Late last year, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Hannah Yeoh received a public comment on her Facebook profile asking her to wear lipstick to look the part of a minister.1 Yeoh responded to the comment saying, among other things, “No male politician would ever be told what cream they should put on their face and I expect nothing less than the same treatment accorded to the deputy ministers who are men.”2
Of all the social movements in the world, the fight against patriarchy has likely been among the most long-standing and globally widespread. Male dominance has been expressed in most of the world’s known civilisations for as far back as written records go,3 even in societies deemed to be egalitarian.4
In ancient Greece, for example, patriarchal ideologies manifested in the works of influential philosophers: Plato, who appears to have believed that men and women are equally deserving of education and capable of wisdom, also suggested that being born a woman is punishment for a man who, in his past existence, failed to live a righteous life;5 Aristotle believed that women are, in essence, morally, intellectually and physically – yes, physically – defective beings and so they should naturally be ruled by men, whom he thought to be perfect.6
In the East, much of China at the time was governed by the Confucius school of thought from which came the “Three Obediences and Four Virtues” that dictate whom women should obey and how women should behave.7 Following the development of this doctrine, for over 2,000 years, women in China were “deprived of their personal freedom and their right to live like human beings”.8
Religious texts have also been criticised for perpetuating the subordination of women. In critiques of the Bible, some feminists hold that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally patriarchal and any woman attempting to prove otherwise does so out of “sheer masochism and dependency”.9 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a feminist of the nineteenth century, believed that the patriarchal tone of the Bible simply stemmed from theological studies that were unjustifiably masculine.10 In 1898 she and a few others co-wrote and published The Woman’s Bible containing feminist revisions to chapters relating to or explicitly excluding women.11
Theologically, Islam describes equality among the genders, but laws of Islamic states often do not reflect this.12 Dr Azman Azwan Azmawati, who has been an active board member of the Centre for Research on Women and Gender (Kanita) for the last 15 years, argues that the issue lies not with the religion, but with who interprets and translates the text.
Azwan acknowledges that in Islam the man is the head of the family, “but being the head of the family doesn’t mean you kiss the ground that he walks on.” She maintains that in the Quran, men and women are equal, but the people responsible for spreading the word have taken it out of context. “They stop at where they understand it best suits them,” she says.
Patriarchy is continually sustained by our inclination to maintain the status quo. In Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the student population consists of 70% females and 30% males. “But who gets to be the head of the Student Representative Council? Boys. Year after year,” says Azwan, who is also an associate professor at USM. “Even in group work – I’m teaching the Magazine Production class and when they do their group work, they will always choose the boy as the editor,” she says.
But despite being forced to negotiate within the narrow confines of an authoritarian state, a steadily increasing number of Malaysian women are putting their collective feet down to fight the gender stratification that has, for a long time, placed women at a disadvantage.13
Perhaps a more effective approach for women to liberate themselves from patriarchy is to better understand its origins and how it came to be so deeply entrenched in our everyday lives.
Many feminist theories subscribe to the notion that patriarchy is entirely socially constructed. Liberal feminists say that the oppression of women stems from the gender-biased laws a society creates and which a capitalist democracy, through rational debate, will eventually come to rectify.14
Radical feminists believe that patriarchy is sustained by “unpaid domestic service of women in the home and by the exploitation of women’s bodies” through marriage, pornography and reproduction, to name a few.15 Marxist feminists hold that capitalism is the root cause of patriarchy by allowing the subordination of working-class women.16
The majority of feminists strongly criticise the idea of any biological influence in the development of the patriarchal system. However, it is important to recognise that biological theories do not necessarily imply that patriarchy is immutable.17 Barbara Smuts, a feminist and an evolutionary biologist, writes in The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy that the two sides of the coin complement each other in the struggle to eradicate patriarchy.18
She suggests that while feminist theory considers how men exert power over women, evolutionary theory explores why men want that power. She concludes that patriarchy is a result of strategies for human reproduction that have undergone elaboration due to the increasing complexity of our society and “the evolution of language and its power to create ideology.” Put succinctly, Smuts argues that if humans have the capacity to evolve a patriarchal system, we should also have the capacity to create an egalitarian one.
Over the millennia, we have become so accustomed to this system of inequality that many fail to realise that it is a product of our own creation. “I don’t blame those who are gender-biased unconsciously because they were never exposed,” Azwan admits, “but just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
In order to truly make a dent in the patriarchal system, we must affect a fundamental shift in the mindset of the people. “You cannot wait until the people are ready. You will just have to start moving and if it can start from the policy level, the change will be faster,” says Women and Family Development, Gender Inclusiveness and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee Chairman Chong Eng.
Another aspect of patriarchy we fail to realise is that in this very system that apparently glorifies males, boys are brutalised in ways we don’t acknowledge in order to prepare them for the role of superiority.19 These boys then grow up to become men who, to one extent or another, embody patriarchy that the next generation of boys will copy by social learning.
Miki Kashtan, author of Reweaving Our Human Fabric, equates patriarchy on human society to cancer on the human body. “Like cancer, it spreads and metastasizes. Like cancer, it has no capacity to care for the healthy cells that want to continue to live and die in peace. Like cancer, it is ultimately unsustainable.”20
In the end, patriarchy dooms men to live in lifelong emotional numbness and women to live in a constant state of oppression – and all for what?
Rahula Loh is a psychology graduate from Upper Iowa University with a mild obsession with brains. She dreams to have one preserved in a jar on a shelf one day.
3Adas, Michael. Agricultural And Pastoral Societies In Ancient And Classical History. Temple University Press, 2001, p.118.
4Ember, Carol, and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology. 13th ed., Pearson, 2010.
5Bar On, Bat-Ami. Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings In Plato And Aristotle (SUNY Series, Feminist Philosophy). State University Of New York Press, 1994.
9Ruether, Rosemary Radford. "Feminism And Patriarchal Religion: Principles Of Ideological Critique Of The Bible". Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament, vol 7, no. 22, 1982, pp. 54-66. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/030908928200702207.
12Azhari, Che Husna. "Emancipation, Women And The State: A Competing Agenda In The 20th Century Malaysia". Intellectual Discourse, vol 9, no. 2, 2001, pp. 127-144., https://journals.iium.edu.my/intdiscourse/index.php/islam/article/view/447.
13Ng, Cecilia et al. Feminism And The Women's Movement In Malaysia. Routledge, 2006.
14Almeder, Robert. “Liberal Feminism and Academic Feminism.” Public Affairs Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 4, 1994, pp. 299–315. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40435890.
15Ng, Cecilia et al. Feminism And The Women's Movement In Malaysia. Routledge, 2006.
17Smuts, Barbara. "The Evolutionary Origins Of Patriarchy". Human Nature, vol 6, no. 1, 1995, pp. 1-32. Springer Nature, doi:10.1007/bf02734133.