The Origin of Patriarchy


It’s time we disengage and shift our mindsets.

Think patriarchy and the first thought in any mind would pivot around its impact on women — whether in peacetime or in conflict.

Society is divided according to gender, among other factors.[1] The concerted assertion of male domination eventually went on to create a social system, namely, patriarchy. In a patriarchal system, the males hold primary power, laying their dominance in all spheres — political leadership, economic authority (including control of livelihood and property), social and moral authority (including religious dominance).

Gender is not the same as the differences and distinctions between the sexes, but is rather a “cultural categorisation and ranking grounded in a sexual division of labour that may be the single cultural form of greatest significance.”[2] It is therefore inferable that gender does legitimise inequality and domination. It appears that the “general crisis of modernity has its roots in the imposition of gender”.[3] With the purportedly continued increment in the bifurcation of both genders, the segmentation gained a definitive form, culminating in the birth of patriarchy.

The processes that confer privileges to one group and not another group are often invisible to those upon whom that privilege is conferred.[4] The patriarchy rhetoric has significant political dimensions.[5] Our primary lessons in patriarchy commence with and within our families. Specific roles and conduct are ascribed and are expected of children of both sexes — and with that, a subliminal understanding of the bifurcated statuses is inculcated. This is then systemically built upon with time, as children grow to become adults who encourage and perpetrate the same beliefs, and a continuous cycle is then created.

In peacetime, patriarchy remains a part of the social fabric, propping up gender inequality. In conflict, patriarchy manifests itself through war-strategy in the form of gender-based violence that culminates in war crimes and genocide. Irrespective of whether it is peace or conflict, therefore, there is always a simmering undercurrent of prevailing patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a social and ideological construct which considers men (who are the patriarchs) as superior to women. Sylvia Walby in “Theorising Patriarchy” calls it “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (Walby, 1990).[6] Patriarchy is based on a system of power relations which are hierarchical and unequal where men control women’s production, reproduction and sexuality,[7] and it imposes the masculinity and femininity character stereotypes in society which strengthen the iniquitous power relations between men and women.[8] Patriarchy is not a constant, and gender relations which are dynamic and complex have changed over the periods of history.[9] The nature of control and subjugation of women varies from one society to the other as it differs due to the differences in class, caste, religion, region, ethnicity and the socio-cultural practices.[10]

Patriarchal ideas blur the distinction between sex and gender and assume that all socio-economic and political distinctions between men and women are rooted in biology or anatomy” (Heywood, 2003: 248). Gender like social class, caste, race or religion is a significant social cleavage, and it is important to analyse it in order to understand social inequalities, oppressions and unequal relationships between men and women.[11] It has been explained by feminist scholars / thinkers/ writers who believe that the theory of ‘sexual politics’ and ‘sexism’ are conscious parallels with the theory of ‘class politics’ and ‘racism’ to understand oppression of women.[12]

Public patriarchy refers to the institutional arrangements of a society, the predominance of males in all power positions within the economy and polity, both locally and nationally, as well as the “gendering” of those institutions themselves (by which the criteria for promotion, for example, appear to be gender- neutral, but actually reproduce the gender order).[13] “Domestic patriarchy refers to the emotional and familial arrangements in a society, the ways in which men’s power in the public arena is reproduced at the level of private life. This includes male-female relationships as well as family life, child socialisation and the like. Both public patriarchy and domestic patriarchy are held together by the threat, implicit or explicit, of violence. Public patriarchy, of course, includes the military and police apparatus of society, which are also explicitly gendered institutions (revealed in their increased opposition to women’s entry). Rape and domestic violence sustain domestic patriarchy. These two expressions of men’s power over women are neither uniform nor monolithic; they vary enormously, are constantly under flux. Equally, they are not coincident, so that increases or decreases in one invariably produces increases or decreases in the other. Nor are they so directly linked that a decrease in one automatically produces an increase in the other, although there will be pressures in that direction. Thus women’s entry into the work-force or increased representation in legislatures undermine public patriarchy and will likely produce both backlash efforts to reinforce domestic patriarchy (covenant marriage, tightening divorce laws to restrain women’s exit from the home, increased domestic assault) or even a virulent resurgence of domestic patriarchy (the Taliban). However, at the same time, increased public presence will also undermine domestic patriarchy (shared parenting and housework).”[14]

It is undoubtedly clear that there is no sameness in the sexes — biologically, they are not the same. However, not being the same doesn’t mean that they are not equal. It is, therefore, more of a social, psychological and anthropological interpretation of what gender is and operates as. Regardless of which theory is acceptable to one as the most appropriate explanation for the inquiry into the origins of patriarchy, it is vital to bear in mind that there are many factors that constitute the nuanced process that has resulted in patriarchy and the definitive scope of gender inequality.

One of the ways to address an issue is to understand where it began and to work with shifts in that space. However, where the origins are themselves subject to much discussion and a lack of clarity, and the prevailing scenario so created is disparaging to the peace of a social order, it becomes imperative that an approach be devised to disengage with the practice and to shift mindsets.


Feature Image Credit: Brooke Campbell on Unsplash


Kirthi Jayakumar is an Advisor at One Future Collective.



[1] John Zerzan, Patriarchy, Civilisation and the Origins of Gender

[2] John Zerzan, Patriarchy, Civilisation and the Origins of Gender

[3] John Zerzan, Patriarchy, Civilisation and the Origins of Gender

[4] Michael Kimmel, Global Masculinities: Restoration and Resistance, p.1

[5] Ibid.

[6] Suranjita Ray, Understanding Patriarchy, p. 1

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Supra n.4, p.2

[14] Supra n.4, p.3

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