Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Imagining the End of Patriarchy

Since the global recession began in late 2008, I’ve heard a lot of reports about how much harder it is on men than on women. According to Foreign Policy magazine, more than 80 percent of the job losses in the United States and Europe have disproportionately fallen on men, adding up to about 7 million more unemployed men than before the recession. The losses have mostly come from traditionally macho industries such as construction and high finance.

Many have taken this to sound the death knell for patriarchy. One article said it was the death of Macho – a certain kind of masculinity that prized dominance, reckless risk-taking, and aggressiveness. Hannah Rosin’s article in the Atlantic last month went a step further and proclaimed the beginning of a new era of woman. However, writing in the midst of what is undoubtedly a very male-dominated society, I fear that reports of patriarchy’s death may be greatly exaggerated.

I do agree that as the world becomes more globalized, more and more societies are going to have to shift to accommodate the contributions of women in the public sphere. The agrarian societies that required a gender-based division of labour and in which physical prowess was a main arbiter of power are disappearing – and they are not coming back. However, the societal shifts that are helping to liberate women are not happening everywhere.

In the West, which was far more affected by the global recession, the rise of female power is only accelerating an ongoing trend. Women have been steadily moving into the public sphere in American and European societies for the last 30 years. In Nigeria, feminism has only barely started to take hold – and only among certain classes in certain parts of the country. We are still outraged by the story of an aging senator whose fourth wife was a 13-year-old girl and the revered traditional monarch who brought armed thugs with him when he went to beat his wife in her own home. And many Nigerian women still expect to marry men who will “take care” of them financially.

But whether we like it or not, the world is changing and in the new global system, patriarchy simply does not work. The idea of a single powerful male single-handedly providing for a passive and dependant spouse is impossible when few men earn enough even to care for themselves. Our clinging to a system which even our ancestors did not practice in a bid to maintain a false sense of tradition, is doing us a disservice. It is placing men under an increasingly unrealistic burden of responsibility while keeping women out of a system that increasingly needs their input.

Western feminism may not mesh with aspects of African culture. A tradition which holds that a person’s most important legacy is leaving behind children who will remember them, cannot agree with Simone De Beauvoir’s view of marriage as a soul-crushing prison. So, we have to find a version of feminism that works for us.

Before colonialism, many Nigerian societies had their own avenues for female power. Among the Igbo, for instance, there were ways for women to become chiefs and own land in their own right. But the richness and complexity of these traditions were stripped away and we have been left with concepts that are poor, denuded versions of what they were.

And this is where imagination comes in. I think too often we writers fail to adequately tackle the issue of female empowerment. And when we do, it tends to come across as moralistic and trite. Plus, the burden is left solely to women, as if they are the only ones who have a stake in changing the system. For instance, Richard Ali’s review of Ahmed Maiwada’s new novel “Musdoki,” celebrated it as a tribute to traditional masculinity. Mr. Ali speaks so glowingly about the novel’s themes of male dominance and the fear of female emasculation that one would have almost thought the book was set in the 16th century, not modern times. People, we can do better.

As patriarchy becomes increasingly untenable, our society will need to find a new system. No one is advocating all-out female domination. I am of the opinion that matriarchy could ultimately be as destructive to men as patriarchy is to women. Instead, I think our future lies in devising a true equitable partnership between men and women.

What is needed is a society in which men and women are free to choose their paths without preconceptions of gender to box them in. A world in which men can be caring and nurturing without being a called weak and women can be assertive and powerful without being called domineering.

Writers, especially writers of speculative fiction, have an important role to play in this discovery. It is up to us to imagine the new order that we want to see. We can inspire the world to change, but before it can be, someone has to dream it.


  1. I love the idea you put forth and have thought about such things from time to time. Being male, I have worried whether a matriarchy will come to pass in a sort of spiteful wrath fixed against men. It's not that I only fear it, but have definitely met a few women who use their position to treat men less than they treat women. To me it's a question of the pendulum of human experience. So often we see one extreme disappear, a time of unrest as a new system takes hold, and then the other extreme fills the gap. I agree that no gender should hold dominance over another. In fact no person, regardless of any type of cultural or societal standing should stand above another in a world pf peace and harmony. Though I find myself weeping to the soul at the thought of how impossible that near Utopia seems to be.

    I love placing my protagonists on equal footing, though not equal in ability. It gives each character the space to fully realize dreams, go through trials, and succeed against all odds. Whether that protagonist be male or female.

    I would like to add, I am thoroughly enjoying your blog thus far and can't wait to read what you put down next. Thank you.

  2. Chinelo,

    Great post! Three things quickly:

    1) so glad you mentioned Richard's essay here. I found it equally problematic but was too internet-exhausted when he posted to respond.
    2) Molara Ogundipe-Leslie has some wonderful writing in the same vein. I'm thinking particularly of her essay "Stiwanism: Feminism in an African Context" and a more recent lecture (the title of which I am forgetting right now.) If you haven't already read her, I highly recommend.
    3) Reading this made me think of an article I read in the Daily Trust yesterday (yeah, I know I know your opinion of that paper.... lol) "Female senators ask Bankole to reinstate Doris Uboh," in which basically "eight women senators" claim that the way in which Rep Doris Uboh was dragged out of the House of Representatives during the recent hubub in the House "dragged by one man, aided by a woman" was "against international conventions on the rights of women in politics" and "a set back on the drive for women's advancement," calling on "leaders of legislatures in the country to treat women lawmakers with decorum and restraint." The article bothered me because it seemed that this sort of trite focus on what looked like to me equal treatment of the male and female "honourables" being dragged out of the house was reinforcing old conventions of treating women gently "like ladies" rather than as equals. If Rep Doris Uboh was being disruptive along with her male colleagues, then why should she recieve special treatment because she is a woman. A complaint of this sort seems counterproductive and even harmful to the larger goal of "equitable partnership."

    Anyway, excellent post. I'll keep checking back for more! :-)

  3. @Carmen, I totally agree with you on the Doris Uboh protest. I saw it as more of a political campaign dressed in feminist clothing in the same vein as Sarah Palin crying 'sexism' whenever people attempted to critique her arguments. We have a long way to go.

    @Brendan, always, thanks man!

  4. Lovely post. Keep it up! I hope we get to that Utopia someday soon.