Award-winning British author, broadcaster and journalist Angela Saini – who has written and reported for the likes of The Guardian, New Scientist, and the BBC – has just published her fourth book The Patriarchs: How Men Came To Rule. Don’t assume it’s going to be railing against men or that it will be a pointy-headed polemic. It’s a very readable and essential contribution to our understanding of patriarchy and the grip of male power: how it did or didn’t come about, and how it’s more fragile than we might think.
Now based in New York, Angela, who is of Indian descent, visited many countries to do her own research for The Patriarchs. Spending three years writing the book, she conducted many interviews and visited archaeological sites. She spoke to Sarah Lang over a Zoom call from New York.
Here’s part two of the two-part conversation – click here for part one!
Capsule: Helping dismantle patriarchy can feel too big and hard, so what can we as feminists do?
Angela: I think many of us in the West could do much more to support the fights for gender equality of women living in far more patriarchal societies. What’s happening in Afghanistan and Iran is absolutely heart-breaking. Generations of women will not have freedoms like ours, not be educated, and their needs are more pressing than ours. There are home-grown feminist movements in every country in the world. So, I think it’s our responsibility to, firstly, try to understand those movements, their history and what they’re calling for, and, secondly, to show solidarity with their struggles. They want the world to stand with them. Because that pressure can filter down to their governments.
You write that some women manage to find a place for feminism within their faith and culture even when these are patriarchal?
This topic is an uncomfortable one for some people, because often women’s rights go hand in hand with Western ideas of secularism or progressive beliefs. There are women who live within a patriarchal culture and who have a commitment to their traditions, culture, society and state – yet like any other human they also desire freedom and gender equality. So what reform movements try to do is to work with the grain of the culture.
We have to understand that often women are navigating a very limited set of choices to do the best thing for themselves, and may perhaps feel there’s no other way. Often in feminism we attribute that choice to lack of agency, which I think is patronising sometimes. If we really want gender equality, we have to understand why not all women make certain choices, even when they don’t seem to align with what we expect or the interests of other women. Don’t we all find ourselves in similar situations to an extent? For instance, many women I know have taken their husband’s surname. I’m not judging anyone, because it’s their choice, but it’s a custom rooted very firmly in patriarchy. It comes from the same route as slaves being given their master’s name. It’s this idea of ownership. It’s not that women who change their names aren’t feminists. It’s because of tradition.
What surprised you the most while researching the book?
I got so much from understanding the differences of gender norms in different societies. I understand more about the history of indigenous cultures, particularly now that I live in the U.S. And also, there’s the former Soviet Union. I think we tend to universalise women’s experiences when actually, it quickly became apparent to me that the feminist struggles in eastern Europe were so different from feminist struggles in the West. It’s been 30-plus years since the end of Communism in Europe and I don’t want to whitewash anything about horrible, authoritarian, brutal, oppressive regimes. But what is interesting is they genuinely tried to smash the patriarchy and introduce gender equality very quickly. For instance, the provision of childcare. And Soviet Russia was the first country to legalise abortion. And I think we can look at all that with a critical eye without that meaning that we agree with the regimes.
You mentioned you met with some Czech scholars who said there is now an issue that women want to be housewives rather than having paid jobs?
Yes that took me aback. That was the first time I’d really encountered that position.
I recently wrote about the Tradwife phenomenon, where women choose to become traditional housewives and subservient to their husbands. Some people say being a Tradwife isn’t anti-feminist because it’s a woman making her own decisions about her life. What do you think?
Well, gender equality is not about telling people how they should live their lives. Staying at home and looking after your kids involves labour. So, I don’t think we should say any one form of work is more valuable or important, because we make the choices we feel are best for us. I know a lot of stay-at-home dads now and there’s less stigma or embarrassment around that. That should be welcomed as a choice, in the same way that no woman should ever feel guilty about going out to work if she has kids.
I think the issue some feminists have with that [stay-at-home] choice is ‘why would you limit your options in that way?’. Because choosing to be a stay-at-home housewife is that you’re then financially dependent on somebody else and that can be a trap. But what if we built a society in which work in the home was accounted for and remunerated in the same way that other work is?
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, resigned recently, having nothing left in the tank. She also faced hate and misogyny, though she didn’t cite that as a reason for quitting. Is that something you’re aware of?
Yeah, I’ve been following it. I think it was a brave decision she made to step down. It’s important to highlight the kind of pressure that women leaders face in some countries. The level of misogyny depends on where you live – and different countries have different ways of talking about female leaders. In the U.S, it’s hard to even imagine a female president. But in India where my parents grew up and where I lived for a while, it wasn’t weird to have female leaders in government.
Colonialism was so instrumental in exporting patriarchy to other countries. So, some of us might imagine New Zealand is more progressive and less misogynistic than many other countries, but actually is there much in its history that would lead you to believe that?
I’ve got a ‘friend’ who says, “I didn’t create the patriarchy. It’s not my fault. Stop blaming white men.” What would you say to him?
That if he imagines that someone else ‘did it’, and now we’re just seeing the effects, well, tell him that the patriarchy is still being created now and that, if he cares, surely he would want to know how this is happening. We’re all – men and women – living within this system.
And also, it’s not that all men oppress all women. Patriarchal systems emerged within states that involved ruling elites that controlled other people, including men. So, the earliest shoots of social imbalance were not gendered ones.
Also, I think it’s important that men can place themselves within history. Things aren’t great for many men right now. There’s a lot of discontent. Rates of suicide in some countries among young men are really high. Why are young men gravitating to people like Jordan Petersen?
Oh yes, the misogynist ‘philosopher’ whose said men are order, women are chaos, that being one of his milder stances!
That’s a 19th-century idea that women belong to nature and men are rationalism and reason. It’s an old, sexist saying that he didn’t invent and is just borrowing.
You briefly mention the state of abortion rights in the U.S. Were you shocked at the Supreme Court decision?
Yeah, I was shocked, but the Supreme Court has been so stacked since Trump arrived that perhaps it was inevitable in hindsight. The U.S. is quite unusual in handing so much power to this group who are appointed through a process that can be very political, and make decisions that can reverberate over decades and generations.
So, it’s tragic, but there’s a lot being done to give women access to abortion [like travelling between states] and provide alternatives We have to remember that public opinion is certainly on the side of abortion rights, and that anti-abortion activists are actually a very tiny proportion of people. It’s an issue largely driven by religious conservatives, and their lobbying power can have an outsized effect on what happens politically. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to reverse what’s happened.
Religion has always been manipulated in these ways. Many people told me that surely patriarchy began with religion, because religion is the oldest thing they can think of and it’s very patriarchal. But actually, at the start, religions like Christianity and Islam involved a language of equality that people hadn’t heard before. People who lived in very hierarchical societies with a lot of slave labour or feudal labour – for them to be told they’re equal to every other person in the eyes of God was a revelation. So, at the time, these religions felt exciting to women, and minority and marginalised groups. But the way religion gets interpreted and used is up to us, and over time, [patriarchal] systems of power became embedded within the religions, to cement power.
What do you hope readers will take from the book?
What I hope is that they perhaps won’t feel as blinded by a sense of the patriarchy looming as a monolith, and to actually see it as a built-up collection of little things. Hopefully people will understand the fragility of the patriarchy more. Also, I’d like people to understand the ‘long history’: to understand the connections between captive [slave] taking and the institution of marriage; to understand the importance of how states have controlled populations and how that created gender oppression; and also, to understand how and why revolutionary attempts to combat patriarchy in the 20th century didn’t work out and what lessons we can draw from that.
Do you like the idea of providing quite nuanced answers so readers can make up their own minds?
Definitely. I try to lead people by the hand, not stuff things down their throats. I leave a bit of ambiguity and room for the possibility that maybe this isn’t how it actually was – and so I allow readers that safety to disagree. But I hope I make a strong enough case. I think of my writing as almost like a detective story: building the case bit by bit until hopefully you’re convinced the juror.
You write that we already own the tools for creating the world we want. Is change coming?
I would love to see a grand revolutionary change in the world: that we recognise that this patriarchal society isn’t working for us, and just start all over again. But I also know the world doesn’t work like that. Change can be slow, but change can come.
THE PATRIARCHS: HOW MEN CAME TO RULE IS AVAILABLE NOW.