How Words have formed the Foundation of Patriarchy

By: Jennifer Donkoh, Communications Associate, AWDF

Many people who do not experience the most tragic aspects of patriarchy like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexual assault and domestic violence are often quick to describe feminists as radical or overly dramatic. For them, because they do not hear about or experience such evils in their immediate environments, it is a remote issue. Still, one-off incidents of discrimination and violence against women are not what have rooted patriarchy in cultures around the world; rather, it is the words we use to describe women and men daily that have cemented the political and socio-economic dominance of men over women.

As a society, we have normalised ‘manliness’ as a show of strength, aptitude and virility and ‘womanliness’ as a show of weakness, frivolity and idiocy. Men and boys who dare show emotions or any signs of weakness are labelled as feminine. From childhood, egos of boys are battered by the constant calls to ‘be men’; that ‘men do not cry’, ‘men do not cook’, ‘men do not allow women to disrespect them’. It is not uncommon to hear people insult a man by calling him a woman or insinuating that he behaves like a woman. Undoubtedly, this is testament to the social status that has been assigned to women: that we are so inferior to men that to call a man a woman is a great affront to his being.

How has this notion persisted for this long? Patriarchy has cunningly made the women its gate-keepers by rewarding them with bejeweled shackles for obeying its orders. Women in abusive relationships are often only labelled ‘submissive’; those who tolerate philandering are praised as ‘loyal’, others that curtail their freedoms of self-expression are told they are ‘modest’ and the perfect few who embody all these are attributes are crowned with the coveted ‘wife-material’ crown of thorns.

Another interesting parlance that has sneaked into modern culture is the reference of women as “just females”. You will often find, in the many instances that men take the opportunity to make known their opinions of women, reference to them as ‘females’. As grating as this sounds to the ears, it does more damage than to reduce women solely to a certain gender, it is a slap in the face of all the athletes, doctors, actors and other professionals who have been discriminated against in the workplace or who have been forced to accept only a fraction of their due remuneration thanks to mere fact the word “female” is attached to their titles.

The notion that women and girls are inherently inferior to their male counterparts is ingrained from childhood. Boys and girls are raised and socialised in different ways. I was seven years old when I found out that in my culture it is taboo to call a boy or a man an idiot or a stupid person. I vaguely remember that at that age I questioned why there is simply not a general rule about not calling any person an idiot. My classmate simply responded that it is just the way things are. Many girls are coached to walk on eggshells around their male counterparts and constantly reminded not to overstep. Essentially, our society methodically raises women and girls to live within these lines drawn by patriarchy which are constantly reinforced by the words we have ascribed to men and women.

Existing solely for the approval and acceptance of men fuels the inequalities that have subjected women to centuries of atrocities like FGM, honour killing and domestic violence. So in the fight for equality, the little things do matter. The most oppressive tricks of patriarchy are hiding in plain sight. We must use our words to remind women and girls that there is more to their existence than being obedient; that the world belongs to them just as it belongs to men. Words do indeed matter.

African Women’s Development Fund supports autonomous organisations on initiatives for transformation led by African women.

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