A Lesson on the Meaning of Patriarchy: An Excerpt from "Bring Rain"

Sarah Petrin, Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, shares an excerpt from her book, "Bring Rain: Helping Humanity in Crisis."

I have worked on issues of violence against women for more than twenty years. Yet I continue to wonder, what makes the world so unsafe for women? When I try to understand root causes of violence, I think back to a class I took in college.

On the first day of my Women and World Politics class, my professor was trying to  explain the concept of patriarchy. It was 1998 and I had never heard this word before. 

Dr. Sen explained that it meant the world is designed by men, for men, that all possessions and property, all legal entitlement, the identity of children, were passed through men, not women. That women did not have the same freedom as men. Even with her vivid explanation of the word, I had to look up the definition several times: 

Patriarchy: social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power. — Merriam-Webster Dictionary 

The class studied patriarchy, focusing on societies where women had little to no power over decisions affecting their lives, such as where they lived, who they married, when they had children, and how much money they made or whether they could work. 

Every student in Dr. Sen’s class was given an independent research assignment to explain patriarchy in a particular place. I focused my project on the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban were stoning women to death for teaching girls to read. This was the worst form of patriarchy I could find. My research tracked how the Taliban used violence against women to take control of Afghanistan, instilling fear in the population town by town. 

When I presented my research to the class, Dr. Sen explained that patriarchy is much subtler than this extreme case. She said patriarchy is more nuanced than stoning women to death in a public square or refusing to let girls get an education. It means that women take on the male name in the family they marry into, and that property is passed down through male heirs. In Biblical times it meant the widow of a dead man became the property of his brother. 

Dr. Sen continued to explain that in many societies today, even as it was back then, “Women are a possession to be owned, sold, bartered and traded in exchange for goods or services.” 

When Dr. Sen finished telling the class that I had not quite understood what patriarchy meant, I told her, “But here in America, women are free to own ourselves.” She didn’t agree. 

Today, I have a deeper understanding of Dr. Sen’s message. Even in the United States men play a dominant role in public and family life. Women are the primary caregivers of children and older relatives. They still do the lion’s share of household work. Yet many decisions that have a significant impact on women’s lives are made by men. This subtle form of control is often unrecognized and unacknowledged, leading to systemic inequalities. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 women earned only .83 cents for every $1 earned by a man for the same work. This wage gap leads women to work longer and harder to earn the same amount as men. Male politicians make decisions about women’s health care, determining their access to birth control and childcare services. Women have had to fight for their rights, including the right to vote and own property, while men are freely given these opportunities. Men and women who don’t conform to gender stereotypes, including people who identify with multiple genders or no gender at all, face discrimination and abuse. These gender dynamics reflect patriarchal values that have been passed down from generation to generation. 

The Rise of Me Too 

In late 2016, several major events led to the rebirth of the women’s movement in the United States. The fiercely contested presidential election and the resurgence of conservative leadership which followed led to millions of women marching on Washington, DC, across the country and around the world, showing solidarity and support for women’s equality. 

At the same time, cases of sexual assault in the sports and entertainment industry led to the rebirth of the “Me Too” movement where thousands of women took to social media to share their experiences of being sexually assaulted and harassed.  The result was a renewed awareness and greater acknowledgment of the magnitude of the problem. 

Unequal power relations between men and women is a social construct that is reinforced by culture and belief systems. It is not always manifested in gross human rights violations such as rape and war crimes. Rather, gender inequality is about the small ways in which power dynamics within a society favor men over women, even within the family and at the household level. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes acts of violence against women as a pattern of behavior that violates the rights of women and girls. Thus, the way to end violence against women is to disrupt this pattern, preventing discrimination at every level, especially within the home and society at large. 

How Can We Stop the Violence? 

First, both men and women need to recognize that this discrimination occurs, then they need to work together to end it. Gender discrimination occurs in the home and the workplace, affecting the productivity of society. 

How male relatives view gender roles within the family is a critical factor in the likelihood of a woman being devalued or abused or valued and self-empowered. Within the workplace, too often men help other men pursue economic and career opportunities at the expense of women who qualify for the same positions. If more men championed women’s’ contributions at work, regardless of their personal interests, women would have a more equal chance of success. 

Numerous times in my career men offered to help me pursue a raise or job in exchange for sex, including one senior United Nations official who threatened to withhold millions of dollars from “my refugee camps” if I refused to sleep with him. 

Thankfully, I was able to tell him that my programs did not need the money. Young men rarely have this problem. This abuse of power is so widespread that the U.S. instituted sexual harassment laws to prevent systematic discrimination against women in the workplace. In addition to treating women as equals, men can be, and should be, powerful champions who encourage their success. 

Some men do not understand how gender discrimination manifests itself today. They deny the need for women’s rights and for the rights of those who are gender non-conforming within the gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) community. Take the time to learn more about the lexicon of gender identities.

Men who do take the time to listen to female friends, colleagues, and family members know better. Gender dynamics are passed down from generation to generation and negative attitudes are manifested at home, work and throughout society in numerous ways. 

“No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the natural rights of another, and this is all from which the law ought to restrain him.” – Thomas Jefferson 

Violence against women occurs because it is socially acceptable. Societies that devalue women in small ways become numb to the erosion of women’s rights on a larger scale. 

Thus, the best way to pursue gender equality is to have respect for men and women, giving them equal rights and legal benefits regardless of sex and sexual preference. 

By virtue of their gender, men have a unique role to play in advancing the human rights and dignity of all people. Male authority figures, heads of households and heads of government, can support changes in gender norms by respecting women and holding one another accountable to higher standards of behavior. 

As a society, we must respect the rights of women and girls and provide opportunities for their advancement. We have the evidence about what works to prevent sexual violence within our communities and workplaces, we only need to apply it. The U.S. Center for Disease Control guide to preventing violence cites numerous studies which  show that as women’s income and access to education increase, incidents of violence within the home decrease. The economic and social advancement of women leads to healthy self-esteem, the benefits of which are passed on to children who have high expectations of themselves and a bright outlook on their future. 

What You Can Do 

You may know someone who has experienced sexual violence or discrimination based on sexual orientation. There are no easy answers on how to end the problem, but here are some preventative measures to consider. 

One thing you can do is speak up about patriarchy and violence. Talk about sexual violence with your friends and family members. Explain that sexual violence is about power dynamics and social relations, not pleasure. Help people understand that the abuse is not their fault. Encourage people to talk to someone they can trust when something bad happens. 

Second, be prepared to act when you see someone being verbally assaulted or physically attacked. Try to stop the perpetrator and ask people around you to help. Call social services and stand by the victim. Be willing to take someone to the hospital, listen to a story, and offer your support. You can also share information about the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) national hotline with someone in need.  

Lastly, men have a powerful role to play. Men can champion women’s rights by being caring friends, coworkers, and life partners. Help redefine masculinity beyond paradigms of power and control. Reinforce the message that strong men don’t physically hurt or verbally abuse women. Don’t discriminate, implicitly or tacitly. Allow men and women to express their gender identities with full respect for their human rights and basic freedoms. 

Your awareness of your own gender identity and respect for all persons can help protect people from harm. By being aware of the needs around you and being ready to act when the situation arises, you can change a life. When you change one life, you will see that you too, can change the world. 

Sarah Dawn Petrin is the author of Bring Rain: Helping Humanity in Crisis, a guide for how to make difference in the world based on her humanitarian career in more than 20 countries over 20 years. Petrin is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the Senior Director of Consulting at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.