Although a valid conversation, feminism presents a critical dilemma. To question part of its narrative is to undermine its merit and entertain male chauvinists. To ignore its wrong arguments is to deepen fallacy. But ideas cannot be sacred enough for silence.
Feminist convictions differ, but there is a seeming consensus that patriarchy is that singular enemy of women emancipation. I argue that it is only a symptom, not the cause.
How did patriarchy begin?
Being unable to locate a definite one, let us imagine a theoretical inception of society, with two hypotheses.
One, there was equality of the sexes at start. Then at some point, men conspired and usurped power, shaping the system to their own benefit. To that end, they constructed a cultural architecture that held women down — patriarchy.
Two things are wrong with this hypothesis. In an equal setting, it would be difficult for one entity to monopolize power. You need inequality of resources and capabilities for a group to exert hegemony over another. It is similar to colonialism: a nation would not be colonized by its military and material equal.
Also, if there was original equality and men somehow rigged themselves into power, it is unclear how they managed to pull off that conspiracy on a global scale — from Africa to the West and across other patriarchal civilisations. First deduction: there was original equality but no proof of some global menfolk conspiracy against women.
The second hypothesis features equality at the outset in a ‘survival of the fittest’ context. In this case, we may suspect that early men, more than the women, saw a world in need of so much work and fell to task to build it. Responsibility! History tells of women who applied themselves equally to that intervention, albeit in numbers far surpassed by the men. From science to technology, politics, economy, and warfare, early men did much of the world’s work. Patriarchy is responsible for the glory of the developed world. [A retort has it that in Africa, it built superstitions instead.] Western patriarchy drove economic and scientific revolutions, midwifed technology, and built nations and the infrastructure that ran them.
The argument for natural selection also finds support in political thought. As Thomas Hobbes’s social contract theory would have us believe, man lived a “nasty, brutish and short” life in which might was right. Survival was by farming, hunting, and related corporal explorations better suited to masculinity. Therefore men, now providers and protectors of their offspring and family, also gained social mileage.
Work drives economy, which in turn drives power. In building the world, the early men found economic then political power, which they also tested in wars. Economic power, political power, military power — patriarchy.
Power reinforces inequality, wittingly or not, and its arena is not a moral landscape. Even in homes, when a woman does much of the crucial work for family survival and wellbeing, she may begin to wield enormous domestic influence.
Second deduction: Patriarchy is the result of survival and adaptation, choices, and voluntary role-playing that soon became acculturated. In other words, the benefit of early adventure and responsibility, aided by a conspiracy of nature.
Women started and enabled patriarchy?
Our foregoing deductions suggest to us that patriarchy could only have happened when one gender failed to take responsibility in a primordial, equal world. In parts of Europe with relative gender balance, women taking responsibility and therefore finding empowerment was part of the trick. This vindicates the claim that responsibility in a young world would have nipped inequality in the bud. Except where acculturated male privilege has found legal imprimatur, patriarchy can be undone by more women taking voluntary charge and finding economic power. The global dynamics of power have since shifted from the physical to the intellectual plane, giving women a competitive edge already being harnessed in the developed world.
This piece does not seek to excuse apparent gender inequality. It aims to illuminate the conversation and rid it of misplaced outrage. A persistent vexation with patriarchy, one that purports women innocence and fails to acknowledge the imperative of responsibility, will not deliver much. It is, again, like colonialism: nations won independence but, without robust nation-building and obligation, they are yet hamstrung by imperialism. Those that realized power is either organic or nothing, have since grown to compete with their colonisers
In fairness, it is simplistic to argue that feminist responsibility alone will uproot years of now entrenched injustice against women, especially in Africa. Yet the records should be set straight and origin made transparent. While at it, healthy engagement can continue for political and cultural restructuring; an engagement which recognizes that, while the patriarchal system embodies some cultural elements frustrating true gender equality, it cannot be dislodged if the factors that enabled it are ignored. Patriarchy is the complicated symptom of an ancient feminine apathy to risk-taking aided by some biological inequity. Rather than perpetrators, men are perhaps eventual, opportunistic beneficiaries that were initially victims of labour.
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