A debate of the sexes in pursuit of making sense of patriarchy: culprits, victims and spectators

A debate of the sexes in pursuit of making sense of patriarchy: culprits, victims and spectators

By: Mathe Maema* and Oumar Ba**

We, as Bokamoso contributors/editors, have decided to debate why as members of the opposite sex self-interest may make us see patriarchy differently. Part of the rules of the debate is for the sister to strive to make her argument short and sweet (for this sister can be verbose), while the brother is expected to possibly sweat in defence of the argument presented to him. Just so we are clear:  the brother is on the defence because in any debate there is a party for and against; incidentally, we are both against the system, we were spurred into an engagement after failure to find a representative word for patriarchy in our own mother tongue languages—a word that we can say has its roots in pre-colonial era.

The sister’s perspective—the culprits and spectators

 As a preamble to my argument, I will start with a quote used in setting the tone for this current blog theme, “The personal is the political: love, sex and gender in the postcolony”, inspired by the work of Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, which reads as follows: “… colonialism did not only produce a racialised African subject but that it also reconfigured the ways men and women related to one another by introducing a ‘European system of hierarchy of the sexes in which the female sex is always inferior and subordinate to the male sex.’”

I found the quoted statement profound beyond measure, a reminder that we have reclaimable historical gems from pre-colonial times. In relation to the debate, it provoked a sense that patriarchy exists more or less in a way that God (by whatever name we may use, ‘Thlatlha-Macholo’ in old Sesotho) exists. Please be patient, I am not trying to start another debate here. The point I am attempting to make—however, inarticulately—is that once we presuppose that God exists, the idea that God can ask why he is Almighty becomes mute. In a patriarchal system, I argue that the conditioning of men, which positions them in the supreme role, blinds many into not seeing the unfairness of the system. By just being in that role, it becomes an unnatural expectation for them to interrogate their position, when seemingly there is so much to lose than gain. (Of course, at this point, if my brother sees how my argument possibly mimics that of race privilege, then he surely concedes that nothing beats self-interest as a motivator and driver of change.)

 Assuming a concession is not forthcoming, I argue that it is through “enlightened” self-interest (motivated by radical humanism) that men begin to see patriarchy as societal problem, which, for example, cultivates the culture of rape and violence through the hopelessness it instils when the ideal of dominance over others seems unattainable. In my mind, because there is a huge difference between “enlightened” and “personal” self-interest, males and females see and experience the effects of the patriarchal system differently–-and the same is also true for those who do not fit into a gender binary. The hierarchy brought by the system makes it virtually impossible, even for the men that wear the tag of ‘traditionalist’ to see the wisdom in the old pre-colonial cultural practices, where women and men performed different roles without the assumption that one was more superior than the other.

The brother’s perspective—the ground zero is where the problem lies

The sister argues that patriarchy raises men to a pedestal from which self-interest makes them unlikely to take steps that would challenge the system, and thus alter the patriarchal structure. I argue that this line of thought obfuscates the agency of the women and their (active) role in building and sustaining the patriarchal system. The sister’s position rests on shaky grounds insofar as it does not view patriarchy for what it is at its core: patriarchy is not about men being at a higher position, and clinging on to their privileges. At its core, patriarchy is a system of positioning in which both men and women have defined shared and respective privileges and responsibilities. Patriarchy is as much a making of men as of women. Patriarchy is beneficial (and harmful) to both men and women, although one can argue to different degrees (and that is another debate).

Having established that the grounding of what patriarchy is in reality, I can now posit that it is not “self-interest,” as argued by the sister, which makes men unlikely to challenge the system. To state it plainly, it is not men’s self-interest that perpetuates patriarchy simply because patriarchy is not built and maintained only by men. In fact, I argue that the ground zero of patriarchy is located in the nuclear family structure, which is not solely the chasse-gardée of men. In this family setting, mothers and grandmothers teach boys and girls not only their gender roles, but also the expectations and privileges that are inherent to the patriarchal system. In this private sphere, the girl is often taught, for example, that her daily chores include washing the dishes, and that she is entitled to the protection of her brother while walking to school, and not the opposite. At the societal level, we teach the sons that they ought to take up arms, when needed, to defend the homeland. My point here is not to discuss the privileges that patriarchy distributes to respective members of the family or society; my main argument is that we all (men and women) build and reinforce the patriarchal system. This means that it cannot just be self-interest that leads men to fail to view patriarchy as a societal problem.

 A rebuttal by the sister—the complicity of the spectators

My brother makes many valid points. We are all prisoners of the patriarchal system. Women who are awake to this reality have been reflecting and attempting to find ways in which to institute, for example, a ‘new socialisation programme’ for a transformed society. This is a big undertaking (often with very few men helping) that shows the energies of women in attempting to breakout of the chains of patriarchy. But assuming we completely ignore the issue of agency of women, one question to ask is: how are (the majority of) men actively showing their agency in dealing with this societal problem? Are they sufficiently motivated to dare think that they can shoulder the problem even if women were to come late to the party? That is, make it their problem to question why a sister would need to be the one washing the dishes or walking to school with male protection?

No obfuscation of matters here; it is definitely easy to see that women are the leaders in the fight against forms of patriarchy—precisely because of self-interest. So, self-interest either way is an issue.

In my mind, it is enlightened self-interest that gets more men engaged in demolishing patriarchy as a system. Without this enlightenment, I argue that the idea of women pandering to the needs of men is so hypnotic that self-interest becomes a motivator for men to protect the status quo. To get a sense of how hypnotic it is, there are some men who easily make negative generalisations about women only to (momentarily) breakout out of a spell that incentivises them to engage with the status quo through a simple utterance: “your mother is a woman”!

Speaking from personal experience, I have made such an utterance and received a threatening response, to say the least. What does this say? Doesn’t it say that,  at a minimum, self-interest (of the personal variety) is blinding and a definite barrier for such men to imagine the world differently? Does it say unless it is their very own sisters, mothers, aunts and daughters on the receiving end of what patriarchy allows as acceptable that such men would find nothing wrong with the status quo? My brother, how many such men do you think exist?

The brother gets the last word (Patriarchy, right?)—culprits and victims together in the patriarchal ‘battlefront’?

I agree with the sister: the majority of men fail to recognize the pervasive nature of patriarchy. These men are unwilling to (or even fail to see the need to) engage in the project of demolishing patriarchy. Whether it is through the process of ‘enlightened’ interest that we can embark these men in this fight or not, is just one among many other challenges that we face.  Let me stress the fact that the majority of women also fail to engage in this project.  Indeed, women’s voices are growing to challenge the status quo, but for the vast majority of women, at this point, this project is not theirs.

I contend that patriarchy ought to be challenged first and foremost in the private sphere.  To that end, I argue that mothers and grandmothers must be at the forefront of the struggle in educating the young boys and girls.  Until this is achieved, it would not be fair to view men as the defenders of the status quo. Fathers and grandfathers must be on board in this struggle to build more equitable families and societies; but the focus ought to be about both challenging men in their comfort zone as well as challenging women’s attitudes and their contribution in the building and sustaining of patriarchy.

Conclusion—love or freedom is mutual growth and self-actualisation

Patriarchy is definitely an ugly and complicated beast: one which we all may wittingly and unwittingly continue to “feed”. This said, it is important that we continue to engage in order to understand how we can create a society, which if it must be defined by a system, that system is free of sexism and all the “isms” that make it impossible to achieve equality and fairness for all. Perhaps, this means all of us engaging from a vantage point of enlightened and indeed visionary self-interest, where we can see the mutual benefits of building such a society. A society that inherently recognises that love or freedom lies in mutual growth and self-actualisation of all beings in the various relationships that they have with each other.

*Mathe Maema is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.

**Oumar Ba is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF regular contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.


Mathe Ntšekhe (former Maema) is a postgraduate student in the Department of Computer Science at Rhodes University. She is passionate about development and women issues.

One Response to A debate of the sexes in pursuit of making sense of patriarchy: culprits, victims and spectators

  1. One important missing point is that the example of patriarchy given by our brother presupposes that men and women “equally” benefit. This is not the case. The “benefits” women gain from a patriarchal system are the benefits that maintain that system (ie a woman needs to be protected from men by her men… Patriarchy perpetuates war,violence, separation supports the need for women to be protected more than men from men).

    Second though it is true that men and women support patriarchy, it is absurd to demand the main change agents be women when women are the victims of patriarchy. It’s like saying that racism is the fault of the oppressed race because some folks have internalized racism. And that racism will only be fixed when the oppressed group learns to stop oppressing themselves. There is truth to the idea but if for example all women lost their internalized sexism, there would still be patriarchy and sexism from men. Why am I so sure? Because when women DO speak out against sexism and patriarchy as the sister mentioned they are labelled as extremists, hystrionic, man hating. So even when women to show their agency, the system has a built in answer for her too. Furthermore, this system not only benefits men but was created and is sustained by a mans agenda (even though men women and children often inadvertently perpetuate said agenda). If men don’t lead the fight against patriarchy the system CANNOT topple, as this notion is far to revolutionary.

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