Overcoming patriarchal cultural norms and traditions

Patriarchal norms are common throughout the world. Patriarchy is defined as a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line or a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. [1] The Greek root word literally means ‘the rule of the father’. Patriarchal behaviours and cultural norms are so common, that even those of us fighting for gender equality sometimes don’t recognise them. Or perhaps you are a fierce feminist, but you are surrounded by friends, relatives, colleagues, etc., who might engage in patriarchal or even misogynistic behaviour, whether they realise it or not. 

Degrees of patriarchal behaviour vary from complete control of a woman’s actions and behaviours to unconscious biases in relatively equal societies where outdated traditions can unknowingly favour men and/or be degrading towards women. In some of the strictest cultures men rule and women are limited in their behaviours and are under guardianship (control) by an appointed male; women can’t do much without the permission (sometimes official written permission!) of said male. This is common in a few parts of the world, but even in the most ‘gender-equal’ countries, there is still an imbalance, and no single country in the world has yet to achieve true gender equality. [2] In all societies, underlying unconscious gender biases are weaved throughout our behaviours, traditions, roles, and our religions. By identifying and addressing these harmful norms, we can begin to dismantle them and empower future generations to achieve and experience true gender equality. 

I’ve put together a list of common examples or harmful cultural norms or misconceptions, but of course this is only the tip of the iceberg. Depending on where you are in the world, or what your ethnic or cultural background is, some of the examples may be very familiar while others might seem extreme or even unbelievable, but they do exist. I’ve also added some rebuttals and talking points to help you break down, handle and overcome these unconscious biases, in case you or your loved ones face these ‘concerns’ from people in your communities.

Photo by chloe s. on Unsplash

“Boys shouldn’t play with [dolls, tea sets, kitchen toys, cleaning toys, insert other ‘feminine’ toy here]”

“Girls shouldn’t [play football, read, roughhouse, insert other ‘boyish’ activity here]”

This is commonly unsolicited feedback for other people’s children. Think of it this way: if your son plays with dolls, he might just grow up to be a caring father, uncle, or friend. If he takes an interest in cooking or cleaning, he will (and should) grow up to carry his fair share of the weight in his future household.

If your daughter takes an interest in sports, she might grow up to be more agile and fit, or have improved gross motor skills.

One quote that comes to mind each time someone comments on my daughter playing with ‘boy toys’ is this: “What if the parents, from the beginning, taught both children to cook Indomie? Cooking, by the way, is a useful and practical life skill for a boy to have—I’ve never thought it made much sense to leave such a crucial thing—the ability to nourish oneself —in the hands of others.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

In some cultures, son preference is common. Boys eat before girls do, boys are vaccinated while girls may or may not be, boys get the opportunity to be educated and/or work while girls may not get the same opportunities, boys ride up front in the car, boys are given preference or privilege over girls, boys are meant to ‘carry on’ the family legacy, and so on. 

In every one of these examples, we are indirectly stating that boys matter more than girls and that girls are second class citizens. Son preference is a real problem in several countries in the world where male to female ratios are completely imbalanced, where unborn girls or infant girls were knowingly aborted or killed simply because they were not boys. To achieve true gender equality, we should treat our children the same regardless of their gender. This means all kids get the same advantages and disadvantages. All kids get the same opportunities and face the same challenges. One is not higher than the other, and by acknowledging this and treating our sons and daughters the same way, we can encourage gender equality and reduce harmful biases.

“I won’t let my daughter date until she’s 40”

Expecting girls to remain virgins until after marriage but not having the same expectation for boys.

The misconception that girls should be quiet and submissive and boys should be dominant is harmful to say the least. This is a huge contributor to gender-based violence and implies that men can exert power, control and even ownership over women. We should hold our children to the same standards and values to encourage gender equality. By aligning a girl’s virginity with virtuousness, many cultures appear to be protecting their women, but actually we are devaluing them by associating honour with sexuality. Boys are not held to the same standard of value, so why are girls? Protective fathers who want to hide their girls from all the boys of the world obviously mean well, but the reality is that this is teaching our boys that girls are ‘unattainable’ precious prizes to be won, which can have really dangerous implications. 

This concept is what contributes to ‘honour’ killing and rape, where a woman may be killed or raped simply because of the value associated with her chastity or as punishment for allegedly ‘dishonouring’ a relative or member of the family (dishonour can mean being sexually active, getting pregnant outside of marriage, giving birth to a girl instead of a boy, or even for being a victim of rape). If you consider reversing gender role expectations, you might realise just how backwards it is to think this way. For example, imagine that a well-meaning mother says that she won’t let her son date until he is 40 or expecting him to remain chaste until after marriage so he can remain “pure” but not expecting the same for her daughter – it seems pretty ridiculous. Imagine a world where a man is stoned to death or killed in the name of ‘honour’ because he may or may not have had sexual relations with someone. It’s extreme, but proves a point. 

“Boys will be boys”

An article on Psychology Today sums up the dangers of letting boys be boys nicely [3]: It prompts [children] to construct gender stereotypes, gender stereotypes allow unconscious biases to form and proliferate, it is misinformed thinking and oversimplifies the problem, and It limits the full expression of children. In essence, allowing boys (or girls) to excuse bad behaviour simply because of their gender allows them a free pass to misbehave, to treat others poorly, and sets unrealistic expectations. 

Emphasis on what a girl is or is not wearing

This is a big one, particularly when it comes to gender-based violence or sexual assault and rape. By focusing on what a girl wears, we shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim. By shaming a girl for the length of her skirt, or anything else about her appearance, we are inadvertently blaming her for whatever happens to her and removing the blame from the attacker or perpetrator. Not everyone who wears a short skirt gets raped. And not everyone who is raped was wearing something revealing. It’s important to focus on teaching our children to respect others, regardless of who they are or what they wear.

We commonly assume that gender-based violence or gender inequality is due to the behaviour or societal roles of men, but it is important to point out that women play a role in this as well. 

Many women or girls are outcast by society or their communities as a result of being unwed mothers, widows, orphans, being impacted by gender-based violence, getting divorced, surviving human trafficking, etc. Many societies shun women and consider them to be ‘damaged goods’, and in many cases it is due to no fault of their own. Mothers-in-law across the world can have harmful and unrealistic expectations for their daughters-in-law, and many women who move into their new in-laws’ homes face abuse as a direct result. There are also surprisingly many women in the world who think that domestic violence towards women is justified when wives ‘act out’ or are disobedient. It’s never justifiable and we should not accept that it is. Women are equal to men and should be treated as such, by men and women alike.

Additional harmful traditional and cultural practices include female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), acid violence, child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and bride price, bride trafficking, marriage by abduction or after rape, issues or inequalities due to menstruation, and virginity testing.

These practices (and other similar practices) have devastating physical and psychological effects on women. They reinforce the inferior status of women in society and continue to violate their rights and this has serious implications on the achievement of gender equality in society.

The examples listed may or may not be common in your community but it can be helpful to analyse these behaviours and use them to deconstruct harmful behaviours and gender stereotypes in general. I hope you find this useful and that it makes you think and question some societal expectations and take a more gender-equal approach where appropriate. 

[1] Patriarchy definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary

[2] World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap 2020 Report

[3] The Danger of “Boys Will Be Boys”: Why this phrase should be banned from our vocabulary 

[4] Art Exhibit Powerfully Answers The Question ‘What Were You Wearing?’ 

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I'm a mother, wife, travel addict, bookworm, survivor, feminist, artist, black sheep, and challenger of the status quo. Founder of https://shaktiism.com and https://shewillsurvive.com

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