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'Patriarchy' under the Scanner

This is with reference to Geetika Bapna’s review of Conjugality Unbound: Sexual Economies, State Regulation and the Marital Form in India edited by Srimati Basu and Lucinda Ramberg (“Intimate Connections,” EPW, 5 September 2015). I am concerned specifically with her strongly articulated scepticism regarding the use of the term “patriarchy,” which according to her, needs to be put “under the scanner” because it is imprecise and muddled. Her argument flows from the rejection of the term by the anthropologist Gayle Rubin, who coined the alternative phrase “sex/gender system” in 1975, to denote the culturally sanctioned differences between men and women, as reflected in their differential access to resources, property and privileges.

Bapna’s observations on patriarchy compel me to reflect on my own understanding of the term, derived from reading Gerda Lerner’s classic monograph, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press, 1986). Lerner, writing 11 years after Rubin, is quite aware of the latter’s usage of “sex/gender system.” Indeed, she regards the term as “very useful” (p 238) because it captures the culturally determined prison that confines women to domesticity—as child bearers and rearers —while men are privileged to roam free, empowered by their control over resources. In spite of appreciating the analytical significance of “sex/gender system,” Lerner proceeds to build her monograph on the concept of patriarchy, defined in a way that denotes the “power that men have over women,” not only in the domestic sphere, but also in the institutions of the wider society. In Lerner’s own words, patriarchy refers to the “institutionalisation of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general. It implies that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power” (p 239, emphasis added).

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