Living in a Patriarchal Society

Maida Aboud Image in LockerThe Lebanese society – such as most Western Asian societies – can be easily labeled as patriarchal. Males have central roles of political leadership, moral authority, religious authority, economical power and property. Sad reality in the 21st century C.E., especially when anthropological and historical evidence indicates that most prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies were generally relatively egalitarian. Our dear Cro-Magnon ancestors were a lot more advanced in matters of gender equity… Many ancient civilizations in Western Asia (including Canaanite, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Persian…) were characterized by a diversity of status, roles and  situations regarding women. One cannot summarize this diversity in one label. Pagan religions – where goddesses were worshiped – allowed the existence of highly ranked women in religious institutions and the invocation of female attributes for the preservation and evolution of a society. In ancient Egypt for example, a middle-class woman might sit on a local tribunal, engage in real estate transactions, and inherit or bequeath property. Women also secured loans, and witnessed legal documents.

Inequalities certainly prevailed, partly based on negative perceptions of female virtues: ordering the house, keeping what is indoors and obeying the husband. The works of Aristotle – translated in Arabic and disseminated in our region centuries ago -, portrayed women as morally, intellectually, and physically inferior to men; saw women as the property of men; claimed that women’s role in society was to reproduce and serve men in the household; and saw male domination of women as natural and virtuous. With the advent of Christianity, women were supposed to attain a considerably higher social status. Jesus took men and women disciples, including socially unacceptable such as former prostitutes. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is hailed by Christians and Muslims as the most admirable and honored human being. The first disciples to discover the empty tomb were women. Still, patriarchal interpretation of Christian scriptures were commonly accepted and passed down from generation to generation.

In today’s Lebanon, there are women who fight for their rights. Few liberties were gained. There are households headed by women; women became part of the workforce, and at least half of university students are women. However, Lebanon is said to be a ‘man’s world’, men make the rules and dominate in all forums – except for morning gatherings (sobhhyat). A woman’s main value is to support a man (behind every good man is a good woman), bear children and housekeeping duties – or being an expert in shopping, social relations and plastic surgery techniques. Men usually use bureaucracy (state agency, corporation, trade union…) to sustain their power over women. This can take place in several ways:

-“formal exclusion of women from top positions;
– discrimination against women in hiring and promotion;
– promoting conformity to the bureaucratic values of emotional aloofness and technical rationality as a means of deterring or restraining women who operate best in an environment providing emotional support and opportunities for cooperative work;
– creation and maintenance of gender-linked job categories, which tie women into lower-level positions;
– maintenance of male career patterns which require mobility, full-time work and no interruptions (for child-bearing);
– -maintenance of on-the-job work organization which excludes integration of child-rearing and work, and opposition to alternatives such as independent work at home, or neighborhood-based decentralized office arrangements;
– -supporting other elite groups with similar practices, such as when trade union elites do not protest against corporate sexism;
– lobbying and applying political pressure to maintain policies that keep women in subordinate positions”.

In this way, bureaucracy is mobilized by men to support patriarchy. The domination of men over women does not occur in the abstract. In this case it operates via the unequal power distribution within bureaucracies.

It becomes obvious that something is lacking in today’s Lebanese society – and that something is the female creativity, intelligence, confidence, strength, rationality, care and respect for life. Women do have more power and opportunities, but they still have far to go to counter centuries of cultural bias. I wouldn’t advocate for a Matriarchal society. Surely a more advanced Lebanon would be one where women and men work equally with the qualities they each possess in building a balanced, humane society.

The immediate goal is removal of formal inequalities such as unequal pay, lack of support facilities such as childcare and gender-linked job categories. Another goal is fair representation of women within bureaucracies, professions, corporations, political parties, trade unions and religious institutions. By helping to undercut dominance of men over women within organizations, liberal feminist action of this sort can to some degree weaken the existing power distribution. In a social environment in which explicit discrimination against women is illegitimate, the use of patriarchal inequality to bolster bureaucratic and other power structures is made more difficult. First, women should get into positions of power, and second, they should implement changes in organizations to undercut hierarchy and inequality. Struggles for equality within present structures cannot be a substitute for structural change, but they can be an important part of struggles for such change. Also, another strategy is based on changing the attitudes and experiences of individuals, men and women. Thus the importance of education. The aim is to increase women’s assertiveness, overcome submissiveness, learn new skills and generally build confidence and ability. Equality cannot be attained simply by removal of barriers. Women must be able to work for their own interests and for a partnership with men. The next step would be to organize groups or movements to overcome organized patterns of discrimination and oppression.

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