Dear Aunty Feminist, What Exactly Is Patriarchy?

Posted on April 28, 2016 in Aunty Feminist, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Hello everybody! Hope your first few weeks of summer have been filled with iced tea, good books and letting people know your stand on sexism in the workplace. Let’s begin.

G asked:

What exactly is patriarchy?

Dear G,

Patriarchy always feels like it should be spelled with a capital-P when you use it. I’m fighting the Patriarchy. It’s all the fault of Patriarchy.

Professor Branestawm

When I was a very young girl, I thought the Government was one bald guy with spectacles who made all the decisions. My parents or teachers would say something like, “It’s a Government Scheme” and I’d think of a bald guy rubbing his hands together, plotting. In my head, he looked a bit like Professor Branestawm, scatty but also a little evil because people kept criticising him a lot. It was a cozy image to have—one guy to blame for everything—and I was almost sad when I found out what the government-small-g actually was.

Well, the patriarchy in most people’s heads turns out to be a single figure as well. One big dude with a long white beard telling you “no” and “you can’t” and “you shall not.” (Hmmm… sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?) Patriarchy is when a society has been geared to consider the needs of some over the needs of others. In this case: men.

Now, it’s not your fault, if you are a man and you’re feeling slightly angry as you’re reading this and you’re thinking, “But I never!” and “Why should women?” You’re probably a decent human being and you respect women and have at least three female role models and would never tell anyone what to do or not with their lives. But, the sad fact of the matter is, that the world is geared to put you first. Your needs are paramount. Your needs also mean that the world (Patriarchy again!) can tell the rest of the people—i.e. women—-what to do and what not to do to make it convenient for men to live happy, productive lives. Which is why for the longest time women were expected to stay at home with the kids while men went out and made the living, because it was easier that way, and this division of labour meant that everything was in its place and no one could easily break out of it, leave husband and children and run off to do her own thing. Or just get a job somewhere without being also expected to be a great mother and wife. This was also the same time men weren’t expected to be anything but good providers—husbands and fathers be damned. Everyone loses—yes, even the men, because how could you say you wanted to stay at home and parent instead while your wife who was bored out of her skull with housework wanted to go out and meet people? You couldn’t.

Back in the day, people made biology arguments. Men were stronger, with more rational minds and so they should make the big adult decisions. Women were weak and scatty, lovely to have and hold but less lovely in a boardroom. Men’s Rights Activists are making this argument to this day. We love women, they’re saying, but we don’t think they can do all the stuff we do. And that, dear G, is empirical bullshit.

Whether you know it or not, patriarchy has touched every single one of your interactions. In the boarding school I went to in my teen years, it used to get extremely cold around October, or February. We were expected to wear standard issue grey wool skirts—completely useless in the face of the elements. A few girls started to make noise about being able to wear pants like the boys (this was a co-ed boarding school), which were laughed at in my day, but I heard a few years later, the noises started up again and louder. Old board members got indignant, there was a lot of hullabaloo, but finally, finally the girls won and could wear long woollen pants on days it got cold. I ask you: should this have been a battle at all? Even in Delhi winter, I see hordes of school girls shivering in the cold as they wait for their bus while the boys are comfortable, even chipper in their long trousers. Patriarchy demands girls look a certain way and boys look another, and that’s just the way it is, please don’t argue with us.

Or take the metro or the local train or whatever form of transport is in your city. The ladies compartment is the ladies compartment, but there’s so much bitching and crying about it from the men in the general coach. In fact, some even call the general coach, the “men’s coach”. It’s not. It belongs to everyone. And in no other country does public transport need to safeguard women from being felt up, harassed, abused, stared at by giving them a compartment of their own. Patriarchy means we get a coach to ourselves, but no one can actually change why we’ve been given a coach in the first place.

Patriarchy. It’s a big word and often gets people rolling their eyes and #NotAllMen-ing, but all it means is the system that has worked to keep us all down. Women and men should be aware of it, and angry, and alert so we can finally change the way things work.

Aunty Feminist

Aunty Feminist loves to hear from her readers! If you’d like her to answer a burning question you might have, send it to us at or tweet your questions to @reddymadhavan.