Lineage was through the mothers; that is it followed the blood line. And the group was not just matrilineal but often even matrilocal, that is the woman and her male partner would live with the woman, her mother and her family. Remnants of such kinship systems exist even today and so does polyandry (a woman having more than one husband simultaneously). The 40,000 strong Musuo community living on the border of Tibet do not even have a word for ‘father’ or ‘husband’; the Akans of Ghana, the Nayars of India and many others continue to organize themselves through the female line. It explains the importance given traditionally to the mother’s brother at the time of weddings and other ceremonial rituals as seen today for example among South Asian and Kikuyu communities in Kenya. At four million people, the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia, is the largest known matrilineal society surviving today. Their tribal law requires all clan property to be held and bequeathed from mother to daughter, the Minangkabau firmly believe the mother to be the most important person in society.
So when did it all change? And why? It is said that the oppression of women is the oldest known form of slavery which developed over 10,000 years ago when society mutated from being a communal structure to a class-based formation. No wonder that over time the idea of women as ‘property’ has come to be seen as something that is just a natural part of human life. For feminists an important lesson to keep in mind is that if we had a past without oppression, a future without oppression is also possible.
But coming back to the ‘why?’ There are many theories about why women’s status in society became secondary i.e. they were deemed the ‘weaker sex’ and their roles were confined to the home and reproduction. It is generally accepted now that gender differences are economically or socially produced and not biologically determined. This theory has to do with the various stages of development as humans harnessed nature to improve their living conditions. From simply foraging, hunting or fishing for their food humans learnt to cultivate crops for their sustenance. Approx. 10,000 years ago, agriculture led to a more settled lifestyle and the accumulation of a surplus which could then be bartered with other communities. It was natural then that the menfolk travelled to barter the surplus while women stayed home with the young children.
This then, very simplistically put, was the early beginning of gender and class differentiation. In time to come property increasingly became private rather than communal and in the process women became ‘property’ and primarily producers and care-takers of the next generation of workers. The inheritance of property required a more structured and predetermined lineage - thus evolved the ‘family’ as we know it today. Some of the earlier forms are still with us eg clans, extended, etc but the modern family is the nuclear one where man is the head of the household and woman (or women) is the home maker and child-rearer.
In today’s Kenya a wife can be ostracized, beaten or even abandoned for not fulfilling what is considered to be her primary role, that of bearing children. Even bearing male off-spring! Men, however, are rarely brought to account for failing in their ‘head of household’ duties as the rules governing our society are made by men. Wife-beating and marital rape are generally considered ‘private’ affairs; strictly out of bounds for concerned neighbours or social workers, much less so the law.
Without doubt Kenyan women, together with their sisters across the world, have made huge strides towards claiming their rightful place in society, of tearing down the boundaries which seek to confine them and of refusing to be subjugated. And they have paid a heavy price for it because for all their successes they remain trapped within the family structure. Society still judges a woman primarily by her performance in maintaining a well-functioning home and family.
And therein lies the rub! The present capitalist family is considered to be a private institution in spite of the fact that the nuclear family performs an indispensable role for the system by producing, nurturing and preparing the next generation both for the continuation of our species and a work force to sustain the global economy. This is a social responsibility that governments and society should cater for but it has been privatized for women to undertake it at a fraction of the cost of capitalism providing those services through waged labour.
The very latest up-surge in women’s militancy is the #MeToo campaign which has highlighted the evils of sexual harassment. Though spearheaded by the rich and famous, and mostly white women, this revolting behaviour afflicts the mass of women who do not even have the power or the means to raise their voices against it. But make no mistake, rare is the woman who has not had to deal with this scourge one way or another and speaking up about it is confirming that we are living in a patriarchy - a society in which men consider it their right to treat women as playthings at all levels of society, from the president of the USA to the man next to you on the matatu taking up a little more space than necessary.
The Movement was started in the USA by Tarana Burke in 2006 to bring forward the stories of sexual assault experienced by Black women and has to date, spread to 85 countries – in Africa the conversation is only just beginning as invariably the victim gets vilified and it takes a lot of courage and self-sacrifice to speak up against your male boss, relatives or even ‘comrades’. What is needed is a Movement, the support of our sisters and brothers as we take on this battle for our own individual self-esteem and liberation. Franz Fannon has written at length about the conversion of the victim to become a fighter.
In fact every opportunity that is available to us should be utilized to raise consciousness of our rights, of the injustice being done to us and of building the fight against this oppression. Nevertheless, we should never forget that sexual harassment is only a symptom of the class society in which we live. Ending women’s oppression is part and parcel of the dismantling of the class society which gave birth to it and which enslaves both women and men. A very stark example of the truth of classism in our society can be seen in present-day Kenya as women demand the implementation of the two-third representation of gender in Parliament and throughout the body politic. It was stipulated in the 2010 Constitution yet eight years down the line, it remains just on paper. And the most shocking aspect is that the very female MPs who should be leading the struggle are the ones who have reduced it to a footnote in political debates. As one women’s rights activist has said: ‘they are not willing to sacrifice the few crumbs they have and stick out their necks for what is seen as an unpopular and nuisance cause.’ The men of course have latched on to this and ask why they should champion the cause when women ‘are their own worst enemies as they don’t support each other’.
A similar fate would meet the demand for equal pay for equal work. Not until and unless the present family structure is radically changed and socialized; it is only that small minority of women who can afford to employ maids and cooks, send their heirs to good schools and have reasonable and co-operative husbands or partners; who can hope to fulfill their potential, leave alone their dreams. Quite understandably this minority of advantaged women is not likely to support any calls for higher wages and better working conditions for their house maids. We live in a system where the working class, i.e. the majority is grossly underpaid and overworked - a result from which the upper classes benefit hugely.
These realities are true not just for women but for men too and in all sectors of society, everywhere. So it is not a question of women or men doing better - the goal should be a society with minimal gender (and other) inequalities and opportunities for ALL to fulfill their potential. To achieve this, the present family structure which is one of the root causes of all this inequality, dysfunction and unhappiness, must be reviewed and reformed.