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16 July 2015

Why doesn’t patriarchy die? Time to break away from parochial arguments about feminism

If we are going to talk about how feminism is too white, Anglocentric and insular, we have to put our money where our mouth is.

By Rahila Gupta

As soon as I tweeted about my new book project I’m working on with Beatrix Campbell, called Why doesn’t patriarchy die?, some wag – no, misogynist – tweeted back that this was like asking: “Why doesn’t Godzilla die?”

Another tweeter helpfully explained that this meant: “Awesome things are forever, ha!”, which led to the original twit clarifying, “just like Godzilla, patriarchy theory is fiction”.

In case my little female brain hadn’t quite got it, he then went on to dazzle me and contradict himself with Some Science: “Why is the force of gravity 32 feet per second square?”

He was upbraided by an equally witty friend, showing a faux-sympathy with feminists, that, “Mathematics is oppressive. It’s the language of the Patriarchy.”

The next tweet told me that our question had already been answered by Steven Goldberg’s book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, which was based on the premise that men were biologically superior to women, a book that was published in 1971. How I miss another Seventies term, “male chauvinist pig”, for which we have found no satisfying modern equivalent to describe this tweeter.

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But by the standards of a twitterstorm, this was a breeze.

We suspect that a more sophisticated version of these attitudes is to be found on the editorial boards of some publishers. Initial excitement at our project would be replaced with interminable tinkering with the proposal before it was dropped altogether. We think that a Nancy Fraser view of feminism continues to dominate in some circles, including elements of the left, a view that is essentially a modernised version of the trope that feminism is the Trojan horse that betrayed the class struggle.

Fraser believes that feminism has entered into a dangerous liaison with neoliberalism. As I have argued elsewhere, “It is not so much that feminism legitimised neoliberalism, but that neoliberal values created a space for a bright, brassy and ultimately fake feminism.”

And as Beatrix Campbell has argued, Fraser’s case that feminism sups with the devil is a heresy that has gone too far: “her apostasy becomes absurdity”. 

While the question that we are addressing will come as no surprise to feminists – the survival of patriarchy – what we want to try and understand is what contributes to its resilience. What is it about patriarchy that means it works with the successful functioning of all political regimes, be they capitalist, socialist or theocratic? If we can understand what weakens its potency in some societies, perhaps it will help us develop a strategy to pry it loose in others.

And conversely, where and why does feminism thrive? Even before we have fully embarked on our project, our preliminary research has shown us that the entire gamut of the patriarchal writ, from being super-dominant to undergoing challenges, runs from Saudi Arabia to Rojava, a Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria, within a distance of only 1500km.

Both regions are predominantly Muslim, both are based in the Middle East and considered to be hugely oppressive towards women, where polygamy, forced marriage and honour crimes are legion. And yet, they could not be further apart. In Saudi Arabia, women are famously banned from driving; in Rojava women peshmerga fighters have pushed back Isis, a territorial victory but also one of ideas, given that Isis promotes various forms of sex-slavery.

Furthermore, in Rojava, three self-governing cantons, influenced by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Turkish Kurds, a radical experiment in democracy is taking place where every committee and neighbourhood council is co-chaired by a man and a woman. Despite the war situation, cultural practices like forced marriage and bride price have been criminalised. We would visit both areas to report firsthand on the conditions that enable women to live such different lives.

Much of the research will be desk-based and Skype-based interviews, but travel is essential. We managed to raise money from a trust to cover our travel expenses, but we had no money for a project so ambitious that it is likely to take up to two years’ work for both of us.

So we decided to use a crowdfunding platform, Byline, a bold new concept in funding journalists when print sales are declining, blogs are proliferating and the whole economic model is in transition. Readers can pay small sums of money, say £1 a month, to read a regular column by their favourite writers and thus enable them to earn a living. Byline’s slogan is “Nothing between you and the news”, which is developed further in their mission statement: “We’re taking out the middlemen  the newspaper proprietors and advertisers who have agendas of their own  and giving power back to the reader and the journalist.”

As Byline is fairly new, and we’re new to crowdfunding, we set a modest target of £10,000. We’ve also built in a series of rewards for donors that involves additional work like travel diaries and monthly progress reports. For the top donation of £250, we have offered to cook dinner, and that dinner is to be hosted by brilliant, funny person and national treasure, Sandi Toksvig.

Among our supporters, there appears to be real excitement at the prospect of engaging with the big questions. One donor who has been urging her friends to donate points to the parochialism of some of our political work: “Women’s inequality doesn’t start and end in the workplace. It is deeply rooted within many cultures. I can’t wait to see the outcome.” Nor can we!

If you would like to donate to our project, crowdfunded via Byline, please click here.