Sylvia Walby (1997) defines patriarchy as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women. When Walby uses the term social structure, she is implying that this system of control, domination and oppression is not biologically determined. This implies that men are not naturally superior to women and, therefore, women are not naturally subordinate to men. The subordination is rather a consequence of a particular kind of social organisation, that is, patriarchy.
Today, patriarchy exists in different forms including preference of male child, discrimination against girls in food distribution, burden of household work on women and girls, sexual harassment at work place, restricted mobility for girls and women, lack of inheritance rights for women and girls and no control over fertility. It is the son who is seen as the rightful heir and it is only through him that a family traces its continuity. Dowry is seen as a kind of settlement of whatever claims the daughter might have over her natal family. Having daughters, therefore, is seen as a drain of resources and as serving no purpose. All the expenditure incurred on her would be merely a waste, for it is not going to benefit her natal family in any way.
Kamala Bhasin identifies family, religion, media and law as some of the most important pillars of the patriarchal system. Together, they maintain, perpetuate and legitimise patriarchy, making it appear natural, and hence, unchangeable. Politics (and political institutions) is overwhelmingly controlled by men and practised within a framework determined by men. Media, very powerfully and cleverly perpetuates stereotypes about men and women. As Kamala Bhasin puts it, the problem is not with what women do or are, but it is with how they are valued and who has the right to assign the value.
Over the last century, gradually but steadily, more and more women have gained access to education, have become a part of the market economy and the wage differences in many sectors has narrowed. There are special provisions to enable women to remain active participants in the workforce and participate in governmental processes.
Origins of Patriarchy
The most accepted explanation for patriarchy is the traditionalist view that it is based on a natural division between men and women, the latter being weaker and therefore subordinate to men. It is thus justified as being natural. This becomes the basis for a supposed natural division of labour. Men being stronger would be hunters and providers while women being weaker would be nurturers and care givers. Religion, literature, philosophy and every other sphere of life including economic practices and transactions are based on this belief, rendering it immutable and a natural fact of life.
Fredrick Engels wrote the Origin of Family, Private Property and the State as an attempt to explain the beginnings of the system of subordination of women. His analysis led him to conclude that the female sex was defeated with the evolution of private property. The earliest stage of human history was characterised by Engels as savagery, a stage prior to any class or gender divisions. Food gathering and hunting was the main activity and there was no marriage and no notion of private property. Ancestry was, therefore, through women. Thus, for Engels this is a stage in human history prior to patriarchy
With greater sophistication in tools, men started moving further afield to hunt while women stayed back to mind the children and take care of the homestead. This, to Engels, is the first instance of a sexual division of labour. He characterises this stage as barbarism. This paved the way for a shift away from ancestry based on mothers to one based on fathers. This meant that women had to be controlled, their sexuality regulated and monitored.
Marxist explanation of the origin of patriarchy argues that the primary contradiction in society is based on ownership of property and, hence, on class. Once women become part of the labour force and work towards abolition of private property, patriarchy would disappear. Most feminists today would also not be able to accept Engels’ contention that there was no material basis for women’s subordination in working-class families.
Radical feminists argue that patriarchy precedes private property. For radical feminists, the fundamental and original contradiction is between sexes and not between classes. They trace this to biological and psychological differences but do not believe that these differences are immutable. Radical feminists often talk about two systems of oppression: the sex class system and the economic class system.
Socialist feminists have tried to establish the connection between the sex class system and the economic class system. Unlike the radical feminists, they argue that patriarchy is not universal and unchanging. They contend that patriarchy interacts with the given economic system and in conjunction with other important factors, like ideology and culture, creates new and changing patriarchal ethos and practices. Unlike conventional Marxist theory, they do not argue that patriarchy emerged as a consequence of private property and would disappear with its abolition. For socialist feminists, the relations of production are as important as the relations of reproduction. For the radical feminists it is only the latter that has significance and for the Marxists only the former.
Patriarchy as a concept has been criticised for being essentialist, ahistorical and reductionist, and for being unable to deal with cultural diversities. These three charges are interlinked. To think of all men as oppressors at all times and in a position to control all women is an extremely static and ahistorical approach. The experiences of a woman who belongs to a minority community in India would vary greatly from the experiences of an upper-caste woman who belongs to the majority community, or the life of a poor woman in a slum cluster in a big city in India would be different from that of a woman who lives in one of the fashionable localities of our cities. Thus, patriarchy does not act alone; rather it acts along with other factors like caste, class or religion. Lerner argues that while it is a fact that women do bear children, their subordination is a social construct. Patriarchy uses this fact to justify and present women’s subordination as a natural fact.