Ann Bliss

Challenging patriarchy

Ann Bliss
Challenging patriarchy
Leymah Gbowee.jpg

JENNY LENNOX’S ARTICLE on sexual harassment (#MeToo, Labour Briefing, December 2017) is absolutely right. We need procedures in all areas of our lives where we, as women, can report sexual harassment in whatever form it takes. But the problems go much deeper. It is the power structures that are the problem that allow women to be sexually abused. And in any hierarchical organisation where men hold power women are vulnerable to sexual harassment.

So let's name the problem. It's patriarchy - the system by which men have control of the structures and resources of society. Our society faces enormous social and dysfunctional behaviours stemming from the lack of power women have to control their lives - for example the increasing levels of domestic violence and yet the decreasing lack of refuges and resources for women and their children. One in four teenage girls have recognisable mental health problems. The main cause of depression in elderly people (and of course the majority of elderly are women) is social isolation and lack of social support. The lack of affordable, flexible childcare for working people is critical. Women have most of the responsibility in the domestic sphere but very little power or resources to change the way things are.

So how do we transform the lives of women and children?

We often discuss how the world can be transformed in terms of the productive forces in the places where we work. But we rarely think about how we can organise the reproductive forces, ie. women who bear the children and take the main responsibility for them in their early years. For most of our human history we didn’t live in nuclear families. We lived in matrilineal kinship systems where women controlled the productive forces and lived with their blood relatives - their mother, sisters, brothers, aunts, cousins and children.

While we can't replicate this system now, we can organise ourselves into much larger kinship or support groups. A matrilineal kinship system is based on women’s sexual solidarity which is the key to preventing men gaining power.

Young women are valued as future mothers, especially when they are pregnant and after they give birth. How different it is in this society where girls are often very competitive with each other and where their sexuality is used against them - just what patriarchy wants by using divide and rule tactics. Boys too are encouraged to be macho, violent and aggressive towards each other and society generally. Where are the role models who promote co-operation and harmony?

Rearranging our domestic lives makes sense in terms of the earth' s resources.

We all have to become more aware of the rape of the earth's resources by powerful corporations, headed by men. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State Engels writes of examples where domestic arrangements were much more communally organised by the First Nations of North America. Naomi Klein in her latest book This Changes Everything quotes Arundhati Roy where she says of the First Nations of Canada, “Their past leads us to know how we should behave in the future”, referring to their sustainable way of life.

We can use the template of matrilineality as a way to organise our domestic lives. There is sexual solidarity and support for women within the kinship group. Children would have more than one main carer. Old people would never be lonely as they would be cared for by the kin group.

One of the best examples of women’s solidarity happened in Liberia in 2002, when Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist, led a sex strike of thousands of women against the civil war. In Iceland the female population have annual one day strikes.

We have to begin to be supportive to each other in the face of sexual abuse. We need to set up our own informal structures and name and shame the culprits. We can’t trust the police, the courts or the patriarchal state generally to serve our interests, so we need parallel structures. If men wish to support us, that’s fine. Their role is to confront other men whose behaviour offends, exploits or abuses women. They have a choice. Whose side are they on?

I worked for Lewisham Women’s Aid for five years in the early ‘80s, when we had local authority funding and nearly every area had a refuge. We always had much more demand than we could ever supply in our two refuges. The women were then housed by the local authority or housing association and although the women were always keen “to have their own place”, they said what they missed most was the company and support of the other women.

Until we change the structures in which we live our daily domestic lives, through women’s sexual solidarity, it will continue to be impossible to break the yoke of female oppression.

Lewisham East CLP