Beyond Patriarchy

Two researchers from the Centre for Muslim Minorities and Islam Policy Studies at Monash University in Australia, Rebecca Barlow and Shahram Akbarzadeh, wrote an article that was published in the Human Rights Quarterly in 2008. It’s called “Prospects for feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran“. This was an important article for me because while I have been interested in the topic of middle eastern women for a few years now, it was one of the first articles that brought out in me a desire to write and speak about my thoughts. My last post, “fragments of a whole” was kind of a philosophical segue to some of the major issues that I plan to bring up over the next few months. This root issue I want to talk about first is that of modernization and its effects on traditional social structures and world views. Barlow and Akbarzadeh talk about how feminism is undergoing a deconstruction, or rather, schism, as it becomes increasingly clear that secular feminism and Islamic feminism are not as reconcilable as people had hoped. For a country in which women are trying to find their bearings, maneuvering through a “theocracy” (emphasis on the quotation marks, the term is nominal if not comical), “feminism” is too broad a term, too flimsy a raft to cling to in the opposing tides of modernity (secularism, westernization, pro-American mentality) and an Islamic Regime.

In mentioning feminism, I’d like to strip down that concept, go a little more basic, to the idea of femininity, the female in the context of our world and our social constructs today. The Middle East is an important place to consider when looking at some deep rooted social constructs because it has successfully maintained a rather rigid social structure over the past few hundred years. These social structures have a strong sense of patriarchy. I used to credit this to the religion of the region, Islam. Indeed, religion is used as a means to perpetuate a patriarchal society, especially in countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran. But we must consider the following: 1) It is extremely incorrect to say Islam is THE religion that perpetuates patriarchy, because it is not. Judaism, Hinduism, etc…all should be given that credit as well. 2) Many, MANY, can argue that patriarchy is a misinterpretation and mis-practice of each of these religions. 3) My main point: Patriarchy is Beyond religion. Religion has in too many cases (though, hear me, not all cases), become a tool; it has become a silenced, shapeless channel for the manipulations of scared, misinformed, brusque people.

Now here, I turn my argument to the women who live with/within patriarchy. I speak with MUCH humility in all that I am to say, because I know I am ignorant of almost all of the realities of living in the Middle East. I have been brought up in America, of all places, by a “liberated” woman. But despite this, all of this, it did not escape me that even in my situation and in my place of upbringing the concept of “liberating a woman” is in existence, and for one thing to exist its opposite had to have preceded it. Obviously, it was not long ago that women here were just as “unliberated” (let me leave that term vague). But there are certain elements that can significantly quicken the pace of change, the breadth of leaps and bounds and the amount of growth that can occur in real time.

One element that stuck in my mind through TV commercials, posters in school hallways, bus stop advertisements, subway posters, radio commercials as I was growing up was the “Role Model”. “Be a role model,” “who is your role model?” Why are role models so important? Because they really DO make that much of a difference, and it’s fair to say that it’s made all the difference in at least American Women’s History. Of course, it comes hand in hand with exposure, education, and education doesn’t come easily and certainly not for free… So, perhaps the inaccessibility of role models is what leaves many women locked up in undeserved and unjust silence.

One of my objectives with this blog was to explore this issue of connecting women, opening the world and breaking the walls that separate us so that we can all reach out and Realize all that we deserve. But I will be the first to admit, my medium is, ironically, another barrier. Presumably, ones who really need the ideas I and others like me are talking about are barred from internet, education or communication. Till I find a better way of reaching out, and I will, about the societies that believe “a crucial factor in the maintenance of social cohesion … is men’s control over women,” (see reference below) I would like to say the following:

There was a time, a long, long time ago, when humankind was still overcoming the shock of achieving a higher level of cognizance. Humankind was in a state of trauma, newly discovered threats loomed at every turn. One did not understand him/herself enough to fathom the thoughts and intentions of another – mutual understanding or trust of any kind would be Ages away.

Social order fits its time and its people. To govern others based on brute strength is the easiest when wisdom and higher processing are not at disposal. Thus it is conceivable why societies were built on conquest and fear, and Patriarchy is the modern day version of this form of “socio-political order”. But we are beyond that and have been for too long now. It is incredible to me, however, to realize, everyday, how much of our social constructs still function on this prehistoric credo: I credit most of the oppression of women and the submission of women to this oppression and abuse to primeval and antiquated ideology…and also to the lack of accessible role models that exhibit progress and offer alternatives.

I wonder everyday how I can know myself better and know my world well enough to reach out …

Reference (the article I mentioned at the beginning – I highly recommending reading it!):

Barlow, R., and Akbarzadeh, S. (2008) Prospects for feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Human Rights Quarterly, 30 (1), 21-40.

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3 Responses to “Beyond Patriarchy”
  1. Luke says:


    I love your point that patriarchy is beyond religion, and that religion is a tool (one among many) that is used to legitimize patriarchal systems and practices. Often by focusing on and demonizing societies abroad we forget how our own culture has normalized similar types of systems. Although there is an aesthetic difference between a woman wearing a head-to-toe veil in the Middle East and a woman on a bill board wearing nothing and selling a product both are examples of women being told that they are their bodies, that they are objects.

    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts, especially your final references to how a social order fits it time and its people. This seems to be a necessary idea put out against the cultural relativism that leaves us paralyzed in our attempts to understand and help others in cultures different than ours.


  2. Shiva says:

    Avraham, you asked “suggestions?” I think Luke brings up an important point. That in many ways, those of us who are concerned about these issues and are eager for changes are paralyzed for NOW, and only because we realized that you can’t approach people or their cultures from the outside in…we FIRST need to honor and respect them because we cannot change something that is not ours.
    By caring and making an effort to learn more about these issues we expand ourselves but we also, I would like to believe, gave faith to people in those cultures who are struggling. Knowing that others care about my thoughts, my silenced voice and my struggling personal and national identity would give me strength to keep trying and the faith to keep fighting…wouldn’t you say?
    Also…on a more “mystical” note (because I am Shiva and this is what I do), the power of our thoughts, of our caring and compassion spreads something in the world. These energies cause us to do actions: we learn, we read and we talk about these issues. We give these issues a voice and a light for people who may have never cared. We become examples for others to also start caring…and all that awareness and consciousness spreads across oceans and boundaries… :)

    So my suggestions for now, and my suggestions for myself are to be more open, to read more, to ask more questions and…something i know at least i need to do is stop pretending to know more than I actually do because generalizing can be as bad as lying about something.

    I think I’ll elaborate on that soon!

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