For a harrowing journalistic account of how a violent, misogynistic patriarchy still rules our planet, you could do no better than to read Sue Lloyd Robert’s The War on Women. It’s not a theoretical exposition but the theoretical questions behind the viscous misogyny that continues to plague our species emerges clear enough. The book feels a little unfinished and that is probably because its author sadly died before she could tidy things up. And one cannot help but feel there is a vital missing chapter. Robert’s does a heroic job of presenting the global picture, but where are the all damning chapters recounting Britain’s shameful record of domestic abuse? The statistics emerging from the so-called western developed countries are truly shocking. By the time you have read this short blog, half a dozen women would have been battered nearly to death in their own homes by men they thought they could trust. Every week two will die of their injuries. This is truly a war on women and it’s happening right in front of our noses.
Roberts starts in fine form. In her opening chapter on female genital mutilation, The Cruellest Cut, she poses some uncomfortable questions for all religious patriarchs.
So where did the mutilation of little girls, the agonizing pain, the premature deaths, the denial of pleasure and the incomprehensible logic of the misogynistic act begin? There are illustrations of both boys and girls being circumcised in Pharaonic tombs, well before either Christianity or Islam arrived on the African continent. The belief that a woman’s sexuality has to be controlled is deeply entrenched in the history of mankind. Ever since Eve stole the forbidden fruit, early Christian fathers warned that a woman is not to be trusted. The ethos of Christianity is determinedly patriarchal, from the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to the male dominated ecclesiastical hierarchies of today. The Bible in its teachings degrades women from Genesis to Revelation, wrote the suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and a woman’s role is to submit. P16
For me, the most disturbing of the chapters, and they are all deeply disturbing, is the one entitled, Boys will be Boys. Here, Roberts outlines the collusion between the UN peacekeepers and the sex traffickers. What Roberts uncovers should shame us all. The very people who are charged with protecting the innocent are found to be fully complicit in the most horrendous sexual abuse of both local women and those trafficked in to provide prostitution services. But the point to emphasis here is that there is absolutely no mutual consent at all. This is UN personnel up to their grubby necks in sexual exploitation and forced prostitution. And if that is not shocking enough, the authorities at the UN headquarters know about this endemic abuse and continue to look the other way. And that we allow them to do so is perhaps the greatest crime of all.
There is an excellent chapter on sex inequality in the UK, but this chapter focuses only on the pay differentials between men and women. Perhaps Robert’s was planning to add some chapters on domestic violence in western countries before her untimely death. Of course, the culture that allows this ongoing pay discrimination is not unrelated to the culture that allows women to suffer a silent tsunami of domestic and general violence for no other reason than they happen to be women. It’s as irrational and criminal as targeting violence against people of colour for no other reason than their skin colour. Two forms of deep-seated prejudice and discrimination; racism and sexism, and they are both holding back human progress and locking all of us in some post feudal dead-end.
If we are ever to halt and reverse the tidal wave of violence against women, we must, at the very least, wrestle with some of the theoretical explanations. There is now a virtual mountain of literature on the subject but no clear consensus as to where and when our patriarchal societies emerged and why they evolved into outright misogyny. Marxist theory would tend to suggest that both patriarchy, like racism, emerged alongside class society, and was used as a convenient method by which the elites consolidated their power. It was an early form of divide and rule which ruling elites have been practising and perfecting for millennia.
A good deal of recent feminist literature is less convinced by this explanation preferring instead to look back further into our early hunter and gatherer origins. Some researchers focus on our biological differences whilst others place the emphasis on material conditions of our early ancestors. There are many schools of thought but in the end, these can really be little more than educated conjecture. Records were few and far between prior to the Neolithic revolution and even in the classical slave owing societies of antiquity, the records can only ever be interpreted only with the intellectual prejudices of modern times.
What we can conclude with absolute certainty is that a misogynistic patriarchy is still alive and well across the planet. It varies in form from east to west, north to south. It takes on both religious and secular forms. It takes on rural and technocratic forms. It expresses itself directly on the sexual level as well as the more cerebral plane. It is evident in every sphere of human endeavour; education, employment, government, cultural pursuits and family life. Educated men are as susceptible to misogynistic practices as are their rural counterparts. Just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, neither are men going to willingly give up their favoured status in society.
Only, I would suggest, when the narrative becomes about human material advance, with a conscious understanding that all prejudices, whether they be against gender, races or sexuality, hold us all back, will we see some progress. But, in order to reverse deep-seated prejudice, it is invariably necessary to tap into man’s inherent sense of self-interest. An ethical approach to gender equality and patriarchal oppression can only take us so far. When it finally dawns on men that the continued oppression of 51% of the world’s population is no longer in his material economic interest, might we see an ideological and cultural change. On this point I believe Marx was correct; material conditions ultimately create ideology, not, as some of us would like to have it, the other way around.