanks for sharing these very candid observations that trigger many thoughts. The first is about the tyranny of social roles. We live our lives to conform to the social expectations of particular roles – the obedient son, the dutiful wife, the responsible husband, etc. – and this conforming inhibits our individuality. The second is about the inability to communicate which flows from this tyranny – it is not considered respectable for the dutiful wife to talk about certain things or for the responsible husband to express certain emotions. The combination of the two makes for very formal relationships with the absence of spontaneity and intimacy. Imagine going through life not being able to say what you feel.

        The third thought is the relationship of all this to patriarchy, if any. Social roles would exist in any structure, so there has to be something more involved. It occurs to me that in the monotheistic religions, marriage is primarily about procreation and pleasure in the relationship is actually something that is frowned upon. But this was not the case in Hinduism which is just as patriarchal. If you recall William Dalrymple’s survey article that was linked on this blog quite some time back, attitudes towards sex have undergone a 180 degree change in Hinduism. This was primarily the influence of the Victorian morality of the British. And Victorian morality itself was much more prudish compared to Elizabethan morality. Therefore, patriarchy alone cannot be held responsible for sexual mores and the inability to convey feelings. We need to keep thinking of what is at the root of the barrenness of life.

        The fourth thought is about diversity in South Asia. I feel we are really talking about South Asian middle class morality. And the fifth thought is about Bollywood. Is the absurd fantasia of Bollywood the mirror that reflects the barrenness of our actual lived reality?

        The link to Dalrymple:

        • Vinod Says:

          Even if I concede that patriarchy alone cannot be the sole cause for the social roles it is not difficult to see that patriarchy is atleast one of the contributors to the social roles. The question of what else could be contributing to social roles is perhaps for another blog post. The lament of this post is regarding patriarchy. Social roles are a broader and overlapping area of interest for another post. Your third point is relevant to this post. I think you have headed rightly to examine if religious ideas could be behind patriarchy itself. But are we also not very familiar with the lament that patriarchy may be behind religious ideas. Now that is a hard one chicken-egg causal chain to crack.

          The fourth thought is something relevant but beyond my knowledge. I wonder how patriarchy manifests in the lower and upper classes, if at all it does.

          The fifth is something that may have some merit to it. In popular stereotypes, Indian men are considered a desperate lot in matters of sex for a reason. But stereotypes are weak in terms of their reliability to reach the truth. Perhaps a research on the sex lives of middle class Indian men may shed some light.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vinod: My thoughts on religion and patriarchy are as follows. I don’t think religion is behind patriarchy but religion reinforces patriarchy. It is much more plausible to argue that the emergence of private property favored the evolution of patriarchal forms. Religions did not challenge deeply established norms; they endorsed them and by invoking divine injunctions strengthened them all the more. The parallel with slavery should make this clear. Slavery existed prior to the advent of modern religions and all the major monotheistic texts endorsed it going so far as to specify the rights of offsprings of free men and slave women, etc. This is not to denigrate religion. New religions were in no position to take on such deeply entrenched social relations; they could only propose incremental improvements in the situations of those times. Even the American Constitution which talked about the equality of all men was not in a position to abolish slavery; another century had to pass before that began to transpire and yet another was required to complete the process. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, refer to religious texts to justify outdated practices like slavery and subordination of women – this is a misreading of the social history of religion.

        • Vinod Says:

          Something occured to me in relation to my earlier comment about patriarchy emptying men of emotional expression. I was thinking whether there is a necessary link between the two and I can see two sides to it.

          Patriarchy can place an unnecessary burden of leadership on men making them bear the weight of life’s miseries (ideas of ‘manning up’ and everything). One way that men cope with this burden is by shutting off their emotional expression so that they appear equipped to deal with the burden and not lose the seat of leadership.

          On the other hand, emotional expression may not be curtailed where physical segregation is the norm. Women can live under patriarchy and support men emotionally. In such societies men need not be emotionally stunted. The question that lingers in my mind is whether patriarchy has to be followed by physical segregation of the sexes in the public sphere.

          I’d like your comments on this.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vinod: I can’t quite get my head around this. It occurs to me that patriarchy has been with us for a very long time while the extent of male emotional expression has varied considerably over time and place. Therefore there is unlikely to be a simple or one-to-one relationship. Also, the nuclear family is a very recent phenomenon. For most of the time we have lived in joint or extended family arrangements in which one male was the head or patriarch. The kind of responsibility you mention would have devolved on this patriarch. The other males would not have felt the same need and so could have been more expressive of their emotions. Even today, within the same family, older and younger brothers feel different responsibilities and this is reflected in their emotional responses. I really can’t conceive how physical segregation could make men more emotionally relaxed. Perhaps different family structures and religious codes could have a role.

          • Vinod Says:

            Oh no. I just realized I said exactly the opposite of what I intended in this –

            emotional expression may not be curtailed where physical segregation is the norm.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: This discussion about the book Sex, Mom, and God is interesting:


        And if anyone can look at the way religion has treated and treats women and not be pissed off they have something wrong with them.

        “No one ever blew up a mosque, church, or abortion clinic after yelling, ‘I could be wrong.’”

        And one that is probably more true of the young in Pakistan and Bangladesh than in the other countries of South Asia (substitute Quran for Bible):

        From a child’s perspective peering out at the larger world from deep in the cocoon of a “Bible believing home,” every word of the Bible is understood to be true in ways that nothing else is or ever will be even if, years later, that child grows up and changes his or her mind. That former child’s grown-up incarnation may be willing to admit nuance and paradox, but the emotional “weight” of the absolutely true Word lingers. The actual words in the Word are still the very fabric of a whole private universe inhabiting those raised inside the hermetically sealed tunnel of absolutist faith, “truer” than all the other words he or she will ever hear, say, read, or think put together—truer than any later reasoned evidence. And on top of that the words of the Bible, or even a few notes of an old hymn, cast a shadow of bittersweet nostalgia that defies reason as thoroughly as a whiff of perfume reminds a man of his first lover and evokes a longing that cuts to the heart.

        • Vinod Says:

          My Pakistani housemate continues to believe that there are no born gays and lesbians. Homosexuals are homosexuals because they were frustrated in forming relationships with the opposite sex or they were abused in their childhood. He also refuses to acknowledge the reality of evolution. He has a big problem with the feminist movement and dearly holds onto stereotypes about men and women.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: I was aware of the importance of early childhood socialization and had referred to the work of Latika Gupta many times earlier (I am Hindu, You are Muslim: But reading this particular excerpt made me pay more attention to the phenomenon because it seems that the effects are much more irreversible than one thinks. I went back and looked at what is attributed to Socrates (who had much to say on education) and found the following: “A young thing can’t judge what is hidden sense and what is not; but what he takes into his opinions at that age has a tendency to become hard to eradicate and unchangeable.” I am not surprised that Socrates is said to have recommended taking children away from their families. This is in no way a practical suggestion but it does indicate the severity of the problem. I wonder if there is a way around it?

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, impressions of early childhood can be changed. I think cognitive therapy has the potential for that. Although it is used as a curative method, I believe that it can be used for non-curative and reformative ends.
            I personally am a very different person than what my childhood had made me. I changed my beliefs along the way a few times and that changed my thought process in various situations which in turn changed my behaviour in those situations.
            For me, it was my own philosophical enquiry that transformed me. I can’t explain though why it happened to me this way. Perhaps my docile and self-questioning nature played a big part in it.
            I recall having a discussion with a couple of friends of mine about the need to rejuvenate the teaching of moral science in school. I clearly recall that my friends thought of it as value-less ( i.e. not having any economic value) or they were too scared to have their ideas and beliefs which they transmit to their children challenged in public.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: It seems pretty perverse to raise children with problematic attitudes and then fix them with cognitive therapy. Couldn’t there be a better approach? If schools (or better still, society as a whole) cultivates the notion that ideas and beliefs are meant to be challenged, would we be in a happier situation? What is valued is something that is communicated by society – at different times wisdom, honor and chivalry have been valued; now it is mostly wealth. Hence anything that doesn’t contribute to wealth is devalued.

            Were you left alone when you were growing up or were you consciously pushed in particular directions? I find that those who are left alone find their own niche more easily; those who are pushed mostly stay with some residual influence of what they have inherited. Very few rebel and find new bearings.

          • Vinod Says:

            I find that those who are left alone find their own niche more easily; those who are pushed mostly stay with some residual influence of what they have inherited. Very few rebel and find new bearings.

            I have some American friends who were left alone by their parents and not pushed in any direction. They actually struggled in their lives. And they told me that they really wish their father had said something instead of leaving everything to their individual choice.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: Three thoughts come to mind:

            1. At the individual level, all kinds of examples and counter-examples will be found. This is not something that is amenable to discussion at the anecdotal level; it has to be about broad averages. On average, do those left alone have a less doctrinaire attitude to life than those schooled in particular ideologies? Pakistanis claim that there has been a natural experiment furnished by the pre- and post-Zia generations and the latter are definitely less tolerant of difference.

            2. The issue is not that either set ‘struggles’ or not. Neither may struggle; indeed the ideologically oriented hardly ever struggle, they are so free of doubt and so sure of the rightness of their ways. The question is one of acceptance of diversity.

            3. Being ‘left alone’ is not the same as being completely unsupervised or uninstructed. Parents could well spell out the rules of socially acceptable behavior. The contrast is between those taught to subscribe unquestioningly to a particular package of superior faith and those who were brought up to believe that their ways were one of many possible ways without being unduly privileged.

          • Vinod Says:

            I agree with your three terms of reference for the discussion. I only brought up mine in response to a generalization you made based on your personal observations.
            Back to topic how can one determine the effect of styles of parenting. The challenge faced by a parent who treads the path you suggest is to determine the appropriate stage at which the child can be told about the doubts in the life lessons harboured by the parent himself in the life lessons that were conveyed to the child earlier. A parent would first want the child to develop the belief in the life lessons that one has learnt and then later question it for robustness. Otherwise the child’s mind can get confused if the lesson and the doubt are conveyed together.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: I wouldn’t start with stressing the doubts; rather I would refrain from stressing the certainties. Amongst the very first things (#4) I archived in The Best From Elsewhere section of the blog was the curriculum of an elementary school that follows this philosophy. During a year, children visit the place of worship of every major religion and interact with the person in charge. And the festivals of every major faith are celebrated with equal attention. Without sowing any doubts about the value of their own ways, children get the sense that there are many ways, all to be given equal respect. I feel this is a very sensible way to nurture a tolerant attitude to diversity.

   (See Item #4)

  2. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    The struggle against patriarchy cannot be seen in isolation. To be understood properly it has to be seen in the context of a society and a state. For instance no woman can break out of patriarchy without being economically independent.

    If the state laws are not supportive, even an economically empowered woman may not be able to assert herself if she cannot claim custody of her children.

    Take the case of a battered woman. It is not that she has internalised patriarchy. Where can she go if she wants to get out of an abusive relationship. How many women’s shelters do we have?

    Development should be holistic and well balanced if any section of society wants to enjoy the fruits of development.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Zubeida: The important aspect in this discussion is about causality. State laws will not become supportive on their own nor will development become holistic and well-balanced by itself. All such changes take place in response to the demands of citizens. That is the reason for the importance of debate and discussion and conversations even if they are simple to start with.

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    I am posting a question that was asked of me in an email:

    “As far as I know, no women were chosen as prophets – why?”

    • Vinod Says:

      I reckon that a religion first had to be accepted in its core beliefs. To facilitate such acceptance, one need not need to challenge patriarchy. Patriarchy does not preclude belief in the unity of God, Prophets, revelation, angels, judgment day etc. It was convenient to start with the path of least resistance – a man, instead of a woman, dictating something in larger society.

      Islam, for example, started not just with a man but from a man who belonged to the ruling tribe. That’s convenient, no?

    • Nabiha Meher Says:

      Fatima Mernissi disputes this quite beautifully. Women were not official prophets but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any women prophets.

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