Patriarchy and Mandela

I would like to find a word to replace patriarchy. I don’t have a problem with the Oxford English dictionary’s definition:

A patriarchal system of society or government by the father or the eldest male


This in and of itself is neutral albeit exclusive to men and prohibitive to women. My problem is that this exclusivity is seen as the cause of all the horrors that are inflicted on women and as a bible believing Christian I am seen as defending the indefensible. When a young woman hears of a patriarchal society she does not think about a loving and just leadership working for her good, instead she sees images of oppression, inequality, lack of education and opportunities for self-expression, and legitimized sexual violence. She imagines places like Egypt. Egypt recently came out worst in a recent poll of women’s rights in the Arab world:


Up to 99.3% of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment and 27.2 million women are subjected to female genital mutilation – the report points out that this is the largest number in any single country in the world. Egypt comes ahead of Saudi Arabia, a country that has some deeply discriminatory laws against women, such as all adult females needing a "guardian", a woman's say in court being worth half that of a man, permitted polygamy for men, segregation of women, marital rape not being recognised, rape victims at risk of being charged with adultery, and an effective ban on women driving.[1] 


All of the above is blamed on ‘patriarchal structures’. All of the above abuses are abhorrent but I cannot lay the blame simply on patriarchy – well not directly. I do lay the blame at humanities rejection of God and see the abuse of power as a consequence of it. The bible is very realistic about man’s oppression of woman:


Your desire shall be for your husband,

And he shall rule over you.                                                                                                                                                                      Genesis 3:16


Genesis is not suggesting that this rule is a good thing but a broken one. Human patriarchy is distorted and often evil and ugly. There are many examples of this through the bible. 

Here is my dilemma: feminists see the bible as perpetuating an evil patriarchy but I know that God as my Father is good. He is not an abusive patriarch. I know that to cry out to him as ‘Abba Father’ is the most wonderful thing in the world. Ultimately God’s rule is a patriarchy but a good one.

Patriarchy as we experience it can be good, bad or ugly and sadly many women have not known a good patriarch. This week, however, as the world mourns Nelson Mandela we have a good example here. A man called the Father of a nation, to whom many looked. A man who was considered to be humble, self-sacrificial and good. Reading the press you could be forgiven for thinking they were describing Jesus. Deep down everyone knows that Mandela was just an ordinary man who did some extraordinary things with the support of others around him but perhaps his example and others like him can help us recapture the goodness of Fatherhood. A world that mourns Mandela is mourning their lack of a true Father but Mandela could never be him. Mandela could not fill the gap we experience over and over again. In time the media will begin to talk of his weaknesses - South Africa is still struggling. At the moment the world wants to believe in this patriarch and perhaps through his example we can recapture the image and point people to the only truly good Father we can ever know. 

I would love to have an alternative word for patriarchy and Fatherhood is probably the best we have but perhaps for just a little while we can see something of its goodness in the life of a man who tried.


[1] http://www.secularism.org.uk/news/2013/11/egypt-ranks-worst-for-womens-rights-in-the-arab-world


© Karen Soole 2012