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Women vs. Men, Male Culture, and Patriarchy

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mary L. Wentworth     Permalink
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Two young women -- one an Israeli and the other an American -- have made front-page news in recent months. The perceptions of one enabled her to avoid an ordeal experienced by the other.

Nineteen-year-old Idan Halili applied for an exemption from obligatory service in the Israeli army on the basis of her opposition to patriarchy. Her application stated,
"A strongly patriarchal institution, like the army, underlines female marginality, on the one hand, and the superiority of male-identified values on the other . . . It might be said that a mood of sexual harassment is endemic to a patriarchal and hierarchical organization like the army. And so the demand that a woman enlist is tantamount to demanding that she cope with sexual harassment within an environment that encourages such harassment. When men spend a formative period of their lives in the military they are likely to receive positive reinforcements for the use of brute force and violence . . . In an organization whose main values include superiority and control, these behaviors are likely to be encouraged not only in the specific professional (military) activities, but also in interpersonal relations . . . I cannot join an organization which, either directly or indirectly, encourages violence -- of any form or kind -- against women."
Halili spent several weeks in prison before her application for exemption was granted on the grounds that her beliefs made her "unsuitable" for military service.

In contrast, Suzanne Swift signed on for five years with the US Army in 2002 after having been promised by recruiters that she would not be sent to Iraq. But in February, 2004, her military police brigade was deployed to Karbala. There, Swift not only endured the same horrific rigors of war as her male counterparts, but during her off-duty hours she endured the hazards of military service for women that Halili so eloquently pointed out. A target of sexual assault and harassment by no less than five sergeants, Swift went AWOL, fearing for her safety when about to be redeployed to Iraq.

Swift's attorney explained that there were a number of ways that a sergeant could retaliate in Iraq if she said no to his demands. "He could send her into combat. He could not provide support for her. He could demote her or he could demand that she be discharged." Each of the five times that she reported incidents, the sergeants retaliated in some way.

Now Swift is the one in prison. She is in the brig at Fort Lewis, Washington, awaiting the decision of her commanding officer. Since her action, other women have come forward to say that they, too, endured the same hell that Swift did.

Like all women, Halili and Swift are part of a worldwide system called patriarchy that for thousands of years has privileged men by keeping women in their "place" through oppressive means. All over the world men murder, rape, execute, imprison, beat, mutilate, traffick into prostitution, emotionally abuse, humiliate and ridicule women, keeping patriarchy intact.

For centuries, women have been regarded as property that could be bought, sold, or given away. Marriage is the customary method of transferring female property from one man -- the father -- to another man -- the husband. In some religious rituals, the transfer takes place when the minister or priest asks, "Who giveth this woman to this man?" and the father answers, "I do." In other cultures, the father receives the "bride's price" for his daughter which could be a cow or two pigs. In still others, the father pays a dowry to the husband's family for taking her off his hands. In India, where this particular practice prevails, fourteen brides are murdered every day so that the husband's family may collect another dowry.

Marriage effectively divided the world into two spheres, the private realm and the public arena. Across the world, marriage awards the husband enormous control over all who reside in his domicile. This control has been regarded as a "private" matter, one that is not to be subjected to legal or social or religious restraints. In a real sense, the patriarchal family is a microcosm of the larger system of which it is a part.

The majority of the world's women live out their lives confined to the private realm, effectively isolated from one another and, like slaves, performing without pay the menial tasks that down through the ages have come to be known as "women's work." Women and their daughters do 2/3 of the world's work but receive 5% of the income. Not only do individual men reap the benefit from this work but so does the patriarchal system as a whole, especially since the rise of capitalism, which fit the iron hand of patriarchy like the proverbial velvet glove.

In the public arena, where a MEN ONLY sign has been posted throughout recorded history, men interact on the basis of class and caste, exchange goods and services, make laws, establish nations, negotiate and threaten one another, and engage in their quintessential activity which is waging war. War has always been the means by which elite patriarchs have taken what does not belong to them, whether from a rival power or a weaker nation, or have gained control over someone else's turf, extending an imperial reach.

The wars of the patriarchs are like faucets that are intermittently turned on full blast, spewing forth a torrent of death and destruction while the war on women is constant and unrelenting like the drip-drip-drip of a leaky tap that is all too easily ignored.

The lives of these two women emphasize how the violence of war and violence against women are inextricably entwined under patriarchy. Lower-echelon men receive what some see as a God-given right to dominate women in exchange for loyally and, indeed, patriotically, fighting the wars ginned up by patriarchal leaders.

We women cannot shed this system entirely by ourselves. Men, too, need to talk with one another, to discuss their support of patriarchy, and to form organizations that publicly and explicitly reject violence against women as well as serving notice that they will not fight in any more trumped-up wars. The old adage holds: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

(An eighteen-page booklet entitled What Is Patriarchy? is available free of charge to readers who send me a mailing address.)


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Author of Discovering America: A Political Journey and of a free booklet on Patriarchy; a feminist and political activist.

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