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Patriarchal Cultures: Origin, History and Examples
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Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words
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Patriarchy — a word literally meaning "rule of the father" from ancient Greek — is a general structure in which men have power over women. From this, patriarchal culture or society describes a system where men are given authority over women in all aspects of society. Read on to find out what patriarchal cultures look like, what their history is, and where such societies persist today.

What is a patriarchal culture?

There are a number of characteristics that define a patriarchal system. They include: 

Male dominance

Men make all decisions in both society at large and their family units. They also hold all (or the vast majority of) positions of power and authority and are considered superior.

Male identification

Because of men's greater power in society, men are concerned with defining what makes someone "manly." This creates standards for male identification that includes qualities of control, strength, forcefulness, rationality, strong work ethic, and competitiveness.

Male centeredness

Men are the center of activity and progression in the society. They are the focus and developer of all events and inventions, the heroes in all situations, and the centers of social engagement, fun and entertainment.

Dualistic and gendered thinking of roles

Related to the above, patriarchy demands that men and women each have their own specific roles in society (e.g., men leading and women supporting).

Obsession with male control

Men living in a patriarchal system or society must be in control at all times. This includes controlling all social and family situations and being in charge of all decisions regarding finances and education.

History of patriarchal societies

According to NewScientist, the first human societies likely weren't patriarchal. When humans survived as hunter-gatherers, it wasn't a given that couples would move to be close to the man's parents (a phenomenon referred to as patrilocal residence, which is a hallmark of patriarchal societies). Instead, couples would move to live close to either set of "in-laws" or relocate away from both families. Thus, there was a degree of built-in egalitarianism because women in those earliest societies had the choice of support from the group they grew up with and the option to move away from oppression.

One school of thought argues that patriarchy emerged around 12,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and homesteading. As people began settling down and acquiring resources to defend, power shifted to the physically stronger males. Male relatives stayed close to each other, and property was shared and passed down the male line of heirs, eroding female autonomy.

With that said, for much of documented human society, male domination was accepted as fact. Thus, patriarchy wasn't even identified as a concept by early thinkers (unlike democracy, autocracy or oligarchy, which were identified and vigorously debated by the Greeks). The idea that male supremacy was "natural" was self-fulfilling, since men writing for the benefit of men were the ones writing laws, literature, philosophy, history, medical treatises and scientific texts.

Today, patriarchal culture and male-centric attitudes persist around the world. Zita Gurmai,  a Member of the Hungarian National Assembly, Vice-President of the Hungarian National Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and member of Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who advocates for gender equality and ending violence against women notes that to this day, "patriarchal culture is one of the biggest barriers in ending violence against women." Additionally, as many Third Wave feminists such as Rebecca Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga note, patriarchy today contributes to other forms of oppression, including racism, sizeism and homophobia.

Patriarchal cultures

Globally, patriarchy is the rule, rather than the exception. While there are a handful of small matriarchal societies scattered around the world, by and large, the world's societies remain patriarchies. However, even within that, there are a few places that are more rigidly patriarchal than others. These are a few of those places — one of them may surprise you:

India

Women in India have been denied opportunities for growth in the name of religion and socio-cultural practices. Thus, women in India have few freedoms even in their homes, hold an unequal and inferior status in society, and are subject to the rule of male heads of household (their fathers in their childhoods and their husbands after marriage). Youth Ki Awaaz, a platform for young India's voice on critical issues, reports that because of women's relatively low standing in Indian society, rape, murder, dowry, burning, wife beating and discrimination are all commonplace as the expression of male dominance over women. Additionally, girls are viewed as less valuable than boys, so many families will choose to under educate their daughters. As a result, India is one of the 43 countries in the world where the male literacy rate is at least 15 percent higher than the female literacy rate.

Peru

While physical abuse and violence against women is a problem worldwide, nowhere is it more of a problem than in Peru. In rural areas of the country, 61 percent of women have been victims of physical abuse. In the entire country, the World Health Organization reports that 52 percent of Peruvian women have been slapped by their partner. In a 1990 article in the academic journal "Women, Employment and the Family in the International Division of Labour" Alison MacEwen Scott observed seven patterns of patriarchy in the Peruvian working class, including low rates of female labor force participation (and even then only in certain types of "women's jobs") and high income inequality between the sexes.

The United States

Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, argues — and I, at least, agree — that the U.S. remains a patriarchal society.  Cohen argues that the U.S. remains a patriarchy because it's "ruled by men." By the numbers, this is undeniably true: as reported by Vox, only 24 Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs in 2018 (down from an all-time high of 32 in 2017); the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) reports that women hold only 23.7 percent of seats in the House of Representatives and 25 percent of Senate seats; and Cohen notes that among American families, only 6 percent of U.S.-born married women had surnames that differed from their husbands' in 2004.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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