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Patriarchy is part of our heritage, but not to be celebrated

Professor Raymond Suttner

29th September 2014

By: Raymond Suttner

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We are encouraged to treat Heritage day as an occasion for celebration.  Heritage refers to inheritance, what has been bequeathed to us by our forebears and also what we transmit to future generations. 

Not everything in that legacy ought to be treated in a celebratory mode.
Heritage is complex and evokes a range of controversial questions; the status of monuments and individuals in our history, for example, are among many issues that arouse emotions and debate amongst heritage workers and the public. 

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One cannot simply erase the past, though we should contextualise legacies of oppressors differently from that of the oppressed or those who struggled for freedom.

One legacy that is still very much alive is that of patriarchy.   It “belongs” to all population groups in South Africa.  Patriarchy literally means rule by men.  It manifests itself in domination over women but also in policing the conduct of men. 

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When we engage patriarchy as heritage we need to engage with resistance to oppression of women as well, and also with men who do not conform to patriarchy’s notion of what “real men” should be.  Patriarchy is seen primarily in relation to gender, but it also depicts heterosexuality as the only “natural” form of sexual relations.

But patriarchy ought to be on the defensive.  There is now a legislative framework that supports gender equality and freedom of orientation, and outlaws gender and sexually based violence.

What we need in this enquiry is not just well-known forms of violence but also invisible sexual abuse of employees, starting under slavery and continuing under apartheid and in homes, businesses and even trade unions to this day. This is a form of gender violence that arouses little attention, yet it was and continues to be a fact of life. The employee has difficulty in resisting because the job is tied to the person in authority. 

There are laws but they are not always forced.  This signifies the need to build social weight, a constituency behind the right to gender equality and freedom of sexual orientation.  We need to ensure that this is instilled within the consciousness of all people. There needs to be an end to women expecting to be manhandled without a remedy and many men still exercising their “right” to take the bodies of any woman with impunity.

Other rights under the constitution are on firmer ground.  We need to bring social power into play, to find ways of strengthening the power of the law by organised support for gender and sexual rights.  There are a limited number of activist organisations around these issues. If we want to make a difference, men and women need to organise on a continuous basis – not just to mark special occasions but all the time, “breathing down the necks” of legislators, police and courts.  Authorities must sense that the public expect these rights to be realised.

Support for organisations needs to be conditional on their stand on these issues.  If invited to join or support an organisation, one must probe its record on gender and sexuality.  If an organisation says it is for radical change and ending poverty, we must ask how they stand on these questions.

While saying that patriarchy is found across all population groups we need to understand that its character varies according to class, race and ethnic group.  Historically, of course, we know that patriarchy itself may have had different meanings at different times. 

Feminists generally see the notion of the man “protecting” his wife and family as one of the manifestations of inequality. Under apartheid, however, men were often unable to protect their family.  They experienced this as disempowering. It meant that their family was subjected to various attacks that free men could have prevented. 

Thus Nelson Mandela regrets that he as “head of the household” was not there to defend his vulnerable family.  What this shows is that patriarchy is a complex concept and that it may sometimes carry more benevolent connotations, depending on the context.

But there remain differences today, despite all women having experiences in common. Patriarchy tends to consign women to the home. Wealthier women can employ other women to do tasks that ameliorate the burden of being the homemaker. This again varies between population groups, with white women generally being more accustomed to and better able to afford domestic workers.  But there are increasing numbers in other population groups who can afford to employ assistance.

That one outsources some of the work of the home does not mean one is relieved of the responsibility for the domestic sphere.  In some relationships men may share responsibility but in most cases it remains the responsibility of women.  Where the domestic worker fails to “perform” the wife may be chided.  The private domain is the place where she is in charge and ultimately confined.  But in addressing gender equality, we need to understand the differences in location that affect its impact.

Patriarchy is alive and well in South Africa.  We need to build a counterweight and ensure that rights to gender and sexual equality are realised and fully applied in law.

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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