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OP-ED: How did we come to normalize the oppression of women?

  • Published at 03:01 am June 18th, 2021
violence against women

A brief history of patriarchal structures

There is hardly a day when I open daily newspapers and don’t come across news items about rape, domestic violence against women, torture for dowry, etc. Often, I wonder, has it always been this way? Or have we normalized the most abnormal things. 

The subject of gender equality and women’s rights comes up in any discussion about different social problems that we face. I don’t think it will be an exaggeration to say that the never-ending relevance of women’s rights issues in an illusory or truly developed world is a matter of shame for our apparent development. No matter if it is the so-called First or Third World. 

For starters, we must keep in mind that the subservient position of women in the modern patriarchal family structure hasn’t existed since the beginning of human history. It is the result of a long process of social evolution, which is quite complex in itself.  

For grasping the evolution of human social organization, one should study Ancient Societies, a phenomenal work by anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. There, Morgan presents his extensive research, and shows that even in the 19th century, there were Native American communities where women had great authority, and equality between the sexes prevailed too. Morgan particularly represented the Iroquois indigenous community.

Morgan divided the evolution of social organization into three specific phases. “Savagery” -- the hunter-gatherer period, “barbarism” when agriculture emerged as a mode of production, “civilization” -- technologically developed societies. 

Now, based on Morgan’s research, Friedrich Engels furthered the case of subjugation of women. Engels outlines in detail in his famous work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that it was the emergence of class society around 6000 years ago which initiated the process of bringing women to a position of serfdom. 

Engels explains, the time when agriculture became the main mode of production, different communities started to yield more than what they needed for their minimum survival from the environment. This then introduced the accumulation of surplus value and wealth. Furthermore, it also brought subjects such as exchange, profit, and private property into play.

The phenomenon of private property radically changed the relationship between men and women. Now there appeared a need to pass that property to the next generation. For which came forth the concept of family. Also, strict monogamy was put into place which confined the scope of sexuality. Moreover, without monogamy, a man couldn’t know if the child of his wife is also his. Marriage emerged as a social institution. 

So far, I don’t think there is any difficulty in comprehending that marriage is just a social construct that serves the purpose of property inheritance. Women’s role in it is just as an instrument of reproduction, nothing more. The woman herself becomes property belonging to the man. It creates two classes, the man and the woman, the latter exploited by the former for his purpose. 

In my conviction, I find the notion of love and affection being the sole foundation of marriage to be utterly naive and shortsighted. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche points out in his masterpiece The Will to Power that any emotional phenomena like love can never be the basis of any institution, whatsoever let alone marriage itself.

Considering love as the basis of the institution of marriage is an incredible illusion which gets shattered tragically when real life strikes hard. Even if we ignore the words of philosophers like Nietzsche we have reality evident before us. There are hundreds of examples around us where women are tortured, or abandoned for not being able to give birth to a child, or the child of her husband’s preferred gender. Not having children puts the inheritance of property under threat.  

If love is the only basis of the relationship between man and woman then why does society label children born out of “wedlock” to be illegitimate? Something they carry through their entire life as an irremovable stigma. Just because those children are born from parents that didn’t sign the piece of paper which could legitimize their lives, their very existence? One wonders: Why does the love between the man and the woman fail to legitimize the lives of these so-called illegitimate children? 

Now I must shed some light upon the counter-arguments that may get put forward. Such as women these days are getting highly educated, working in top positions, playing big roles, working alongside men, even leading governments, etc. 

But in this context, my focus is on what’s her position in the family -- has she become equal to her husband from being the inferior one? 

I believe nobody has forgotten Rumana Monzur, ex-assistant professor of Dhaka University. She was a brilliant woman with an extraordinary academic background, but did that change her position in her family, in her marriage? Although, she won her freedom from oppressive patriarchy with valour, it came at an extremely high price. She is just one of them. 

How did such exploitation of women become normalized? Jawaharlal Nehru mentioned in his book The Discovery of India that for a long time the women of the sub-continent have been inculcated with the idea that their only motto should be to preserve their chastity as losing it means a terrible sin. Such indoctrination still exists today, however in different forms. Otherwise, we wouldn’t witness victim-blaming when any rape incident takes place. 

What is to be done? In my opinion, women must learn the history of social organization, its evolution, and women’s contribution to it in different times of history. Otherwise, the rise of a united sense of awareness is not possible. We will see one group of conscious women marching whilst the other is still complicit with the de facto patriarchal structure.

Ratnadeep Toorja is a freelance contributor.