Who made you king of everything? Angela Saini on the origins of patriarchy | Books

On the day Angela Saini talks to me from her book-lined study in New York, the patriarchy is hard at work all over the world. Anti-abortion protestors are getting ready to march on the Supreme Court in Washington, the Metropolitan police force is caught up in yet more accusations of rape, Jacinda Ardern has resigned as prime minister of New Zealand after years of misogynist abuse, and Iran is executing protestors after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini. In this context, it’s easy to see how patriarchy operates but harder to explain exactly what it is.

“Patriarchy is one of these words that has lost some of its meaning through overuse,” Saini says. “We rarely interrogate what we really think it means, and that’s part of what I was trying to do with The Patriarchs.” The subtitle of her new book, “How Men Came to Rule”, is a simple question with a fascinating and complicated answer, which boils down to: “In various ways, in different places, but not everywhere, not always and not necessarily.” Just as her 2017 book, Inferior, challenged the idea that gendered inequality is rooted in our biology, and Superior in 2019 exposed the lie of “race science” as it began to creep chillingly back into the mainstream, this book shows that the dominant system we have come to accept is neither natural nor inevitable.

This refusal to accept injustice has characterised Saini’s career. Her first book, Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World, was published in 2011. She had recently left a reporting job at the BBC to go freelance shortly after her six-month investigation into bogus universities won a Prix Circom European television award. According to Saini, while she was working on that documentary, there were several attempts to give her story to other reporters in the newsroom. “Maybe it was because of my age, I really have no idea why … but those reporters were always white men.” She managed to keep the story by threatening to leave, she says, and then she did. “It’s one of my faults, maybe, that I have too much pride, and I make my career decisions based on things like that. I just couldn’t stay.”

The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule by Angela Saini

Since then, Saini has made a name for herself with her series of books with short titles and massive subjects. These have tended to meet first with resistance among scientific communities, then with approbation and set-text status, and finally with attacks from the far right and white supremacists that have largely forced her off social media. Now The Patriarchs is calling into question the basic idea that men are in charge because they are stronger, smarter or better suited for it. Matrilineal, matrilocal societies, as the book shows, are “very much part of the fabric of human history and society … not these super rare, unusual worlds in which somehow the laws of nature have been overturned,” Saini says. “What is odder for me is that male-dominated societies are so common. When you think of all the different ways in which we could live, why is it that this one system has … spread so widely?”

In the course of writing, Saini looked at new genetic research and archaeological scholarship; visited Neolithic ruins in Çatalhöyük, Turkey; talked to Onondaga Nation people in Seneca Falls, New York state, and the Khasi community in Meghalaya, northeast India; and met women in Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic. She found ancient societies that contradicted modern, binary ideas of gender; matrilineal systems that had been subverted by colonialism; and patriarchal rules that were ended at a stroke on the whim of governments.

When you think of all the ways in which we could live, why is it the patriarchal system that has  spread so widely?

“For me, it seemed less obvious that there was this one monolithic, conspiratorial, overarching plan of male domination that somehow just swept the world in a very homogeneous way,” Saini says, “and it became clearer that there were different patriarchies that took different forms in different times and places around the world.”

Patriarchy is not something that men did to women at some point in history, but a fragile system whose perpetuation we all participate in every day. “I’m not saying that it’s patriarchal to take your husband’s name,” she offers as an example. “But that is one of the mundane ways in which these systems stay alive. And there are thousands, if not millions, of them in cultures all over the world.”

Saini grew up in southeast London, with parents who encouraged her and her two sisters to think about big ideas, and to ask: “Why is the world the way it is?” Her dad had been an engineer, and her parents “split everything down the middle. They still do. There was no sense for me and my sisters that there was men’s work and women’s work.” The area was not, she says, “the greatest place to be an ethnic minority in the 1990s.” (She remembers one day calling a friend, who was from a Chinese family, to ask if she fancied going to the shops. Her friend’s mum wouldn’t let her because fascists were marching through the town centre.) “I was made to be acutely aware of these things from a young age, and I think that is why, when I got to university, I became very involved in anti-racism activism.” She became a co-chair of the student union’s anti-racism committee, which led to writing for the student newspaper, and that sparked an interest in journalism and a traineeship at ITN. She also has a master’s in engineering from Oxford University, and another in science and security from King’s College London (which she took in her “spare time” while working at the BBC).

It seemed inevitable to Saini that she would return to the subject of race in her work, but at the time Superior was commissioned – before George Floyd’s murder and only just after the election of Donald Trump – the persistence of racist, eugenicist ideas was not a big part of public conversation. “There was this feeling that we were getting past this,” she recalls. “But for many of us, it’s obvious that these things are always lying under the surface. When politics shifts, these ideas come back into the mainstream – and that’s exactly what has happened.”

Saini brings her own background and experiences to her work, and that’s something she acknowledges repeatedly in The Patriarchs. Given how successfully she has exposed scientific bias, it is interesting to see her acknowledge her own. “Well, I think we can only see anything through our own cultural lens,” she laughs. “So either we can ignore it and pretend that we’re like gods, seeing it from a distance from some privileged point of view … Or we can acknowledge it, incorporate that into the way we look at our work, and have the humility to try and see it from other people’s point of view as well.”

Abortion rights supporters rally in Washington DC earlier this year.
Abortion rights supporters rally in Washington DC earlier this year. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Seeing things from other cultural perspectives is one of the best things about moving to live in the US, she says. British people tend to think that we know the country, but you don’t have to travel very far from her home in New York to find very different stories from the ones we see in the movies. At Seneca Falls, for example, she learned about indigenous American cultures, their approaches to gender and how those were changed as a result of colonialism. She has also found a different mode of discussion there. “I feel that the tone of the public, mainstream debate and what plays out in the newspapers around race and gender [in the UK] is sometimes so reactionary, so dehumanising … I was finding it very difficult by the end.”

Though Saini, her husband and her nine-year-old son do plan to return to the UK eventually, it felt like a relief when her husband was offered a job in New York. In 2020, she had applied to be a commissioner for the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission and was disappointed not to make it to the first round. The subsequent appointment of the journalist David Goodhart, who had defended “hostile environment” immigration policies and “white self-interest”, came as a shock. Soon afterwards, the Sewell report was published “and I quickly realised that this government was doing things that were … running counter to what the equalities agenda had been for a very long time.” Then the culture secretary Oliver Dowden began a campaign against what he saw as “woke” policies in museums. At the time, Saini was sitting on the Natural History Museum’s board for naming and representation, and “I could see that affecting the conversations we were having. There was a kind of underlying anxiety or fear. And I think for many of us who work in academia or cultural institutions, there is no doubt that the Tory government’s policies over the last few years have had a really chilling effect on efforts to combat racism, and efforts to improve the safety and lives of transgender people, for instance. And in the UK they feel mainstream.”

skip past newsletter promotion

Sign up to Inside Saturday

The only way to get a look behind the scenes of our brand new magazine, Saturday. Sign up to get the inside story from our top writers as well as all the must-read articles and columns, delivered to your inbox every weekend.

Privacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The Patriarchs makes it clear that progress is not linear, nor slow, nor the preserve of the good guys. To find a society that legislated for women’s equality, we don’t have to go back to prehistory but to Soviet Russia. “One of the primary tasks of the Soviet Republic is to abolish all restrictions on women’s rights,” said Vladimir Lenin in a 1918 speech. The Communist party gave women the right to vote, easier divorce and legalised abortion. In the “free” US in 1957, a Gallup poll found 80% of Americans agreed that “a woman who chose not to marry was sick, neurotic, or immoral”. At the same time, Soviet women made up 79% of the country’s doctors, and were divorcing when they felt like it and smoking in the streets. But these freedoms can be taken away as quickly as they are won, and not many people look at present-day Russia as a utopia for women. When Putin and others argue for “traditional” values, they only have to associate women’s rights with Communist values to argue that gender equality is a terrible idea.

If governments could just decree the end of patriarchy at a stroke, like the Soviets came close to doing, why don’t they? “Because, unless we live in an authoritarian state … there has to be discussion with the public,” Saini says. “And the public, frankly, are divided on these things … Equality is not progress for everyone. Sometimes [people] don’t want more equality, they just want more power.”

Even more uncomfortably, patriarchy “is not ‘they’; it’s all of us”. And changing it would mean losing many of the things many people cherish. “To really radically create a completely equal society would mean rethinking everything fundamentally,” she says. “Marriage, childcare, how we structure societies … work, pay, everything. It would mean challenging class, capitalism … monarchies … We’re not just creatures who want to live equally. We’re also creatures who care about the cultures that we’re in. And challenging culture is really hard.”

Saini recognises there aren’t simple solutions to the problems patriarchy presents today. Even when revolutionary struggles seem to overthrow a patriarchal system – such as in Soviet Russia or revolutionary Iran – somehow not everyone gets what they want. “It always comes back to the fact that everyone has a different idea of an ideal society,” says Saini. But it’s the struggle towards an ideal of equality on which we ought to focus.

The Patriarchs is an optimistic book, therefore. Not least, it shows that more equal societies are possible and do thrive – historically, now and everywhere. Seeing things from other cultural perspectives really does reveal the way we live in a very different light.

In the afterword, Saini writes: “Some will claim that oppression is permanently woven into who we are. They will say that humans are inherently selfish and violent, that entire categories of people are naturally dominant or subordinate. I have to ask: would we still manage to care about each other so much if that were true?” What systems of oppression do is undermine that real, human instinct, she says. If we really want to smash the patriarchy, “what we really need is to rediscover our ability to love and care for each other”.

The Patriarchs by Angela Saini is published by 4th Estate.Angela Saini will be discussing The Patriarchs with Zoe Williams at 8pm GMT on Wednesday 15 March in a livestreamed Guardian Live event. Tickets available here.

Shared From Source link Entertainment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.