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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