/ 7 August 2023

What does patriarchy actually mean?

(John McCann/M&G)

It’s Women’s Month in South Africa and some of us will be hearing the word “patriarchy” more frequently than usual. But what does it actually mean? The term “patriarchy” has become what philosophers would call a “panchreston”, meaning that it is used as an attempt to explain a complex idea, but explains nothing at all. 

Yet, it has a clear etymology and derives from the Greek word for “patriarch”, which means “rule of the father”. The notion of a father ruling pertains to the traditional role played by adult males in their extended families or male heads of a community. They are elders in terms of age, charged with the responsibilities of leading, dispute resolution, wealth creation and preservation, towards protecting and providing for the family or community. 

When one considers that most African societies as recently as a century ago, lived according to a communitarian system, and that the nuclear family is a relatively Western configuration, a patriarch was not merely any adult male or a husband to one wife. In fact, most men were also under the custodianship of their patriarch, and not only women and children. 

For example, when a man decided to get married, he needed his elders to grant him permission (or not), to facilitate the provision of a dowry, and to represent him to the family of the bride-to-be. They also negotiated the terms of lobola or bogadi on his behalf, which contrary to the English translation “bride-price”, is not a transaction but a series of rituals to forge a union between the two families. So, it was not only the bride and wife who was handed over in marriage by her patriarchs, the man also required patriarchal custodianship to become a groom and husband. This a custom that remains today among many African ethnic groups. 

When the term “patriarchy” is used in contemporary times to connote general male hegemony or male domination, this does not account for male subordination under patriarchy. However, what it denotes — male privilege — in both its interpersonal and systemic forms, is at the core of female rebellion against patriarchy and male anxiety about women empowerment. 

Many African scholars, with Oyeronke Oyewumi as the foremost example, argue that gender is a Western construct because in African culture, seniority is configured according to age rather than biological sex. As such, both males and females have the opportunity to be leaders in their families and communities when they become elders. 

Other scholars take this argument further and contend that some African societies were matriarchal before Western incursion. This meant that birthright, leadership and inheritance were transmitted through the female line.

In contemporary times, a new argument in this respect is that African American communities and many urban Black communities globally, are matriarchal by default because of the high incidence of Black male incarceration, unemployment and death. The argument here is that (patriarchal) white hegemony and white supremacy target Black males to prevent them from advancing in society and building functional families.

These three positions in the debate that I mention, challenge the allegations that all African/Black men are patriarchs, who enjoy various privileges because of their masculinity, and that many of them in anti-black societies seek to emulate the kind of individualistic patriarchal power supposedly wielded by white males. 

Arguably, patriarchy served a systemic purpose in traditional African and some Western societies dating back centuries, as a responsibility-based position of authority. But in contemporary society birthed by three industrial revolutions, individualism, capitalism and an influx of women into the public sphere, family-centric patriarchy has morphed into a generic rights-centric sense of male entitlement. As such, patriarchy no longer operates in the context of a communalistic system, but is now a watered-down individualistic pursuit of power. Strictly-speaking this is not patriarchy.

In other words, whether or not the man is a provider, protector and qualified leader of a family or community, they insist on respect and deference from all women they encounter. This is the new face of “patriarchy” that some women are rejecting because it demands certain rights, but does not comply with the reciprocal responsibilities. South African anthropologist and activist Elaine Salo insists that patriarchal myths nurture the delusions of grandeur and power that many men suffer from and that encourage their sense of entitlement to female submission.

Another South Africa academic, politician and businesswoman, Mamphela Ramphele, offers some insight into this novel version of African patriarchy during the 1970s and 1980s when she was one of the leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement. She claims that Black women occupied a unique role of being oppressed by both the apartheid system and Black men. She found that the male-biased liberation movement focused mostly on the systemic oppression of Black men, while sidelining the plight of Black women. 

Although Ramphele contested male domination in much the same way that Black feminists and women’s rights activists do today, she also made the uncomfortable acknowledgement that women at times perpetuate gender inequality. This happens particularly in the household domain, where they sacrifice their own needs so that they can be valued and admired for the cumbersome responsibilities that they carry as caregivers of men and children. Ramphele explains that one of the dividends they got was a form of agency or autonomy in the domestic sphere, even though they usually complained about the burden. 

South African feminist scholar Pumla Dineo Gqola theorises this ironic role of the “traditional woman” as the self-sabotaging “cult of femininity” that is so well constructed that it operates in both traditional and progressive female spaces because it defines “femaleness” and “womanhood”. Contrary to the accusation that modern Black women have rejected femininity because they are competing with men, many have had to reluctantly take on traditionally male responsibilities because their Black male partners or custodians are falling short or have abandoned them. However, while in this ambivalent space, at times they assume traditionally feminine gender roles if they will be rewarded, and at other times, they reject them because the men in their lives have proven to be inconsistent and incompetent. 

What keeps the individualistic variant of patriarchy intact is the entrenched notion that men cannot be challenged or contradicted because they are volatile, and so women should never make a man angry, otherwise their anger offers justifiable grounds for violence. According to Gqola, to keep the violence of men at bay, women are taught passivity and submission. Some end up becoming what African American feminist bell hooks refers to as “patriarchal females” because they uphold and protect male whims. 

African American philosopher Tommy J Curry is not convinced that Black males aspire to patriarchal power over women in the way that he claims their white counterparts do. He finds it strange that Black men and women have been subjected to the same history of slavery, colonisation and anti-black racism, yet curiously, the Black feminist claim is that Black men have latched on to the same individualistic patriarchy exercised by their (former) oppressors, while Black women have not. 

He insists that instead of being privileged and protected by (white) patriarchy, Black men and boys are revealed to be its greatest victims under closer examination. Curry, however, speaks of the American context and thus does not account for African patriarchy that predates slavery, and lives on in various manifestations in contemporary Africa. 

I have not spoken exhaustively about what patriarchy is and is not. I have merely attempted to highlight that the term “patriarchy” has become shorthand for explaining a disjuncture between the rights and responsibilities that traditionally came with a male occupying this role. Therefore, when many speak of patriarchy, they are actually referring to the collective delusion of individual male entitlement, where men are seeking validation and affirmation but without reciprocity. 

Dr Sarah Setlaelo is a management consultant and author. She has a PhD in philosophy and a qualification in African Feminist and Gender Studies from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.