Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Triumvirate of Misery: Patriarchy, Tradition, Sexuality

Glenys' question cuts right to the heart of the matter. In order to properly answer her, it is important to define the concepts she talks about.

While I am loath to use Wikipedia as a source, its  definition of Patriarchy is pretty simple and comprehensive, so I'll go with it. Patriarchy is defined as a social system in which males are the primary authority figures central to social organization, occupy roles of political leadership, moral authority and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. Tradition is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior which is handed down by word of mouth or by example, from one generation to another without (necessarily) written instruction and ensures cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions. Sexuality, basically, is the capacity to have erotic/sexual experiences and responses. It entails possession of the structural and functional traits of sex. 

Feminism simply is a way of thinking which tries  to define, establish, and defend equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women (Wikipedia again... these guys do get things right sometimes!). Feminism doesn't aim to prove that women are better than or more than men. It strives to show that women can be just as good as men, in ANY endeavor, so gender should not be a factor for selection. African Feminism (and by extension, Cameroonian Feminism)  takes the general ideology of feminism and tries to make it work within the context of African (Cameroonian) society, with its rich diversity of traditions.

Glenys is right when she states that some of the greatest arguments in African Feminism have been centred on these three issues and at first glance it is easy to see why. However, to create better understanding, we'll explore each issue independently and then see how they relate. So today's discussion will focus on Patriarchy

Patriarchy and Cameroonian Feminism

Patriarchy is THE way of life for most Cameroonian communities. Most of us grew up in households where the male members of the family, starting with the father (or grand father), made all the major decisions, managed the family resources, solved problems etc. There may be influential women, but those women become influential because the men listened to them, their prominence being relative to the men who endorse them and not because they are in and of themselves recognized as worthy of being respected. Going into government and other institutions, it is clear that patriarchy and the resulting male dominance is not just limited to the family.One only has to compare the number of men vs. women in positions of power to know who really runs the country.

How does patriarchy contribute to gender inequalities?

Since patriarchy is a system which elevates the political, economic, cultural and  social  mandate of men, it necessitates or ultimately results in a lessening of the political, economic, cultural and  social  mandate of women. After all,  if there is a leader, there has to be a follower.What does this mean in concrete terms? It means males get education, access to resources, opportunities and decision making power. It means males have a better shot at self actualization, achieving their full potential. It means that if school fee's are limited, the boy gets sent to school even if his sister is clearly smarter and more hardworking than he is. It means, the man gets the job, even if the woman is better qualified and more capable. It means the man's decisions within the family reign supreme, even if his wife may have other (or even better ) ideas. It means that if a husband dies, his brother/uncle/male cousin etc has a control over what happens in his widow and children's lives. It means the boy child is valued more than a girl child, so a woman has failed her husband if she hasn't "produced" him sons (never mind that men are actually genetically responsible for the sex of the child). It means boys/men can basically be whatever they want to be and do what they want. I'm sure we can all think of ways in which patriarchy manifests itself in our daily lives as Cameroonians no matter what village of tribal group we come from.

Many of us were lucky enough to grow up in families where we got sent to school regardless of ability (and that, by the way, is because of the Feminist Movement which has always strongly advocated the education of the girl child), so these examples may not be familiar. There are other ways in which patriarchy rears its head, even for us modern children.

How many of us, despite being highly educated, knowledgeable and accomplished still get dismissed by Cameroonian men as being "just women"? How many of us despite being more responsible and resourceful, face the risk of seeing our parents property and hardwork falling into the hands of male relatives who will likely mismanage/squander it all away or use them for purposes that our parents would never support? How many of us have had to fight for the right to access and control these resources? How many of us have had our mothers completely disinherited and left destitute by our father's family after say, he dies? How many of us face the possibility of having to use "bottom power" to get jobs or promotions, because our brains and ability just don't cut it? (And might I also add, that if we did use that "bottom power" wouldn't we be insulted for getting ahead using bottom power, even though it often is the only choice we have?)

So, you start to get the drift? There is bound to be gender inequality in a patriarchal society because patriarchy is inherently unequal and structured so that males get the advantage.

How do Cameroonian women contribute to promote patriarchy?

The biggest way in which we contribute to this system which is inherently biased against us, is that many of us actually believe that somehow, men deserve to be given pride of place. Patriarchy is so strong an influence in our societies, many of us have internalized the belief and it is uncomfortable to even think of a situation where it is not so. I really need to emphasize again that feminism is not necessarily about proving that women are better than men. The familiar Women's Rights  rallying cry: "What a man can do, a woman can do better!" is a bit misleading as far as I am concerned. For me, feminism says: "What a man can do, a woman can do!" ...and if she proves to be better, then the society should utilize her strengths to the greatest capacity possible for overall advancement. It is about creating a system where the strengths and capabilities that a woman has, are recognized, appreciated, utilized and rewarded fairly. A system where being a woman is not a strike against you, even before you get the chance to show what you can do.

Another way in which Cameroonian women promote patriarchy, is by continuing to depend on the patriarchal system. I have nothing against women who choose to be dependent on men, or as I have heard some one put it: "be under men." A core tenet in feminism is that the woman retains the right to choose how she wants to live her life.  

If literally and/or figuratively under a man is where she wants to be, good for her. If you have the opportunity to pursue independence but choose to make yourself dependent on someone, then you put the direction your life takes at this person's whims and caprices. As with every decision there are rewards and consequences and both of them will be yours to bear. We also, promote patriarchy when we judge each other's accomplishments not based on what we have achieved as individuals but on things like marriage. In so doing, we're setting a husband up as a prize to be won, over any other accomplishment in life, without which a woman is incomplete. We promote patriarchy when we raise children in such a way that boys end up thinking they are better than girls and girls think they have to defer to boys. When we encourage independence, curiosity, excellence,leadership and confidence in boys but discourage it in girls (for example, "if you  over go far for book/work, you no go find massa"), we promote patriarchy. I'm sure we can think of  other ways in which we contribute to promoting a system where women take the back seat.

Now, am I asking that Cameroonian girls no longer listen to their fathers or the adult males in their families? Am I asking that women no longer listen to their husbands? Am I asking Cameroonian women to hate men? No. Emphatically, no. What I am doing, is asking Cameroonian women and men, to move away from a system which devalues women's opinions, contributions and abilities for no other reason than the fact that they are women. Perhaps in the days when the continued survival of a community depended on the strength and speed that men have (by virtue of a natural predisposition to denser muscle mass), and on the availability of individuals to nurture and raise the young (which women took since they bear the children and are the primary focus of the child's initial attachment mechanism), patriarchal type systems were needed. We are moving into a future where success in life is going to be more dependent on intellectual prowess, adaptability and ability to cooperate with others. In that regard, both men and women operate on a continuum which ranges from equal ability to unique strengths and weaknesses which can and should be leveraged to suit the occasion.

I'll stop here. Feel free to use the Facebook comments sections to carry on the discussion. I'll delve into Tradition tomorrow.

Thank you!

Helen Nde