Saturday, 28 February 2009

Questioning the Patriarchal Model


Patriarchy is an authoritative male system that is both oppressive and discriminatory. It is oppressive in social, political, economic, and cultural environments. It is discriminatory in its control of access to power, management of resources and benefits, and manipulation of public and private power structures. Patriarchy is grounded in the assumption that the individual European male is a universal reference point and the source of defining visions of the cosmos, society, citizenship, and the individual self within hierarchical concepts of gender, race, and class relations. Although some authors contend that matriarchy preceded patriarchy, patriarchy did not replace matriarchy. The two social systems originated in different parts of the world, and they are antithetical systems in that they are based on very different principles. In the African conception, a matriarchy is a society in which maternal energy and mother love are socially cohesive forces.

Thus matriarchy is not, like patriarchy, a dominating ruling system—it is a social organization focused on the power of women as mothers and on the matrilineal ownership of the home and wealth. Patriarchy is an authoritative system, in a broad sense, that resulted from the Western European historical and sociological approaches to the development of social and family structures as addressed by Western scholars. Thus, the paradigm that underlies the modern assumptions of patriarchy may have emerged from the insight of specific European authors drawing on the patriarchal basis of Greek and Roman philosophies. These authors saw matriarchy, and the matrilineal system of the ancient southern societies, as barbaric and sexually promiscuous. This pervasive notion on which patriarchy has based its assumption of superiority has left an undeniable curse on women and it has always been and still is the ultimate reason for the oppression of women in society.


Whether considered from a sex or gender perspective, in terms of male control of women’s reproduction, or from a materialistic perspective where class relations and the sexual division of labor in the marketplace as economic and social extensions of male and female roles in the family are mutually self-reinforcing, patriarchy always stands for the totality of oppressive and exploitative relations that affect women in both the capitalist and the socialist systems. Patriarchy is, therefore, an all-encompassing oppressive paradigm whose transformation doesn’t seem possible without a revolutionary questioning of every concept involved, beginning with the evolutionary model proposed by the classical theory of 19th-century Western writers. Questioning the Western model is precisely what Cheikh Anta Diop committed himself to, and he succeeded in fully scientifically demonstrating its invalidity when he established a link between patterns of survival and systems of social organization geographically separated by the Mediterranean in a northern and a southern cradle. Diop clearly demonstrates that rather than a universal evolution, where one could speak of a transition from an inferior to a superior state, the two systems, with matriarchy favored by the agricultural societies of the southern cradle and patriarchy favored by the nomadic people in the northern cradle, encountered one another and even disputed with each other as different human societies. Furthermore, at certain places and times, the two cradles were superimposed on each other or even coexisted.

Cheikh Anta Diop’s presentation of matriarchy from an African perspective appears more complete than the Western male-centered discourse that shapes the Western patriarchal construction with its emphasis on the male as a universal point of departure in conceptualizing human existence. Thus Diop provides an opening for criticizing the ideas based on the assumption of a universal male referent (i.e., representation of the white male as the standard model for all ideological and theoretical positions), ideas that are rooted in biological differences and that account for much of the current hierarchical distribution and attribution of resources and power. This contrasting of matriarchy and patriarchy is a true revolutionary approach that places African cultural patterns at the center of the exploration of a distinctive concept of degrees of importance assigned to male and female subjects in African societies. This revolutionary approach initiated by Diop, and developed by Afrocentric scholars such as Molefi Asante and Ama Mazama, defines the basis of the quest for an ideology of non-oppression. These scholars have based their views on ideas that derive from African holistic thought, which stresses collectiveness, relativism, nonhierarchicality, egalitarianism, and a balanced construction of life. Their intellectual idea is to confront patriarchy as an oppressive political and cultural system in order to eradicate it. Indeed, such an Afrocentric task is in line with the harmonizing of the world, a central feature of Afrocentric thought. When one considers the fact that the enslaved African men and women brought to the Americas by Europeans were deprived of family bonds and faced the deepest destruction of family unity, order, and harmony from the 16th century on, it is possible to understand Africans’ urgency in working to reclaim balance in society.

In addition, slaveholders’ sexual harassment, violation, and rape of the enslaved African girls and women could not but leave burning psychological marks in every black female. When the time came for Reconstruction, however, black men and women in America often built their family and social ties in the image of the European models of white America. By imitating the white male pattern, the black men could not, would not, or were unable to affirm themselves as the alternative male model that black women would legitimately have expected to join in the consolidation of a cohesive African tradition of respectful communal values. The Afrocentric paradigm as a holistic philosophical approach to the reality of the Africans in the diaspora contains, in its essence, the germ of a generating creative power that pursues a much more humanistic society than the prevailing Western patriarchal society. A genuine Afrocentricity seeks to examine the ancient continental African cultures for patterns of matriarchal social organization, family bonds, and human relations in an attempt to find a basis for a global revolutionary paradigm of female-male relationships in the 21st century.

— Ana Monteiro Ferreira

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