Women, Matriarchy, Patriarchy and Egalitarian System

Pamelia Khaled:

Representational Image

If we watch animal kingdoms and learn their daily activities, we will be able to think deeply about the mother and father’s role in their offspring’s’ daily lives. Typically, in the female species, mothers are stronger and dutiful than fathers. The mothers not only bear and rear their offspring alone. Mothers raise them until their babies are ready to hunt animals and fly and collect food independently. Fathers have no such role, and they are not obliged to take part in offspring rearing. 

In only a few species, the fathers join with their mates to feed and raise their babies. In the animal kingdom, a female chooses a partner, makes love, gets pregnant, raises a baby, and moves on to another male partner until the mother is ready to leave her offspring. That is the right kind of life for the animals, I think. If we look at the animal kingdom, we see how a matriarchal system helps develop collective societies for better survival. A matriarchy is a form of social organization in which the mother or oldest female member is the head who leads the family. Interestingly, matriarchal societies and their mating rules, breeding, living, and raring offspring are not all the same. In matrilineal societies, the males barely stick around long enough to form the types of familial relationships.

In this feature, firstly, I discuss briefly how matriarchal societies function among the animals and then, secondly, humans. Nevertheless, in a matriarchal society, a female leads the family, such as honeybees, killer whales, elephants, spotted hyenas, meerkats, and lions. These animals are highly intelligent and extremely social.  

A honey bee, a mother queen, is the head of a beehive, and she rules the colony. This could be one good example of a matriarchal society. The queen does not leave the hive. She is the only bee to mate within the colony. On the other hand, elephants have deep family bonds, and they like to live in a herd, in a tight family group created by females. A big and oldest female leads the elephant herd in the group. This is the opposite of the honey bees lifestyle. They live in a herd, and all sexually matured female elephants have an aim to breed. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by all females in the herd. Similarly, female killer whales raise a newborn together. 

Matriarchal family life and its rules greatly impact their survival (as a family in the group or a herd) in animal societies. A lion mother leads the family and cares for a calf together. Lions are highly social animals and live in a matriarchal society. Female lions in a pride do everything collectively. They work and hunt together. The communal care system for their cubs is a big example of collaboration among mothers. This communal feeling makes cubs care easier. Matriarchy in the lion society evolves around the females, lionesses where they form the pride. The most important thing is all lactating mother lionesses suckle cubs indiscriminately. It indicates a strong example of collaborative care and not showing favouritism to their offspring. However, this could be fatal for the young cubs’ survival who compete against the cubs over three months old. This collaborative behaviour has a close relationship with their genetics. Each lioness shares its genes with other lionesses, which boosts their cooperative behaviour raising their cubs. Moreover, this helps to raise their sister’s offspring.  

Another charming example of a matriarchal society is Bonobo Ape. They have a unique social organization. They live in a society dominated by females. In this society, females use their alliances with other females to exert power over male Bonobos, who is generally bigger. The female Bonobo’s success depends on the bonding with other female bonobos in the clan. However, it is interesting to note that the patriarchy did not occur in animals for the animal kingdom’s history. 

Now I am turning to this discussion about matriarchy in humans. Some scholars believe that the foundation of this Golden Age in human prehistory was a matriarchal society. But only six matriarchal societies thrived with women leadership for centuries, such as Mosuo, China, Bribri, Costa Rica, Umoja, Kenya, Minangkabau, Indonesia, and Akan, Ghana, Khasi, India, survived. In these societies, women have roles in everything from politics, economics, including the social structure.

If we look back into history, we find that women were revered and honoured for their ability to bear and rear their children in human societies. In ancient Greek and Hindu mythology, we can see goddesses and female warriors elevated to a position of worship and respect.

Understanding matriarchies, we should not confuse these terms such as matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies. Some people considered any non-patriarchal system to be matriarchal. In human society, it is not only child-rearing or hunting and living together. The word matriarchy for humans included a broader social structure, such as women, especially mothers, who manage property and inheritance. Women also bear maternal symbols, which has a link to social practices. According to anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, matriarchies are not a mirror form of patriarchies. Instead, in a matriarchy, women play a central role in social practices. In 19th-century Western scholarship, the concept of matriarchy represented an early, mostly pre-historic, and throughout the stages of human development. To represent matriarchy, primitive societies were cited, and the idea survived into the 20th century, including in the context of second-wave feminism. 

We can see how throughout human history, the matriarchal societies across the world turned to more patriarchal societies. And the structure of patriarchal societies is prevalent in most societies in modern times. We already saw that the vast majority of cultures were matriarchies, where women were more likely than women to hold positions of social, economic, and structural power. 

Then, how all sorts of power (social, political and economic )shifted from women to men. Human societies were not always male-dominated, and the switch occurred when humans shifted them to be farmers. Perhaps, the roots hint at ways to turn back towards an egalitarian system. 

It is intriguing to think that patriarchy is natural in these modern days, possibly because men seem stronger than women. However, ( the studies on the animal kingdom suggest differently about the female’s leading power and physical strength) human development stages suggest that the pre-historic hunter-gatherers and patrilocal residence are not the norms among modern hunter-gatherer societies. Either partner may move to live with the in-laws, or a couple may relocate somewhere. 

Possibly, the power was shifted about 12,000 years ago. With the advent of agriculture and homesteading, humans began settling down by the water valleys. They procured resources to protect, and power shifted to the bodily stronger group, the males. Fathers, sons, uncles and grandfathers began living near each other, property was passed down the male line, and female autonomy was eroded, and patriarchy emerged. The agriculture-based economy created an imbalance in power and, perhaps, violence, injustice against women and girls. The feminist movement projected this injustice issue further. After the 1960s, women raised their voices, and a degree of egalitarianism is built even under the patriarchal system. In the pre-historic hunter-gatherers’ stage, women were powerful. Perhaps, in those early societies, women had options to move away from abuse and oppression. But in this modern-day, women are still oppressed. 

In humans, earlier, women did everything, and they were solely responsible for raising their kids. Modern human society turned the role of a father and made him responsible for raising children. So modern women should not feel overwhelmed about what they are doing to raise their children. Instead, modern women can be moved to thinking about women’s power, the role of female species in the animal kingdom deeply. These days, we could say the modern, Western societies took over women’s roles partially to lessen mothers’ burden; that is not too bad.

 Nevertheless, the patriarchal societies indeed turned down women snatching their freedom and establishing male-dominated societies. That is the bitter part we watch in the conventional patriarchal societies.  

It is interesting to note that love and affection impact humans differently. Modern human beings prefer to live with one partner until their death. There is an exception too. It is the politics with religion and society that made such rules, one wife, four wives, a few hundred concubines for one mighty man, etc. In traditional societies, women are in pain; they are facing challenges to get a good life. 

Unfortunately, in the traditional patriarchal (religious-based) societies, a woman is entirely under the man’s rules and whims: A woman may live as an only wife, part of four wives or live as a concubine under the domination. In this case, women lost their freedom, mobility, and power in traditional society’s laws and partnership roles. 

Matriarchal society was better for women, or not, this is not a question as the social and economic system was different. In the matriarchal society, a woman could choose her partner. She also had the liberty and sole responsibility to raise her children. There were freedom and the triple burden, yet women were powerful. 

In this modern-day, women are striving for equality. In the West, men and women have equal roles and duties in raising children. We need to think critically about whether a woman wants equality or gets back her socio-economic independence by raising her children alone or under the partnership. 

Ensuring equality and peace will require effort on various fronts. If patriarchy originated in the settled economic and social structures that helped establish male ownership and inheritance, then the evolving nature of women’s power can shift the social structure to an egalitarian system through the laws that promote women.

Now women got back some human rights, not all; they secured their property right in their name in some societies. A few women are in power and position across the globe in developing and first world countries. Nevertheless, still, the patriarchy is prevalent, and women are slow in progress. The real change would come when societies include the values espoused by the laws (defending women) for peace and conflict resolution. 

Image Source: The Ubiquity.


The writer is a Doctoral Candidate working on peace and conflict resolution through science at Curriculum Studies and teacher, Development department, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Teaching Assistant, University of Toronto, and founder-president of Volunteer Association for Bangladesh-Canada.

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