How Modern Family Structure Led to the Downfall of Women

Saturday August 27, 2016 – SATURDAY NATION

In the Saturday Nation of 9 April, 2016, Egara Kabaji wrote about ‘the end of men and the rise of women’ and I have been thinking about this ever since. The article made it sound as if men have always been loftier and that women are now seeking to dislodge them. I decided to do some research and this is what I learnt.

That for 90 per cent of human history there were no hierarchies and no systematic oppression – the hunters and gatherers across the globe lived in egalitarian societies with no leaders, where women played a decisive role and were not deemed inferior, where human relationships were fluid and children were watched over collectively.

Lineage was through the mothers; that is it followed the blood line. And the group was not just matrilineal but often even matrilocal, that is the couple would live with the woman and her mother and her family. Remnants of such kinship systems exist even today and so does polyandry (a woman having more than one husband simultaneously). The 40,000 strong Musuo community living on the border of Tibet do not even have a word for ‘father’ or ‘husband’; the Akans of Ghana, the Nayars of India and many others continue to organize themselves through the female line. It is the explanation given for the importance given traditionally to the mother’s brother in, for example, South Asian and Kikuyu weddings and other rituals. At four million people, the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia, are the largest known matrilineal society today. Their tribal law requires all clan property to be held and bequeathed from mother to daughter, the Minangkabau firmly believe the mother to be the most important person in society.

So when did it all change? And why? The oppression of women is the oldest known slavery and it grew out of the birth of class society over 10,000 years ago. No wonder it is often seen as something that is just a natural part of human life. So an important lesson to keep in mind is that if we had a past without oppression, a future without oppression is also possible.

But coming back to the ‘why?’ There are many theories about why women’s status in society became secondary i.e. they were deemed the ‘weaker sex’ and their roles were confined to the home and reproduction. I prefer to think that gender differences are economically produced and not biologically determined. This theory has to do with the various stages of development as humans harnessed nature to improve their living conditions. From simply foraging, hunting or fishing for their food humans learnt to cultivate crops for their sustenance. Approx. 10,000 years ago, agriculture led to a more settled lifestyle and the accumulation of a surplus which could be bartered with other communities. It was natural that the menfolk travelled to barter the surplus while women stayed home with the young children.

This then, very simplistically put, was the early beginning of gender and class differentiation. In time to come property increasingly became private rather than communal and in the process women became ‘property’ and primarily producers and care-takers of the next generation of workers. The inheritance of property required a more structured and predetermined lineage – thus evolved the ‘family’. Some of the earlier forms are still with us eg clans, extended, etc but the modern family is the nuclear one where man is the head of the household and woman is the home maker and child rearer.

Is it surprising that in today’s Kenya a wife can be ostracized, beaten or even abandoned for not fulfilling her primary role, that of bearing children? Of course, men are rarely brought to account for failing in their ‘head of household’ duties as the rules governing our society are made by men. Until quite recently, and still in many traditions, wife-beating and marital rape is considered a ‘private’ affair; strictly out of bounds for concerned neighbours or social workers, much less so the law.

And therein lies the rub! The present capitalist family is considered to be a private institution in spite of the fact that it is responsible for producing, nurturing and preparing the next generation for the continuation of our species. Isn’t that a social responsibility that governments should cater for? At the very least should it not be mandated to provide FREE nursery care and education for its children? Should it not organize neighbourhood communal kitchens and relieve women and men of this daily chore? And much else.

And to those feminists who say that women should be paid a wage for their house work, I say that is not a solution. We live in a system where workers are grossly underpaid and overworked; we should be rejecting that system, not extending it.

I am all for demanding greater and fairer (50-50) representation for women and equal wages for equal work BUT until and unless the present family structure is radically changed and socialized, it is only that minority of women who can afford to employ maids and cooks, to send their heirs to good schools and have reasonable and co-operative husbands or partners who can hope to fulfill their potential, leave alone their dreams.

So it is not a question of women or men rising –  the goal should be a society with minimal gender (and other) inequalities and opportunities for ALL to fulfill their potential. To achieve this, the present family structure which is one of the root causes of all this inequality, dysfunction and unhappiness, must be reviewed and reformed.

Zarina Patel

Word count: 942

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