Patriarchy concept in Middle East


Abstract

Gender systems are present in all societies and often the issue of gender inequality is a common phenomenon. Countries in the Middle East are particularly recognized as the ancestral homes to patriarchal structures. In this region, gender as a social construct works within and continues to be shaped by patriarchal systems. The presence of women in the public realm and their representation in the public sphere is low. They continue to face enormous challenges including being denied a right to vote, right to work, and being sexually harassed. Despite the fact that the ingrained patriarchal attitudes have for many years undermined and belittled the value and intelligence of women; only in the recent years that issues of masculinity have been examined.

In view of the above, this paper examines the concept of patriarchy as it operates within the family and within the state in the Middle East. The paper examines how masculinity in the Middle East has continued to undermine the position of women and their well-being as well as their participation in the political and public sphere. The paper also examines how a repressive regime, as seen with women’s movement today, has led to women emancipation and shifted the terms of the patriarchal bargain. Examples will be linked to three different countries: Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Introduction

Gender systems are present in all societies and often the issue of gender inequality is a common phenomenon (Fadia 2001). But not all societies are patriarchal. Countries in the Middle East are particularly recognized as the ancestral homes to patriarchal structures. The status of women in this region is very low as measured by such indicators such as literacy levels, sex ration, fertility rates, labour force participation and educational attainment (Moghadam 1998). In fact Caldwell, a demographer, has labelled the Middle East region, South Asia and North Africa as constituting the “patriarchal belt” (Caldwell 1982).

In the Middle East region, gender as a social construct works within and continues to be shaped by patriarchal systems (Moghadam 1998). The presence of women in the public realm and their representation in the public sphere is low. They continue to face enormous challenges including being denied a right to vote, right to work, and being sexually harassed (Hafez 2012). Despite the fact that the ingrained patriarchal attitudes have for many years undermined and belittled the value and intelligence of women; only in the recent years that issues of masculinity have been examined (Hafez 2010).

In view of the above, this paper examines the concept of patriarchy as it operates within the family and within the state in the Middle East. The paper examines how masculinity in the Middle East has continued to undermine the position of women and their well-being as well as their participation in the political and public sphere. The paper also examines how a repressive regime, as seen with women’s movement today, has led to women emancipation and shifted the terms of the patriarchal bargain.

The concept of patriarchy

Patriarchy is perhaps one of the most widespread theories around women movements today (German 2006). It takes various forms and the idea underlying it, that of sexism or male domination, has existed for a long time. It is not a product of capitalism and endures beyond capitalism. This is evident through the existence of patriarchal systems in societies other than those of western capitalism. Women’s oppression is evident in the so-called socialist societies. Given that patriarchy undermines the status of the women and subsequently leads to their oppression; its rejection is welcomed and greeted with genuine amazement (German 2006).

Before we examine how patriarchy operates in the Middle East, it is important to first define this concept. The term “Patriarchy” can be given a varied set of definitions. A widely recognized definition of Patriarchy is that of a specific society in which the father who is known as the “the patriarch’, rules over the women and young men in the family (German 2006). Such a society depends on peasant or artisan production and the patriarch’s power is derived from his wealth possession and ownership of land (German 2006). However, in most cases when the term is used, it is often not in reference to such a historically specific society. Even the vaguest patriarchy theorists recognize that we no longer live such a peasant society (German 2006).

Hatmann (1979) has put forth a succinct definition of patriarchy as a set of social relations between men, which have a material base and which, enable them to have power and dominate over women. As she points out, the material base upon which patriarchy rests lies fundamentally in the control over women’s labour power (German 2006). By denying them access to economically productive resources, men are able to maintain dominance over women.

 In patriarchal societies, there exists a distinction between public and private spheres in terms of power relations. In the private sphere, male dominates over the household including dominating over women, children and the young men (German 2006). But in the public sphere, the male patriarchs share power among themselves and are allowed to hold any formal public position of political, ideological, economic or military power. By contrast, women are not allowed into the public realm of power. They can only participate in the public realm of power through influencing the male patriarch informally.

The prospects of women and their participation in the public sphere differ across postindustrial countries. Iran and Afghanistan are two prime examples of countries in the Middle East which have experience patriarchy and repressive movements, but with different outcomes. In the early 1980s, two types of regimes led to contrasting outcomes for women in Iran and Afghanistan in terms of their legal status (Moghadam 1992).

Although during this period, tension existed in both countries owing to their social structures, the fundamentalism of the state in Iran and the socialism of state in Afghanistan led to contrasting outcome for women in terms of legal status (Moghadam 1992). With conflict heightening in Afghanistan towards the end of 1980s and Iran experiencing normalization, post-revolutionary trajectories were propelled in opposite directions (Moghadam 1992). While Afghanistan experienced more adherences to fundamentalism, Iran experienced fewer adherences as shall be seen below.

Patriarchal social structures in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is situated in ‘the Patriarchal belt” and is in fact, an extreme case of what is referred to as the “classic Patriarchy” (Kandiyoti 1994). Here, the role of women has been defined by patriarchal systems of control wherein the men have power and authority over everyone else, while the women remain under distinct forms of control and subordination (West 1997).

The Patriarchal social structure in this region has often relegated women to a status far worse than that of a second-class citizenship (Hawthorne & Winter 2002). Women are viewed as outsiders who have no legal rights and are excluded from decision making. It is difficult to see women participating in other roles including being a student or income earning employees. Patriarchal systems have also relegated Afghan women to the status of an object, on whom pronouncements are made and punishments inflicted (Hawthorne & Winter 2002). Further, Afghan women have taken the status of a prisoner, one that involves confinement to the home.

The patriarchial system is tied to the prevalence of such forms of subsistence such as farming, herding, and nomadic pastoralism, all of which are organized along patrilineal lines (Najmabadi 2005). As pointed out by Tapper (1984), women are assimilated into the concept of ‘resources’, often viewed as property belonging to the dominant male members. The poor Afghan women living in the rural areas work extraordinarily hard yet their contribution to the household income takes place within a patriarchal context of women’s subordination (West 1997). Their labour power is controlled and the products of their labour are managed by men (West 1997). They do not receive remuneration for their hard work and are exploited by the male kin in areas where carpet making is a commercial activity (West 1997).

Also, in this society, marriage is a way of cementing political alliances, accumulating wealth and ending feuds (Mernissi 1982). As revealed by Tapper (1991), men, in the 1970s, would travel from region to region either to find inexpensive brides or to offer their daughters for marriage at a higher price. This reveals the extent to which women are treated in the predominantly patriarchal and tribal societies of the Middle East. They are treated as reproducers and pawns for economic and political exchanges (Mernissi 1982). Despite the reforms instituted by the Marxist government in the late 1970s, such forms of kinship-ordered patriarchal structures still continue to undermine and belittle the value of women.

Structural reforms in Afghanistan

 In 1978, the PDPA seized power in Afghanistan and instituted reforms to the political and social structure of the Afghan society (Moghadam 1992). In the reform progam, the PDPA issued three Decrees: 6, 7, and 8. Decree No. 6 aimed at putting an end to indebtedness while Decree No. 7 aimed at putting to a stop the bride price payment and providing Afghan women freedom of choice in marriage (Moghadam 1992). Decree No.8 aimed at redistributing land. All these decrees were complementary; however, Decree No.7 generated a lot of controversy as it was seen as not only changing the institution of marriage but also as fundamentally changing the position of women in the society (Moghadam 1992).

On the premise that women were exploited and that their marriages were a form of monetary transaction, the PDPA outlawed certain cultural practices that were Islamic in nature. A limit was placed on brideprice and forced marriages banned. An aggressive literacy campaign was also launched by the DRA which aimed at educating women and bringing them out of seclusion (Moghadam 1998). The male members who supported patriarchy opposed the reforms and refused to attend classes. Also, fathers whose daughters were not married resented Decree No.7 as this meant that they would no longer receive large brideprice payments. The reforms were viewed as representing a great threat to male privilege. There was clearly a real material interest among the male patriarchs in resisting these reforms that the Marxist government had sought to institute (Moghadam 1998).

In the spring of 1979, tribal-Islamist opposition who were against the regime conducted several armed actions against the government, an opposition which came to be named as Mujahidin. The reforms were also undermined, albeit to a small extent, by the rivalries between the two wings of PDPA, Khalq and Parcham (West 1997). The Mujahidin armed uprising received support from other Islamist nations including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Algeria (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2002).  With Mujahidin gaining strength and support from other Islamist nations, it led to the masculinization of political activity and discouragement of the girl child education.

In 1996, the situation worsened with the Taleban seize control of Afghanistan. The Taleban decreed that women were to work only in the confines of their homes and that they were to be excluded from education (Moghadam 2002). The Taleban also held that women employees were to be accompanied by the male guardians. What began as a reform program crashed under the weight of the tribal and patriarchal social structures in Afghanistan (Moghadam 2002). The plight of women in this place is probably far worse off today than ever before.

Revolution of women in Iran

By contrast, the revolution of women in Iran played out differently. The Iranian revolution of 1977 against the Shah comprised of a number of women protesters. Similar to other social movements, their opposition against the shah was in response to their political oppression and economic deprivation (Moghadam 2003). Issues of women such as their civil and democratic rights were always at the bottom of the political agenda (Moghadam 2003). The liberal women and middle-class leftist led the protests; but were defeated in 1980 and eliminated from the political terrain.

Whilst the government of Afghanistan instituted policies in the 1980s that sought to enhance their participation in the society, the Islamist regime did quite the opposite. In Iran, the Islamist regime outlawed family planning and contraception and banned women from the legal profession denying them employment positions such as those of judges or lawyers (Moghadam 2003). The growing publicity of women participation in the public sphere during the 1970s led to calls for their domestication. Their participation was seen as leading to cultural degradation, decline in Islamic values and weakening of the family.

Vital Factors in the Iranian regime

 While both regimes in Afghanistan and Iran were masculine, a number of factors played out in the Iranian regime which reversed their gender relations. One such factor is the nature of Iran’s Islamic ideology and the social structure. Unlike Afghanistan, Iran had a sizable modern middle and working class population which played a significant role in espousing women’s rights (Najmadabi 1998). The late Ali Shariati and Motahhari are among those who were of the Islamic modernist school (Najmadabi 1998). Whilst both of their thinking and views on women were contradictory, they espoused the plight of women.

Another factor relates to the long war with Iraq. Many of the educated women in Iran benefited from this war with a number of them securing employment in the public sector, especially in the education and health sector (Kandiyoti 1998). Thirdly, while the Iranian regime discouraged women from taking public roles, it did not completely ban them from the public sphere. Fourth, when the Iranian regime implemented policies that discouraged employment of women, a small contingent continued to work in factories, thereby contradicting the popular patriarchic notions that women were not fit to work in the factories (Kandiyoti 1998). Finally, the agitation by Islamic feminists led to the change in policy on women and the legal profession became more open to women (Kandiyoti 1998).

Since the late 1980s, Iran has seen an improvement in the legal status of women. This is largely attributed to the efforts of modernizing Islamic women and their determination to continue their education and seek jobs. In stark contrast, Afghanistan women have experienced drastic outcomes as a result of the patriarchal Islam.  While in Iran, women have gained an improved legal status, their roles in Afghanistan remain defined by the kinship-ordered patriarchal social structures.

Patriarchy in Saudi Arabia

Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, women were excluded from participating in the society by patriarchal social structures. As lavie (2011) notes, sometimes it is hard to be a woman especially in the Middle East. This region has spawned the history of patriarchal society with most of the nations in the region still strictly adhering to it. In Saudi Arabia, women were not allowed to participate in the political life. They were also barred from certain professions and confined to their homes (Al-Rasheed 2013).

In the mid 20th century, some of the educated Saudi women highlighted the plights that they faced in the patriarchal societies and scrutinized their own subordination through editorial essays, fiction, poetry and literary texts (Al-Rasheed 2013). This was an attempt to articulate the ‘woman question’ which was a first of its kind. Despite such feminist thinking, their voices failed to reach a mass audience. They published novels, essays and wrote poetries to bring to light the plight of the Saudi women, but since they were the nucleus a small emerging intellectual community their voices failed to reach to the wider female population (Al-Rasheed 2013).

However, Saudi women conjure up contradictory images (Al-Rasheed 2013). On the one hand, they are seen to be excluded in the public sphere and as veiled victims of their own religion ((Al-Rasheed 2013). On the other hand, they are seen as wealthy, glamorous and cosmopolitan entrepreneurs who have benefited from state education and inherited wealth (Al-Rasheed 2013). A recent global gender gap report has shown that while the Saudi women lag behind in the participation in political and public sphere, they tend to score higher in terms of health and educational attainment.

 Despite the increase in employment rate of Saudi women, they remain underrepresented in the economy in general. Their education, movement and even health are controlled by their male guardians. Whilst women have generally been underrepresented at political, economic and legal levels even in the west, their exclusion and subordination at these levels remains unmatched in the Middle East region (Al-Rasheed 2013).

However, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The situation in Saudi Arabia seems to be improving with multiple voices highlighting the plight of Saudi women and reaching out to the society to challenge patriarchal social structures that marginalize women. With the rise of information technology and satellite television, an increasing number of Saudi women have began challenging the society through daring voices and critical texts which has enabled them to become part of the public sphere. After decades of tribal and kin-ordered structures, the society and the state have come to recognize the ‘woman question’ as a problem (Al-Rasheed 2013). However, there is still a lack of consensus with respect to the solutions and patriarchal structures continue to oppress women in some parts of Middle East.

Erosion of patriarchal structures

Over the years, systems of patriarchy have been broken down by the colonial and postcolonial world (Kandiyoti 1994). With some notable exceptions, men seem to have responded well to this change with most of the men accepting the presence of women in the public realm. Most men now recognize women’s rights including the right to work, right to vote and right to legal autonomy. The rejection of patriarchal systems is particularly strong among the younger generation of men as indicated by a large-scale survey conducted by Zulehner & Voltz (1998).

Women’s emancipation and subsequent erosion of patriarchal social structures in the Middle East have come about through gradual development processes and through conscious action by the state and social movements (Moghadam 1992). The advancement of women has come about through state-building and development processes and through self-conscious attempts towards modernity. Male feminists have particularly been instrumental in addressing the issue of gender and problematizing “The Woman Question” (Moghadam 1992). Among the key revolutionaries in the Middle East who have played a greater role in the advancement of women include the Marxists in Afghanistan, the Marxists in South Yemen and the Kemalists in Turkey (Moghadam 2003).

 Despite the fact that patriarchal systems have been broken down by development of capitalism and postcolonial world, the view of women as holding subordinate positions has not completely disappeared and patriarchal attitudes in some of the countries in Middle East continue to belittle their value and intelligence. Prospects of women and their participation in the public sphere in some parts of Middle East, especially Afghanistan, still remain very low. Whilst the patriarchal models of gender relations have to a large extent been rejected, men continue to hold majority of top positions in most post-colonial societies.

Notions of gender equality and the rise of women movements have no doubt been a result of modernity and development. However, such reforms have sometimes encountered a backlash with the rise of reactive Islamist movements. Indeed in most parts of the Middle East, the erosion of classic patriarchy may perhaps be the main reason for the rise of reactive Islamist movements (Moghadam 2003).

Whilst the process of modernization and development has tended to erode patriarchal structures, most nations in the Middle East still continue to place women in subordinate positions and patriarchal attitudes continue to belittle their value and intelligence. Furthermore, while reforms in some countries have been instituted and laws enacted to prohibit gender discrimination, only a few of the countries in Middle East offer women the practical mechanisms for bringing complaints of bias (Moghadam 2003).

 Addressing the issue of gender equality in the Middle East remains a big challenge and kinship-ordered networks and tribal societies continue to undermine the efforts for advancement of women. Rising up for equality, especially in the patriarchal belt can be costly not only in terms of loss of reputation but also in terms of loss of lives (Lavia 2011). That is why it is inspiring to see women movements such as the protest in the Tahrir Square. Egyptian women protested in the Tahrir Square following the Egyptian uprising that revealed that women would not participate in political deliberations between the Supreme Military Council and the various contending parties in Egypt (Hafez 2012).

Patriarchal structures in Middle East

The continued existence of patriarchy in the Middle East can partly be attributed to the persistence of tribal structures and kin-ordered networks (Hossein 2006). Their subordination and control can partly be explained by the pervasiveness of tribal structures, a process which Tillion labels as “the republic of cousins” (Hossein 2006). Patriarchy is particularly strong in the rural areas.

A crucial factor which has led to the persistence of patriarchy in Middle Eastern countries is social structure and stage of economic development. Although modernization and capitalism has eroded Patriarchal structures, in most nations in the Middle East especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, the modern middle class is still small and majority of the population are predominantly rural (Hossein 2006). Various nomadic groups in these regions continue to subordinate women under the men’s control. As Tillion (1989) argues, the control of women in tightly interrelated lineages is a common feature of these nomadic tribes.

Another factor which seems to have contributed to the persistence of patriarchy in the Middle East is the nature and objectives of the state and ruling elites. Sometimes gender is politicized by political elites in order to divert attention from economic problems. Contending political groups may sometimes use constructions of gender as a convenient weapon. Such states which legitimize or base power on patriarchal structures encourage its perpetuation through legislation that subordinates women as under the men’s control (Moghadam 2003).

Examples of such legislations which foster and encourage patriarchy include the laws passed by the Zia ul-Haq regime in Pakistan and those passed by the Khomeini regime in Iran (Moghadam 2003). Such laws passed by “neo-patriarchal states” render women as legal minors and subordinate them under the control of men. These laws also limit their autonomy, mobility and even their employment. But it must also be noted that the autonomy of women is not only restricted in the “neo-patriarchal states”, but also in the modern states as seen in the legal battle over abortion rights in the US.

In other circumstances, the state may find it useful to foster patriarchal structures, especially where such structures relieve the state of their primary responsibility. Such patriarchal structures may provide its members with welfare and security. But this is incumbent upon having enough male household members. Where there aren’t enough male patriarchs, the material consequences of such reproductive failures may be disastrous as seen in Bangladesh (Moghadam 2003). It is in this respect that the state may foster patriarchal structures as their existence may relieve the state of its primary responsibility of ensuring welfare provision to its citizens.

Conclusion

 It is clear from the above that patriarchal systems have for a long time defined the role of women in the Middle East. Their presence in the public realm has often been denied and they have faced enormous challenges such as being denied a right to vote, right to work, and being sexually harassed. Afghanistan is a prime example of an extreme case of what is referred to as the “classic Patriarchy”. Patriarchal social structure in this region has often relegated women to a status far worse than that of a second-class citizenship. Women are viewed as outsiders who have no legal rights and are excluded from decision making. They are viewed as an object, on whom pronouncements are made and punishments inflicted. Their labour power is controlled and the products of their labour are managed by men. Women are also treated as reproducers and pawns for economic and political exchanges. Despite the reforms instituted by the Marxist government in the late 1970s, such forms of kinship-ordered patriarchal structures still continue to undermine and belittle the value of Afghan women.

Similarly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, women have been excluded from participating in the society by patriarchal social structures. However, unlike in Afghanistan, the sizable modern middle and working class population in Iran has played a significant role in espousing women’s rights. And the agitations by Islamic feminists among other factors have led to the change in policy on women and the legal profession in Iran. The same applies to Saudi Arabia where an increasing number of Saudi women have challenged the society through daring voices and critical texts which have enabled them to become part of the public sphere.

 However, while the ‘woman question’ has come to be recognized as a problem, there is still a lack of consensus with respect to the solutions and in some countries in the Middle East; patriarchal structures continue to oppress women. And despite the fact that patriarchal systems have been broken down by development of capitalism and postcolonial world, the view of women as holding subordinate positions has not completely disappeared and patriarchal attitudes in some of the countries in Middle East continue to belittle their value and intelligence. Addressing the issue of gender equality in the Middle East remains a big challenge and kinship-ordered networks and tribal societies continue to undermine the efforts for advancement of women.

Recent search terms:

examples of patriarchal countries | how patriarchal regime rulled? | conclusion for an essay on patriarchical society | give an introduction to patriarchal regime | Introduction to patriarchal regime |
Tags: