An Intersectional Understanding of Patriarchy
By Kirthi Jayakumar
When we speak of being feminists, most of us acknowledge that feminism is most inclusive if it is intersectional. We acknowledge, through the lens of intersectional feminism, that the gender oppression and experience of women looks and feels different for different women, as the complex combination of multiple identity factors subsists to create many layers. Therefore, to look at feminism as merely seeking to dismantle male privilege is not enough. There are other oppressions to be addressed.
The interesting truth that intersectionality brings forth is that one is not simply oppressed, and one is not simply privileged. One can be privileged and oppressed all at once, as a consequence of multiple identity aspects and attributes. Take for example, a fictional person, Ki. Ki identifies as cisgender, is white, is affluent, had access to quality education and has a job. These are identity attributes where Ki does enjoy privilege. But, Ki is also disabled, is a lesbian, is female, and has a job where she does the same amount of work as her male colleagues do, but is paid much lesser. These are identity attributes as a result of which Ki is oppressed.
The antithesis of feminism is patriarchy — where the domination of the male gender over all other gender identities goes hand in glove with heteronormativity, and is the institutionalization of male privilege. Even as male dominance tilts the balance, there are more privileges and identities that dominate and keep the oppression alive. Therefore, to look at patriarchy as being merely a manifestation of male privilege is not enough. There are several oppressive factors that prop up patriarchy, and these must be addressed. The best way to do so, is through intersectionality. There is a term for this, kyriarchy. Coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her book Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (2001), she suggests that “Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.”
Even in the context of patriarchy, intersectionality holds water. One is not necessarily simply privileged, and one is not necessarily simply oppressed in this context too. One can be privileged and oppressed all at once, as a consequence of multiple identity aspects and attributes here, too. Take for example, a fictional person, Ya. Ya identifies as cisgender, is heterosexual, able-bodied, has some education, has a job and earns a wage. These are identity attributes where Ya does enjoy privilege. But, Ya had to drop out of school because he couldn’t afford to pay for his tuition, does not have a stable job and earns minimum wage, belongs to a race / ethnicity that has faced oppression through history and continues in the same thread. These are identity attributes as a result of which Ya is oppressed.
So, in sum, you can benefit and be oppressed by the same system. Your unique experiences can only be explained through intersectionality.
In our work with men and boys and shifting their attitudes towards equality, and towards dismantling patriarchy, one of the common themes I’ve seen striking me in the face is that we approach patriarchy as one big monster. True, it is one big monster, and he lurks everywhere. But, he is more a Boggart than a monster; shape shifting to whatever form is manifested as a consequence of multiple factors that keep a patriarchal oppression alive: privileges of class, caste, race, colour, sexual orientation and much more. And this is why a one-size-fits-all approach to working with men and boys cannot work as well as a detailed, context-driven approach can.
Let’s take an example to study this.
Case 1: A white man in the United States. He comes from a rich family. His parents have many business interests. He was popular at school, didn’t put in much of an effort to study, but was very popular with his talents on the football field. He got into an Ivy League school, and afforded every penny — and the entire amount was but merely a clipped toenail in his father’s wealth. He waltzed into one of his father’s businesses, revolutionized it with digital technology and became the next CEO. Through this time, he has had a colourful life of indulgence, and has treated women as mere sex toys. He has been known to beat his girlfriends. Now, he is married, a mix of violence towards his wife and infidelity underlies that relationship. Now this man wields privileges of many kinds: and his power-chasing dynamic is all about a sense of “I can, so I will.” His privilege is second nature to him, and his patriarchal / misogyny stems from a belief that wealth comes with a heady mix of entitlement over the female body. His violence and patriarchal tendencies stem from this.
Case 2: A farmer in India. He has a family of six children, himself and two wives to feed. They have land that they do not own, so produce however frugal, is to be shared with the landlord. He comes from a caste that is marginalized. He has five daughters from his first wife, and a son from his second wife. He married a second time because his parents told him that maybe another wife could give him a son — fully ignorant of the fact that it is his chromosomes that decide the biological sex of the child. He lives in a region that is known to have a history of sexual violence. His community follows the practice of marrying off daughters at an early age, and each groom that marries each daughter of his must be given a dowry. He has a son-preference, because the dowry he would get on his son’s marriage, would help him and his family keep the fires burning. His family barely has anything to eat. He returns home to a full house, squabbling and hungry family members, and he takes his anger out on his wives and his children. He beats his wives every day, and returns home drunk on illicit liquor. Now, this man wields his privilege over his wives and daughters as a result of patriarchy plus the consequences of other identity elements prop up patriarchy.
This is exactly why what you would need to know and use to engage with a Brock Turner is not the same as what you would need to know and use to engage with a follower of Ram Rahim / the Dera Sachcha Sauda.
An approach that is going to inform a white man as in Case 1 is very different from an approach that is going to inform the farmer in India when it comes to gender equality. If we want to feminise a space to shift a mindset in favour of the equal treatment of all genders, we need to recognize that patriarchy operates differently in each space, and to address patriarchy alone would be redundant. Therefore, it is important to understand both truths: that the experience of oppression as a result of male privilege intersects with multiple identity attributes that complicate the gender experience AND; that the experience of wielding power from male privilege intersects with multiple identity attributes that complicate the narrative propping up patriarchy.